October 24, 2003

Duchamp and Me

Back in September I had talked about my interest in Duchamp and how my concerns and my art works relate to his work, dear Journal. I’ve worried that the my gay, male perspective dismisses any relationship I might also have to the trajectory of second wave feminist thought. Specifically, I have recently encountered one, very unsettling book, because it seems to do away with any claim I might make concerning a relationship between my concerns and those of women’s studies. At the same time, the book makes an argument that appears to insist on a patriarchal relationship of my concerns to those of Marcel Duchamp. In that book, Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp (1994), describes and critiques a New York based, Postmodern construction of Duchamp as the progenitor of Postmodern art praxis from her unique feminist position. She defines that construction as a reaction to "masculinist definitions of artistic purity and authority perceived in Greenbergian Modernism." Her concern is that the Postmodern, characterized as anti-masculinist, feminist, LGBT , and decentered, cannot possibly coexist with a paternal originator of a Postmodern tradition in the visual arts. Jones exposes the apparent contradiction in my position as a self-congratulatory male describing the way my work resonates with Duchamp’s.

However, my position is based in part on an understanding of Reception Theory. Reception Theory allows that the viewers’ understanding of the art work, in this case, both Jones’ and mine, are equally valid. Jones, however, rejects Reception Theory, though at the same time, she feels that she cannot invalidate any position, including her own, that perceives itself in relation to a Postmodern tradition that includes Duchamp as founding father. Thus, Jones has found her personal version of the Poststructuralist conundrum, in which it is not possible to defend any position with certainty.

Upon further consideration, I found the idea that Marcel Duchamp is the pater familias of the Postmodern visual arts to be simplistic. If one male artist is to be the progenitor of the Postmodern, why shouldn’t we consider Picasso? He was exponentially more prolific than Duchamp. Rene Magritte must also be a contender since he, like Duchamp, demonstrated the idea that Language and Culture are games with rules through his use of cross-signification of images in his painting.1 Additionally, there are any number of other males waiting in line. A progenitrix should be considered as well. Perhaps Georgia O’Keefe fits that position, since she did so much to alter our perception of the American landscape. Perhaps we should consider Frieda Kahlo because of her personal cosmography that illustrated her gender specific concerns. We can certainly locate a number of individuals who have influenced the direction of art production well into the Postmodern, but we will find it extremely difficult to narrow it to one person of paramount importance. Nevertheless, the complex relationship of my work to Duchamp’s oeuvre exists.

In her argument, Jones appropriates Jacques Derrida’s description of the binary opposition of self and other, and of “logocentrism” as a masculinized metaphysics to defend her position, a risky business as demonstrated above.2 Derrida, in Writing and Difference, 1978, discusses and explicates his conceptualization and construction of time within language, the creation of dialogues between and among discourses, and the ways these dialogues can be emptied of meaning through the deconstruction of binary oppositions. He arrives at an infinite space in which the relationship between any and all points of reference is subject to constant alteration. Whether or not one perceives Duchamp as Postmodern progenitor, Duchamp meant for us to understand his oeuvre as being constructed over time, referring to itself regardless of the location of its components in time and place, as reflected variation and conceptualization interrupted and altered by its own performance. Thus, it is an anticipation of Jacques Derrida’s ideas.

Octavio Paz also places a Postmodern (Derridian) “spin” on Duchamp’s work in Apariencia Desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp, 1973. He refers to Duchamp’s use of the hinged mirror in the self-portrat photograph, 1917 mentioned above, as indicative of Duchamp’s use of reflections to interrupt the performance of his work. He interprets the hinged mirror as metaphor to describe the instability of binary oppositions, and he moves toward a Buddhist-like conception of a universe of infinite variations not dissimilar to Derrida’s conception, though his thoughts are the direct result of his observations of and ruminations about Duchamp’s oeuvre.

All these experiments are more an expression of the preoccupation for that which might be called the instability of ideas; left and right, here and there, interior and exterior, backward and forward, up and down. These ideas are spacial forms of the opposition.

The sign of the concordance, upon turning about itself, makes a ring like appearance (second meaning for the Spanish, anular [to turn] is to cancel, to remove from power) enters into itself and is resolved into a pure possibility......What to name this dimension that consists of the reabsorption of all dimensions into a vacuum that might have made the Buddha smile beatifically? ...we encounter a diagonal that turns itself into a vertical. A magical variety of truth that causes
everything through which it turns to disappear until all is the
same, reduced to a uni-dimensional state. It turns one more pirouette, and vanishes.

Thus, time and space are reduced to a primordial particle in motion, one that must include the instant before and after the universe begins and ends. Paz does not say that Duchamp’s work is nihilistic, that is, he is not discussing a state of nothingness (no thing), for this state is inclusive of all possibilities including that of absolute nothingness. In such a universe, dichotomies are not stable. They cannot exist, but must be subsumed within a broad sub-universe of shifting categories and possibilities. It is chaos understood. In that universe the heterosexual versus homosexual dichotomy exists among countless imagined and unimagined possible sexualities. Duchamp’s work embodies the hinge that allows sexual dichotomy of any type to turn upon itself, rotate, describe a diagonal line that rotates about itself in order to become a vertical line, to describe two opposed cones touching at a single point, to fold into that single point, and vanish.

Here’s a link to an animated site that will let you interact with Duchamp’s works and ideas

E-mail me! My e-mail address is ZacSfuts@aol.com.

Visit my homepage
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Take a look at:

Gay Artist’s Galleries

John Giuffre’s blog Thoughts From A Collapsed Brain.


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