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.
I greatly recommend Henderson’s book as an exciting exploration of the borders between art and science, as they were traced at the dawn of Modernism by an elliptical genius. But my immediate interest in it lies in the connections she implies between the Large Glass and a body of work produced at around the same time, and perhaps more notorious than the Glass itself. These were the so-called ready-mades–the industrial products of which I gave a partial listing in my lead paragraph: bicycle wheels, grooming combs, snow shovels, bottle racks and urinals. (Talk about the Sears Roebuck catalogue!) Both the ready-mades and the Large Glass were responses to Duchamp’s disillusionment with painting in 1912, leading him to say, in a famous episode, that painting is “washed up.” In part, one feels enough confidence in Henderson’s account to suppose that Duchamp, like many other artists of the time, had learned enough about reality as understood by science to believe that painting as traditionally conceived was inadequate to represent it. Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism were among the many avant-garde programs dedicated to finding ways of representing reality not as we actually see it but as it is. Since the Renaissance, painting had been tethered to the way the world presents itself to the eye, so all at once the eye became–paradoxically, since we are talking about the visual arts–villainized. Duchamp was of his moment in history through his attitude toward the eye and, incidentally, the hand. “I was so conscious of the retinal aspect of painting,” Duchamp later said, “that I personally wanted to find another vein of exploration.” To the US critic Walter Pach, Duchamp said, “I want something where the eye and the hand count for nothing.”
The ready-made is not a “found object,” or not entirely. Found objects have been selected by artists and others because they have enough visual interest that they can be treated as if they were works of art. By contrast, the ready-mades were selected because of their complete absence of aesthetic interest. “A point which I want very much to establish,” Duchamp said in 1961, “is that the choice of these ready-mades was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste…in fact a complete anesthesia.” No one can differentiate one metal grooming comb from another by aesthetic criteria–they are all alike. So no one can have good or bad taste in grooming combs. And this will be true of the ready-mades as a class. There can, one feels, have been no concept of ready-mades before the advent of mass production, so the ready-made falls outside the scope of craft. Industrial production minimized difference and maximized efficiency. (Duchamp famously said that modern plumbing was America’s greatest contribution to human happiness.) Much of what we are surrounded by is ready-made, like nails and screws, coat hangers and toothpicks, any one of which could have been a ready-made, given the criterion of aesthetic indifference. Duchamp’s brilliance lay in putting the question of why not ready-made art–art that could be picked up at the supermarket, costing no more than an accessory for dog owners or home brewers?
With this, Duchamp closed the gap between art and craft, for he demonstrated that painting and sculpture, through their handedness, were in the end examples of craft, exactly like pottery or basketwork. We respond, among other things, to the artist’s touch. The real contrast puts handedness on one side and intellect on the other. Duchamp spoke with contempt of “olfactory artists,” in love with the smell of paint. Little matter if they were in love with the smell of sawdust or of wet clay. For him, the work of art was an embodied idea. He envisioned an art into the making of which neither eye nor hand played any role, but only the operation of principled choice.
Duchamp proclaimed the end of painting when he visited an aeronautical exhibition with Léger and Brancusi in 1912. They were admiring an airplane propeller. How could painting hope to rival an object as elegant as it was powerful? Before 1920, shaped hardwood was the standard material for propellers, and this would almost certainly have been a matter of handwork, hence craft. So propellers would have made poor examples of ready-mades. They looked like abstract sculptures. The hero of Antonioni’s Blow-Up bought just such a propeller as a “found” decorative object for his flat. This would not have happened to a true ready-made. It ought, if true to type, never to acquire any aesthetic interest whatever. Its interest would be exclusively philosophical.
There is some controversy as to the correct inventory of Duchamp’s ready-mades, but the majority belong to the period 1913 through 1917, when he made his notorious effort to exhibit a urinal with the Society of Independent Artists in New York, using the assumed name of R. Mutt. Even though there was no jury, Fountain, as he titled it, was turned down by the hanging committee on the grounds that, while any work of art was welcome to be shown, this was not a work of art. Having provoked that distinction was in some ways Duchamp’s greatest contribution to twentieth-century art and the ultimate vindication of the ready-made. It made the problem of defining art a part of every piece of art made since then. “A ready-made is a work of art without an artist to make it,” Duchamp said. At the very least, the philosophical definition of art can eliminate, along with aesthetics (what meets the eye), the necessity of being made by an artist (the presence of the hand).
How the nullification of the artist’s hand and eye is to be reconciled with La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, widely considered Duchamp’s masterpiece, has never been entirely clear. The work seems labor-intensive in a way quite at odds with the no-eye/no-hand philosophy of the ready-made. In 1915, the year he began the laborious execution of the Large Glass, Duchamp bought an ordinary snow shovel, which he titled In Advance of the Broken Arm. So the Glass and the ready-mades were pretty much contemporary with one another. But the Glass appears to contradict the spirit of the ready-made. Its execution, for example, was painstaking: Like a tapestry-maker, Duchamp used a cartoon–a full-scale drawing–fixed to the face of a pane of glass, which he worked on from behind. Henderson suggests that Duchamp might have preferred to think of himself as an engineer, working from a blueprint, constructing some kind of scientific apparatus. Whatever the case, he “drew” the outlines with lead wire, attached to the glass by drops of varnish. And he filled them in with metal foil. It was, Calvin Tomkins writes, “a slow tedious process, and after two hours of it he was usually ready to quit for the day.” It is recorded that Duchamp often stepped back to eyeball his handiwork. Questions of interpretation aside, the Large Glass seems all hand and eye. It is dense with the attributes of craft. It could hardly be an object of aesthetic indifference, though Duchamp claimed that “the glass in the end was not made to be looked at (with ‘aesthetic eyes’).” So what was Duchamp’s overall philosophical view of art in the period that saw both the Large Glass and most of the ready-mades?
It might be a good idea at this point to describe the Large Glass a bit further. It consists of two panes of glass, about nine feet tall and five and a half feet wide, partitioned into two fairly equal spaces. The upper space is the chamber of the Bride, the lower space the domain of the Bride’s Bachelors. This space is shared by nine “malic” figures, a large chocolate grinder and what appear to be some pieces of optical apparatus. The notes provide an imperfect guide to the Bride’s components. In Henderson’s number diagram of the Bride, #10 identifies the “probable location of ‘Reservoir of love gasoline'” and #8 the “General Area of ‘Desire Magneto.'” These are Duchamp’s terms–like “Sex cylinder” or “Desire gear”–and hardly exhibit gynecological exactitude. They are rather intended to get us to see the Bride as some kind of eroticized machine. Small wonder, then, that the Glass “must be accompanied by a text of literature, as amorphous as possible, which never takes form.” And small wonder that the anatomy of the Bride, like that of the Glass itself, is likely to remain forever unachievable.
I am greatly interested in Henderson’s observation that in connection with the Glass, Duchamp was “to find a model for a depersonalized expression, free of ‘taste,’ in the techniques of mechanical drawing or scientific illustration.” But freedom from taste, hence freedom from hand and eye, was the basis for the ready-mades. “I wanted to be intelligent,” Duchamp said. He wanted to discover how one can be intelligent and an artist at the same time. (The French have an expression, bête comme un peintre). “I wanted to go back to a completely dry drawing, a dry conception of art…. And the mechanical drawing was for me the best form of that dry conception of art…. A mechanical drawing has no taste in it.” That might explain his decision to draw with lead wire. There is nothing to appreciate, as there is in brush or pencil lines. Large Glass, in Duchamp’s own words, is the “renunciation of all aesthetics.” Since this is precisely the case with the ready-mades, both exemplify a new kind of art, a new conception of the artist and a new kind of responsibility on the part of the viewer.
The overall importance of seeing the Glass and the ready-mades as alternative ways of making the same general point in regard to the relationship between art and aesthetics is that we have to think of Duchamp systematically. Lately a considerable stir has been made about the ready-madeness of the (so-called) ready-mades. That is not a controversy I am eager to enter. But if the connection between the ready-mades and the Large Glass is as systematic as Henderson’s exposition suggests, we have to think of his work as a unified whole, each part supporting the rest, so that we cannot finally think of the Bride and, say, the bottle rack as entirely separate conceptions.
There is an uncanny relationship between the handlessness Duchamp sought in his art and a very old conception of what makes images genuine. The art historian Hans Belting has written a great book, Likeness and Presence, on the images worshiped in the period between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance. It was important that the images not be the product of an artist’s hand. Thus, Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted on the veil of Saint Veronica. The Virgin and Child allegedly painted by Saint Luke in fact materialized magically on a panel because Luke was not that good a painter. If it were definitely discovered that the Shroud of Turin was in fact done by an artist, it would become a mere work of art and lose significance as a devotional image. When looking at and admiring images–aesthetics, in short–became the point of art in the Renaissance, the age of the devotional image was all but over. The artist became a more and more exalted being. In erasing the relevance of hand and eye, Duchamp was attempting to deconstruct the idea of the artist and replace it with something more technological and impersonal. But, as Jean-Jacques Lebel recently reminded me, “Marcel was after all a chess player. He set traps within traps within traps.” My advice is to enter the jungle of the Notes only if you are confident of finding your way out.
This essay has been stimulated by a book rather than an exhibition. But the Large Glass is on permanent view in the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is surrounded by the ready-mades. It is worth a pilgrimage. While you stand in front of the Glass, trying to remember which is the Sex cylinder and which the Reservoir of love gasoline, you are certain to hear whoops and shrieks nearby. They come from visitors unable to resist looking through the peepholes at Etant donnés, a work Duchamp secretly devoted himself to for the last twenty-five years of his life, pretending that he had given up art in favor of chess. As an incentive to your visit, I won’t disclose what meets the eye, but, as a hint, it will not be all that different from what those with lewd imaginations hoped that X-rays would expose. For all the complexity of his philosophy, Duchamp also had a one-track mind.