The idea of craft is an unanticipated product of the Industrial Revolution. Since everything humans made before that time was craft in one way or another, involving hand and eye, the concept had nothing to contrast with. But the Industrial Revolution robbed the hand of all its skills, building them instead into machines, leaving the hand to perform basic repetitive actions–turning a knob, tightening a nut, pressing a button. Everything that distinguished handed beings was appropriated by the machinery that turned out uniform products in quantities limited only by the capacity of society to consume bicycle wheels, grooming combs, snow shovels, bottle racks and urinals, all in profitable numbers. Craft emerged as a concept in the late nineteenth century as an anti-industrial ideology, which advocated returning skills to the hand and aestheticizing the autographic quality of nonuniform products–the handmade, the handwrought, the handsewn, the handspun, the handwoven, the handpainted. To choose the often rough and uneven craft-object over the smooth and uniform industrial object was to declare one’s preference for a society radically different from the one industrialization generated. It was to will a more elemental and allegedly a more fulfilling form of life. “I still find it amazing,” the artist Tim Rollins wrote, “that the greatest indictment of capitalism can be found in but a yard of [William] Morris’s perfect, beautiful materials.” Morris undertook to re-enfranchise the hand in the age of mechanical production. The hand, of course, had never disappeared from art. The Arts and Crafts movement, with which Morris’s name is associated, accordingly treated art as the paradigm through which to understand what craft should be. The artist’s touch became the basis of aesthetics and connoisseurship.
“My hand,” Marcel Duchamp said in a late interview, “became my enemy in 1912. I wanted to get away from the palette. This chapter of my life was over and immediately I thought of inventing a new way to go about painting. That came with the Large Glass.” The Large Glass is a paralyzingly complex work, on which Duchamp labored from 1915 until 1923, when he more or less abandoned it. But he had begun to compile ideas for the work as early as 1912, using whatever scrap of paper was at hand and throwing the notes together in a box. It is widely assumed among Duchampians that the notes, with their cryptic references, their calculations and diagrams, hold the key to the hermetic Large Glass, a work at once scientistic and erotic. Like Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon–the only twentieth-century work with which it can be compared–it is something of a comic masterpiece. The full title of the work is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même). The prurience aroused by the title is not readily gratified by looking at the work, least of all the Bride herself, who scarcely looks naked and hardly looks female. She is suspended in the upper left corner of the glass, like the Sibyl of Cumae, which Petronius’s narrator claims to have seen, hanging in a bottle (ampulla), with his own eyes.
Fascinated as I have always been with Duchamp as an artist, I have been content to learn what I could from those who sought to glean meaning from the notes, as the art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson has done in a remarkable new study, Duchamp in Context. “The complex iconography of the Large Glass,” Henderson writes, “can be fathomed only with reference to the multitude of notes Duchamp began to make in 1912, in preparation for the work.” Duchamp himself characterized the notes as “somewhat like a Sears Roebuck catalogue,” meant “to accompany the glass and be quite as important as the visual material.” Henderson, however, has gone further: She has undertaken to set Notes and Glass together, as her subtitle announces (Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works), in the context of early twentieth-century science and technology. It is not Henderson’s claim that tracking down scientific references is “the whole story,” and of course it is not (there may not be a “whole story”). But she captures enough of the science to make clear that much of the inspiration for the Glass derives from what, to us, is a fairly remote period of scientific discovery. Consider the discovery of X-rays. The X-ray is so common a diagnostic instrument that it is difficult to imagine anyone today as thrilled by X-rays as Flammarion, the French science writer, was: “To see through opaque substances! to look inside a closed box! to see the bones of an arm, a leg, a body, through flesh and clothing!” Fearing that they might be “stripped bare” by X-rays, Henderson tells us, women could avail themselves of lead undergarments as modesty shields; and she quotes a scrap of contemporary doggerel: “I hear they’ll gaze/thro’ cloak and gown–and even stays/These naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.” It somewhat confirms the lubricity of the male gaze feminists have made so central to their reflections on gender, that one of the first applications to occur to anyone was a new way of peering up skirts. It also alerts us to an irresistible connection between erotic humor and scientific concepts, which played so large a role in Duchamp’s sensibility. Alas, if the Bachelors should have used X-rays to strip the Bride, they would have gone too far, for they would also have stripped her of her nakedness. I cannot imagine the prurient readers of men’s magazines being aroused by X-ray photographs of famous models.