The great anti-retinal thinker? 
 
Notes to "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even" 
 
 
On-Duchamp
 
   
 
 
Is Marcel Duchamp "the great anti-retinal thinker"? (according to Calvin Tomkins and many others) 

No doubt that he was a leisure theorist and a pseudo scientist, a check player and a practical joker, but his profession (and destination) was to be an artist. 

When I first saw a picture of the "Large Glass" in a book about modern art, I was immediately attracted by the scene. At that time I didn't know anything about the artist or his elusive reputation, though I still remember the sensation it brought to my eyes. 

At first I didn't know or recognize what I had seen, but it was exiting and I just had to know more about this strange work, which - no doubt - immediately was recorded as art, exiting and inviting. I read this book and it was awe-inspiring what it said: long, very long before my time, there were artists in Europe so strange and modern that I almost couldn't believe it. 

I knew about Dali, Magritte, Picasso and Braque, but Dada? And that strange check playing, pipe smoking, bourgeois looking man? (I have to admit Duchamp couldn't in the least bit act as a role model) Until that day I first encountered "The Large Glass" it all was a grey mist to me.

  anti-retinal thinker 
 
 
 
  
(It was in 1970 at the "ramsj" [remaindered stock bookshop] de Slegte in Rotterdam: a Time/Life edition, which I later discovered, was written by a great Duchamp biographer or rather researcher, Calvin Tomkins. I immediately purchased the (really cheap) book and completely wear-read it)
 
 
  Of course at that time I had seen several modern artworks, mainly in the museum and local art galleries, but it was the sixties: it was all collage, and colourful psychedelic imagery and some (arresting) ZERO/ZEN type of works. 

Now this was something else. 

Maybe I'm fitting to the particular kind of art of Duchamp and Stile, Futurism, Dada; maybe because I'm Dutch (Calvinism), maybe it's because I had not seen much art at all, but this discovery changed my life. (at least my cultural life) 

By reading some of the increasing number of publications about Duchamp and specifically about the work "The Bride Stripped Bare", I got a little bit itchy about a few things commonly posed in the various essays. Of course Duchamp had declared to settle with the typical "retinal art", but he didn't declare to be an anti-retinal thinker or great anti-retinal thinker and the question arose: could Duchamp for certain be characterized "the" great anti-retinal thinker? According to my own experiences, mainly with his most important work "The Bride Stripped Bare", together with the various issues that were closely associated with its development, this can't be a correct characterization of Marcel Duchamp. 

One thing - in my view so obvious - to counteract on this idea could be the "Roto-reliefs", an OPTICAL instrumentation, for gods sake. Even if the Roto-reliefs were to be a demonstration of a (pseudo-) scientific subject, they were also utterly retinal. 

But it isn't necessary to step outside the frame of the work "The Bride Stripped Bare" in order to stipulate my opinion that Duchamp wasn't anti-retinal, contrarily he was as "retinal-bound" as any one else, but on different conditions.

 
 
 
  SUB - retinal 

What is retinal art? Is it the painting as a rather visual aesthetic experience, while no appeal to a mental structure could arise from it at all? Are there any works of art existing with this limitation? Isn't aesthetics "retinal" in it's very essence? How can visual beauty be not retinal 
and not the result of a combined rational and irrational mental process? And how can a rational mental process be considered an aesthetic experience? 

(comparatively, while in music you can't speak of aesthetics, you also won't speak of "eardrum v/s non eardrum" music, it would be silly. But there is a similar debate, though with different labels: serious (classical) music v/s pop music and music v/s muzak. It's a matter of taste and cultural context, a matter of higher and lower levels of disciplined integration into a relevant mental structure: rational, or emotive sensibility: irrational) 

Apart from the fact that even the most non-emotive intellectual and rational considered processes such as required for mathematics (for example), actually are experienced in aesthetic and emotive fashion as well as one of pure rational analysis (the beauty of the organization of numbers, the symmetry; the thrill of a mathematical discovery; the irrational component of number-systems to explicate the organization of the universe etc. etc.), how can the aesthetic aspects of works of art be disconnected from a present mental structure which is actually based in a rather archaic bath water? 

I guess the distinction is one of a social related assumption or preoccupation with the traditional context in which art generally functions. Its value dependant on scarcity and social distinction; on art trade and the functioning of the market. 
Art in this context could also be considered to much on the face of it - while avoiding confrontation with "difficult" matters as this, but also a too penetrative personality of the artist. 

Art like this could be described "retinal", only to trigger irrational and emotive processes, to be attractive and to comply to the demand of the public. But, while non-retinal art hardly could be described as "strictly" rational (trying to approach the definition of Duchamp), so called retinal art can't exclusively be fixed to the projection centre of the brain: it will generate mental processes, but on a longer term and in a more indirect and individual fashion. You might even say that the art of Duchamp is aimed at a public less capable of unleashing the more irrational and emotive processes or at people with a an intellectual (scientific) cast of mind, qualifying to higher states of "intellectual emotion". (or that it isn't aimed at all...) 

As with most notions, it probably isn't decisive. The aesthetic (retinal) aspects of a work of art could be considered the vehicle to access the underlying rational aspects, also it could be an independent feature that can be dosed in terms of control to restrain oneself (from all to obvious subjects and/or combinations ), it could be more or less unrelated to the initial ideas and rational ground to make a work of art. 

In this way the non-retinal theory (which it isn't, but it became subject of theory) is a ritual dance to extort a meaning of isolated distinction from an idea which merely act as a pointer: a tendency to opposites which are actually related and inseparably connected.

 
  Quite simply: in my view Duchamp wanted to make an art that could not be viewed with the eyes, while ignored by the brain. Of course not in literal sense, but the non-obligatory engagement of (many) styles of the past and the immediate future (back in 1912) he considered entrapping. And if one thing Duchamp couldn't bear, then it has to be just that. "What he was interested in above all was freedom - complete personal and intellectual and 
artistic freedom". (Calvin Tomkins) 

In fact he did: he painted "Naked, descending a stairs, II" and this work was not just retinal (as it still was a "normal" painting in many respects), but it had the power to inhibit intellectual ignorance, bearing the seed for his later joy & quest of his life: the work "The Bride Stripped Bare". 

While "Naked, descending a stairs, II" already wasn't strictly retinal (according to the definition of Duchamp) and already an approach to define art a bit more as a mental act, rather than merely a visual one, "The Bride Stripped Bare" had to surpass it in all aspects, the aesthetics included.

 
 
  
(unfortunately, when "The Bride Stripped Bare" had its first presentation to the public in the Brooklyn Museum in New York ( 1926 - only the object of glass), it hardly attracted any attention: "viewed with the eyes, while ignored by the brain". This - in retrospection - could only be explained by its radical detachment from the vernacular of the culture of that moment.)
 
 
  You don't have to subscribe to the ideas of Hegel's "triadic dialectic" to understand that synthesis is one of the most powerful forces to come to the realization of new, original or different ideas. But the process to obtain new mental structures often results in a strong rejection of counter-forces. (i.e. the retinal art antithesis)
 
 
 
  [ anti-retinal < > anti-rational ]
 
 
 
  By now it's probably clear that I'm heading for a plea in favour of the retinal aspects of "The Bride Stripped Bare". 

When I first saw the "Large Glass", the aesthetic properties were as important as the appeal to a mental structure, or rather, both aspects came in proportional dimensions. 

To be plain: I liked (still do) the visual aspects of the work. The neat and tight lines of the metal, the warmth of the uppermost woolly part, the mechanical, but enigmatic "Chocolate grinder", the funny "Malic matrices", of course the transparency of the structure etc. 

This must be at least partly due to the era in which I first discovered "The Bride Stripped Bare": in the early seventies, so I wasn't shocked or offended and my expectations were not frustrated in any way. 

John Cage once said "Duchamp's work remained unacceptable as art". I don't think anyone could sustain this observation for the last 3 decades of the 20th century, but Cage is talking about art from another era. (pre- second world war and the first decade of the cold war...)

 
 
 
" At a Dada exhibition in Dusseldorf, I was impressed that though Schwitters and Picabia and the others had all become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp's work remained unacceptable as art."
  
1973 - John Cage - Interview
 
 
  Opinions 

Ask a news reporter of a newspaper or broadcasting service, "he will tell you he's independent (objective) and would never take sides, even if his own Country is involved etc." 

Would you believe him? 

On the other hand, I can't understand the ignorance of art scientists who generally assume that a talent is always as strong as it first emerged and would not change in intensity and conviction - a whole life long. Similarly, that an artistic statement made at one stage of live can be hold (and tested) for all stages a human will be in, for his or her entire life. 

A scholar in psychology can tell that certain events can alter a person's opinions and mentality: the way one is looking at the self and the surrounding world. 
Disappointments, illness, loss of a beloved, car accidents, misfortune etc., such events can cause changes in opinions and mentality, even in character. 

But let's look at minor causes rather than the more obvious. Everyday one is fed with information (stimuli) of the surrounding world. Opinions, ideas, behaviour, insults, compliments etc., all of these events (stimuli instances), both positive and negative, 
slowly but surely do change a person. 

Of course, more insight often leads to better, more distilled, opinions about certain matters, but it's also expectable that some of these influences from the environment will divert the mind to different directions. Not for long maybe or slowly and unnoticeable, but it could - and thereby will at any point in time - happen. 

Naturally, outspoken opinions tend to absolutism, but people forget and Freudian as we finally are: we will forget at the wrong moments, making contradictory statements. 

But in the case of Duchamp doubt and contradiction are almost inherent to much of his work. (look at the notes from the Green Box) 

I don't think it can be expected from anyone to have a firm and consistent set of opinions - even if it's one's job to act as such. 

Furthermore, no creative person completely understands what he's doing when he creates and no two individuals' incomplete accounts of the creative process would be the same. Creativity still is the great mystery at the centre of Western culture and could be considered 
"the step child of psychology" (Carlisle Bergquist, MFCC, Ph.D.c.) 

Often art scientists can reveal underlying patterns and archetypes and deeper meanings in an oeuvre or distinct works of art. (sometimes resulting in far-fetched rubbish, but this isn't the issue here) 

Can an artist be expected to be fully and consciously aware what drives him?

 
 
  
"If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out."
  
(Marcel Duchamp - from Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957)
 
 
 
  Duchamp can tell us: "the choice of these "readymades" was never dictated by aesthetic delectation", or that he suffered from "a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste... in fact a complete anaesthesia" - it helps, but it's not conclusive. 
 
If Duchamp was gifted in a visual creative manner, can he ignore impulses? He can react; might suspend - "delay" - them and challenge his self-control. (the faculty to sublimate must have been one of his extraordinary characteristics) 
 
"The Glass, together with the "readymades" that were so closely associated with its development--a bottle-drying rack, a snow shovel, and other manufactured items that Duchamp promoted to the status of works of art simply by selecting and signing them--are primary sources for the conceptual approach that has come to dominate Western art in the second half of the twentieth century, an approach that defines art primarily as a mental act rather than a visual one." (Calvin Tomkins)
 
However, did Duchamp came up with "ready mades" without "any" sculptural qualities? (such as Joseph Beuys did in some cases, standing on the shoulders of giants) Although his "visual indifference" and "anaesthesia" had played an important role, it just couldn't prevent that he made choices. 
 
Later experiments of surrealists and (post world war II) conceptual artists, who seek to avoid a personal choice by using random patterns and arbitrary conditions, made clear - in retrospection - they too could not escape the underlying coercion of choice and automatic force to compose and shape. In a sense the choice of the particular random-system is already an artistic decision and - while anticipating on the outcome and considering these automatic forces - could be described as an aesthetic choice.
Das Schweigen
 
  But Duchamp didn't want to escape from his personality, contrarily he wanted to challenge his skills and generative mind. Indeed I would say that for Duchamp choosing an arbitrary random-system was an artistic act, rather than anticipating to much on the outcome, the act itself was important. He considered change as the expression of the (anyone's) individual subconscious, "your change is not the same is my change", he said. 

However, no matter which - objectifiable rather than experiential - conditions Duchamp defined, we're looking at the other end: at the final choices he made and the aesthetic outcome of these. 
(I'm not saying it is, but could be possible that whatever results a particular condition, Duchamp finally allowed himself to aesthetically choose a shape "going with the idea") 

 
 
 
  Green Box 
 
Even though the green box (and possibly an adequate transcription) is indispensable and actual part of the work as a whole, each snippet of text, each little line and sketch, practically works only through the (retinal) appearance of the glass. 
 
This can simply be tested by just trying to imagine how the unfinished parts of the glass would look. De documents are (partly) present in the Green Box, sketches included, while - what can be considered - the "stile" in which this would happen is available for a large part in the finished components. The conclusion will almost certainly be that this isn't possible - how important the aesthetics of the retinal aspect of the work apparently is! 

Not only in the part of glass however, but also in the documents of the Green Box, appearance plays its role. Why would Duchamp have chosen the facsimile procedure he meticulously carried out in order to multiply the original container of his notes and sketches, i.e. the original Green Box and it's multiplication in 300 copies, if he could sufficiently have done with printing just the text? - or maybe a transcription such as Richard Hamilton made of the Green Box? 

"The form he chose then was meticulously and enigmatically Duchampian--a limited edition of ninety-four notes, drawings, and photographs, printed in facsimile, using the same papers and the same inks or pencil leads, torn or snipped in precisely the same way as the originals, with the same crossings-out and corrections and abbreviations and unfinished thoughts, contained willy-nilly in a rectangular green box covered in green suede with the title, La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme (the same as the Glass), picked out in white dots on the front, like a sign on a theater marquee." (Calvin Tomkins) 

It's almost beyond doubt that this decision is one of the visual artist, not the free-time theorist or pseudo scientist. The editions acquired a sense of originality of works of art, but it's doubtful if the decision for the facsimile reproduction had been suggested by such sentiments. (and possibly for profit, because as works of art the editions would be worth more money) 

Most probable reason for the facsimile procedure to multiply the Green Box is that the contents has to be viewed in its original visual appearance - torn edges included. 

Several years after my first encounter with "The Bride Stripped Bare" I had the change to see the Green Box. (only part of it, as it's exhibition is mostly bound to a limited access (just a few documents at a time) through the "glass window" of a showcase) 
I was struck dumb: it is important, even not being able to (sufficiently) read the French notes, it had an equally powerful appeal to me as the part of glass. 

By that time a sense of fetishism could have been part of this sensation, because after some time admiration unavoidably wakes up the collector in everybody, but that goes for the aimed proprietor of the editions of the Green Box by Duchamp as well. 

An other publication of similar material, the book "Etant Donnes", issued by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, US - 1987, is an exact photographic copy of the ring binder Duchamp kept to collect the notes, sketches and photographs for a "manual of instructions", with "15 operations" to (dis- re-) assemble the installation. Here too, the enigmatically Duchampian characteristics are present, even though it's a photographic copy of a manual. 

I read several transcripts of the Green Box, even managed to acquire an original copy of Richard Hamilton's book from 1960, which is the best of all transcripts in my view. 
The book was titled: "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even - a typographic version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp's Green Box, translated by George Heard Hamilton" - (George Wittenborn Inc.) The transcription has been approved by Marcel Duchamp: "This version of the Green Box is as accurate a translation of the meaning and form of the original notes as supervision by the author can make it." (Marcel Duchamp, 1960) 

But, each and every time I browse this publication I miss something. How would it look? 
What French word did he use here? etc. - it's a relation rather than an observation. 
No matter how precise (and attractive in its own way) and "approved" the transcript of Hamilton may be, I can't help it to experience a sense of surrogate. It's like copulation with the restriction of a rubber preventive: not the real thing. 

While a good transcript is indispensable to gain better access to the semantics and clues (as far as present) it still lacks the same appeal the Time/Life publication, by Calvin Tomkins, had on me back in those days. Although it was (only) photography it worked right trough it, just as is the case with the the publication "Etant Donnes", issued by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 
 
 
  to be looked at -- to be located -- to be locked out
 
 
 
  Given... 
 
Some of the statements Duchamp made that overthrew the general opinions in art science and which troubled many investigators of his work by its contradictory tenor, he made at later stages in life. Take this quote for example: 

"When he was close to seventy, though, Duchamp said something that cast doubt on his lifelong scepticism regarding the nature and purpose of art". "I believe that art is the only form of activity in which man shows himself to be a true individual," - "Only in art is he capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by space and time." (Calvin Tomkins/Marcel Duchamp) 
 
The fact Duchamp made this statement, which would seem contradictory to earlier statements, is not surprising or strange: it's healthy. He was married at later age and almost certainly would have shared his feelings and thoughts with his life companion. It would be - for instance - expectable he might have to sustain an opinion shared with this person close to him, rather than an opinion previously shared with an audience. 

I'm not about to embark upon the idiosyncrasies of Marcel duchamp, but in an earlier relationship with a woman (Maria Martins), closely related to the secretion of an in absolute concealment developed and produced - for a period of over twenty years - (final) work of art, nor Duchamp or Martins ever talked about this, beside with each other. (of course his later wife Teeny knew about it too) 

When Paul Matisse installed this work "Etant Donnes" - at July 7, 1969 - (8 months after Duchamp's death) - in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, US - it shocked quite a lot of people. 

 
 
  
Well, that was a terrible surprise to everybody, I mean, even then. At the time he died in 1968, there were a lot of people who had a vested interest in their understanding of Duchamp, and because somehow he managed for twenty years to be working on something that nobody knew about, it came as a terrible shock, and it was very upsetting and very annoying to a lot of people.
(Calvin Tomkins - interview BBC television)
 
 
  Not only the fact its development was hidden for such a long period, but also the nature of the work, "which seemed to many people to be a denial and a contradiction of everything he'd done before" (Calvin Tomkins), was quite different and perhaps again a novelty: that of the "narrative" multi-media installation. 

As stated before, a synthesis could have been necessary to make his stridy steps in the process of art making and a dialectical inner conflict could have been present all the time. Therefore I dare to say that much of Duchamps work is actually defined by aesthetic conditions too, maybe even more than on the ground of the above considerations (and suggestions) could be expected. 

Aesthetics plays its role, maybe not the leading part (which would be reserved to the spiritual domain), but nevertheless an important one. He simply couldn't escape from it, he could escape from from his "La Patte" (the painter's paw) but not from his "wizard hands". 

 
 
  
Duchamp's use of the theme of eroticism is very odd, and it's very contradictory. Duchamp once said that he had forced himself to contradict himself, in order to avoid conforming to his own taste and his life and his work is full of contradictions. So anything that you say about it, you can almost always say the opposite as well.
 
(Calvin Tomkins - interview BBC television)
 
 
  Marcel Duchamp "the great anti-retinal thinker" could also be "the great conciliator of art with people" (as  the prophecy of Apollinaire said that he was foreordained as such), but he could even be the "mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing" (MD), a clearing in all aspects of artistry, aesthetics no less. 
 
 
Dick Harmsen/Abandon - 1995
 
 
 
 
N.B. - This short text about "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even" is not exhaustive and it is certainly by no means an attempt to be scientifically correct. (I'm no art historian)  It simply expands on the ideas and direction of ABANDON, while various opinions and ideas expressed here are subjective.

While I used separate characterizations - artist; leisure theorist; pseudo scientist; check player; practical joker - I didn't mean to divide the personality of Duchamp into several "sub-selves", but rather into distinctive sympathetic tendencies, which is considered a general feature of personality. See also: On-Creativity - On the dynamics of creativity Excerpt (chapter 14) From Complexity to Creativity - By: Ben Goertzel

 
 
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