Duchamp and the Secret of the Object
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 08-16-11

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Our last post included the following quote from the cultural critic Jean Baudrillard:

"The obscenity of the commodity stems from the fact that it is abstract, formal, light in opposition to the weight, opacity and substance of the object. The commodity is readable: in opposition to the object, which never completely gives up its secret, the commodity always manifests its visible essence, which is its price. It is the formal place of transcription of all possible objects; through it, objects communicate. Hence the commodity for is the first great medium of the modern world. But the message that the objects deliver through it is already extremely simplified, and it will always be the same: their exchange value."

For us this evokes the question: what does Duchamp's readymade do for the capitalist object? For in a sense, Duchamp merely took industrial commodities and placed them within a different system of signification: that of aesthetics, beauty, and artistic choice. You could say that he interrupted the "obscenity" of the transparent commodity: the urinal or snow shovel no longer "purely" communicates its exchange value, for this is complicated by its implication in another realm of communication (the realm in which artists communicate with audiences). What is the result?

On the one hand, a secretive side of the object reemerges, due to the interruption of the smooth functioning of the commodity system. By definition a commodity depends on its complete interchangeability with all others of its type. But this interchangeability can be foiled: simply by virtue of their artistic selection, the readymades were differentiated from all other identical commodities. Does this begin to expose the perverse magic of the commodity? Does it reinvigorate, to some extent, the "weight" and the "opacity" of the object? I think least the shovel, the urinal, the hatrack et al. present the spectator with their distinctive formal and material properties, in a way that a blender for sale doesn't.

"In Advance of the Broken Arm," for instance, has a somewhat baleful, uncanny presence...partly because its obtrusive "thingliness" emerges as it is displayed outside of the unthinkingly legible world of purchasable goods. As such, the fascination of the readymade is the obverse of the fascination of the iPod or necklace in the shop window. The expensive gadget evokes desire with a promise of a precisely calculated benefit (the looter can wish to seize an infinite number, just like money). Meanwhie, an old snow shovel in a museum displays itself while promising nothing; loot it (unlike a verified Picasso) and you have only a piece of junk.

The only price that's paid for this game is that it relies on official art spaces, museums, curators, and other holders of proprietary culture (for it is only within the museum that the readymade can speak its paradoxical message.) Therefore the object has once again become legible within the hierarchy of "culturedness," "history" and "appreciation:" a dilemma of modern art since its inception. Move and countermove. The game has perhaps yet to be resolved.

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