Ruminations on Duchamp
by Francis M. Naumann
The elaborate subtitle of my book on Marcel Duchamp -- The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction -- was a fairly obvious reference to the celebrated essay by Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," published in 1936. Not only had I intended this reference, but by having written "The Art of Making Art," I wanted the repetition of words to emphasize the theme of reproduction, one that I felt was at the core of Duchamp's work, while, at the same time, central to the subject of Benjamin's essay. Logical though this approach may have seemed to me at the time, in retrospect, I now realize that it was somewhat misleading. To some, the title may have suggested that my book was heavily dependent on theory, which, in actual fact, could not be further from the truth. I consider myself a contextualist, that is to say, an art historian whose sole goal is to place the work of art in its proper context, within the artist's oeuvre and that of his contemporaries, as well as -- and perhaps even more importantly -- within the larger framework of the social, economic and cultural climate from which it emerged (the latter factor being the main reason why I brought up the subject of Benjamin in the first place).(1)
Benjamin's essay is -- without doubt -- the most penetrating analysis ever attempted to evaluate the effects of photography, film and the newest innovations within the print media -- which he indicates are the most recent advancements in the art of mechanical reproduction -- on the way in which society will come to envision the concept of originality in a work of art. He feels that these new forms of reproduction have created a sudden and undesirable break from the traditions of the past, a time-honored and respected hands-on approach to the making of art that had characterized its production from the very beginning. In emphasizing this particular point, a comparison with Duchamp's approach to mechanical reproduction might appear -- at face value -- perfectly legitimate. The techniques he employed, particularly in preparing reproductions for his valise, were, for the most part, methods already developed for well over a century.(2) Duchamp had a special fascination for the technique of pochoir, for example, a stenciling process whereby every image reproduced was -- for all intents and purposes -- an original.
Having said this, it is equally important to clarify the fact that the pochoir process is a means by which to eliminate the individuality of the artist, for if it was to be employed in any significant numbers (as was the case for the more than 300 copies of the valise; see Illustration 1, then it was usually carried out by a battery of professionals who specialized in the application of this technique, craftsmen who carefully and systematically applied the colors in the fashion of an elaborate assembly line. For all intents and purposes, the process denies any possibility of expressiveness on the part of its maker, eliminating the "patte," as Duchamp called it, or artist's personal touch. From the years of his earliest mature works (ca. 1913-14), Duchamp maintained that he was devoted to "discredit[ing] the idea of the hand-made."
In essence, he wanted to operate in the fashion of a machine, for he wished "to wipe out the idea of the original, which," he later explained, "exists neither in music, nor in poetry: plenty of manuscripts are sold, but they are unimportant. Even in sculpture, the artist only contributes the final millimeter; the casts and the rest of the work are done by his assistants. In painting, we still have the cult of the original."(3) In effect, then, Duchamp strove to eliminate the aura intrinsic to an original work of art, a position that certainly would have placed him in opposition to Benjamin, who -- as a result of its mechanical replication -- considered this particular aspect of art its most endangered feature.
The issues Benjamin addresses in his essay are, admittedly, somewhat difficult to grasp, due in part to a circuitous method of reasoning that, in a relentless attempt to explicate every point he brings up, inevitably loses sight of its subject. The intellectual gymnastics are, nevertheless, a feat to behold, and well worth the process of engagement, although I am still convinced that the ultimate conclusion he draws -- that the aura of a original work of art "withers" as a result of its reproduction -- is inherently flawed. In a long footnote to my text, I refer readers to the opinions of Benjamin's contemporaries and a number of subsequent writers who were critical of his theory. Unknown to me at the time, however, was an excellent analysis of Benjamin's essay by Jacquelynn Baas, who not only challenges the wholesale acceptance of Benjamin's theories by present-day critics, but in a careful reading of the text, she finds serious flaws with the theory itself. "The aura or perceived potency of presence of the art object is seemingly enhanced," she concludes, "not diminished, in 'the age of mechanical reproduction.'"(6)
This is precisely the conclusion I came to. Moreover, in spite of the theoretical shortcomings I have acknowledged, I remain convinced that if one reads Benjamin's essay with Duchamp's concept of the readymade in mind, the issues he addresses are contradicted throughout the text. But, again, we could argue that this is not what Benjamin had in mind. Yet there is no question that, in emphasizing various techniques of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin believed he had identified the source of a phenomenon that was then in the process of transforming the very nature of art. Indeed, his essay begins with a long quote from the writings of Paul Valéry (1871-1945), a French poet and essayist whose writings Benjamin greatly admired. "We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts," wrote Valéry, "thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art." What contributed more to altering "our very notion of art" in this century, we might well ask, than the readymade, a concept that has revolutionized the very way in which we think about art and the art making process?
* Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Ghent: Ludion Press, 1999); distributed in the United States by Harry N. Abrams (French edition by Hazan, Paris; Dutch edition by Fonds Mercator, Antwerp)
The inspiration for this critique came from a review by Mark Daniel
Cohen of two exhibitions that I organized to coincide with the release
of my book: "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction," Achim Moeller Fine Arts, October 2, 1999 - January
15, 2000, and "Apropos of Marcel: The Art of Making Art After Duchamp
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Curt Marcus Gallery, October
8 - 30, 1999 (Review, October 15, 1999, pp. 38-40). It should
be noted that Cohen's criticism was aimed at my exhibitions and not
the book (which, at the time of his writing, he had not yet seen).
2. To give credit where credit is due, this point was first brought to my attention in 1991 by Jan Ceuleers, a Belgian writer with whom I discussed the approach I had planned for my book on Duchamp. It is with regret that I did not discuss this particular aspect of Duchamp's work at greater length in my text, for it would have strengthened a rapport with Benjamin's theories, thereby better justifying the subtitle I had chosen.
3. Otto Hahn, "Passport No. G255300," Art and Artists (London), vol. I, no. 1 (July 1966), p. 10.
4. Walter Arensberg to Marcel Duchamp, September 1, 1935 (Duchamp Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art); quoted in Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art, p. 127.
5. Duchamp's meeting with Benjamin was noted in the latter's diary and is cited in Ecke Bonk, "Delay Included," in Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp In Resonance, exh. cat., The Menil Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (New York: D.A.P., 1998), p. 102. Although Duchamp and Benjamin met in the spring of 1937, the finished pochoir of the Nude Descending a Staircase is dated "December 1937." The time discrepancy is probably a result of the fact that all of the pochoirs in the series had not yet been completed, and it is likely that Duchamp awaited their return before signing and dating the entire series.
6. Jacquelynn Baas, "Reconsidering Walter Benjamin: 'The Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in Retrospect," in Gabriel P. Weisberg and Laurinda S. Dixon, eds., The Documented Image: Visions in Art History (Syracuse University Press, 1987), p. 346; I am grateful to Linda Henderson for having drawn this essay to my attention. For the footnote in my text, see p. 24, note 6.