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What if Heidegger used Fountain instead of van Gogh’s Shoes to launch the Origin of a Work of Art?’

Heidegger’s reimagining of the artwork was instrumental in forcing a re-evaluation of modern aesthetic assumptions in the first half of the twentieth century. Heidegger’s theory of the origin of the work of art derives from a hermeneutic analysis of a single van Gogh masterpiece. On Heidegger’s view, the artwork provides a substantive and practical way of accessing the nature of art even if questions remain about all manifestations of the nature of art in general. This paper turns his analysis to an alternative influential artwork, Duchamp’s Fountain. I argue that Fountain presents difficulties for Heidegger’s method, some of which can be accommodated. However, the requirement to confine phenomenal engagement to the art object alone leads to problems when the object is appropriated from outside the artworld, not exhibited, and only one photograph bears witness to its existence. The prospect of broadening the focus of our attention from the art object alone to the “drama” of Fountain provides for a much richer phenomenal engagement. However, this move runs counter to a second stipulation of Heidegger’s approach – that the artist’s intentions and her performative acts in creating the object should be excluded from our engagement with the work. Duchamp’s radical move with readymades and Fountain, in particular, disarms more than Heidegger’s early post-modern conception of an artwork. It also places pressure on aesthetic theories that lack the capacity to reset ontological boundaries when deeper transformative experiences lie beyond the remit of the object alone, or when art-relevant concepts are appropriated into and out of the realm of art. Duchamp points to a richer means of engaging with artworks than the one construed by Heidegger, one that includes consideration of the relevant artmaking acts.

The making of Fountain

On the eve of the United States entering the Great War, an eccentric band of anarchists purchased a urinal for display as an artwork. Rejected by the curators, the urinal never is exhibited.1 The object itself, Fountain, by R. Mutt (fig. 1) is lost or destroyed shortly after the exhibition ended and there remains nothing for any museum to “preserve.” No artist is needed to authenticate a non-existent art object. There is no “thing” to be “conferred the status of candidate for appreciation” in Dickie’s terms.2 “Nothing to see here” is normally a vain attempt to have the public gaze averted, but what if this whole art appropriation exercise becomes one of the most significant art performances of the twentieth century?3

The Origin of a Work of Art

Nearly twenty years later, Martin Heidegger circles a pair of old shoes depicted in an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh (fig. 2). Heidegger4 leads us through a phenomenal engagement with this artwork and in so doing enunciates a theory of the origin of a work of art. Heidegger outlines how both artist and work are the co-dependent result of the art that is their source.5 He applies a metaphor linking the material reality of “earthly things” with the “world” they reveal. His method of interpretation is both multilayered and cyclic with each earth-to-world relation revealing the next.Heidegger develops his earth-to-world notion through the medium of the artwork. He starts from a position that sees the “nature of things” generally as “formed matter”.6 On this account, the formed matter of an artwork, its “thingly” nature, so to speak, comprises material things such as paint and canvas.7 Artworks do a certain kind of work in revealing the truth of how things act in the world – the van Gogh artwork itself displays its workly character in revealing a pair of peasant shoes “and nothing more.” The shoes themselves display their own workly character as equipment of the earth protected in performing their role in the world of a peasant.8 This revelation about how the shoes are “working” in the world of a farm worker brings us back to the workly character of the artwork itself. The artwork’s “work” reveals the “truth of being” for the shoes in the painting. Finally, Heidegger captures this revelation from a particular artwork and proposes, albeit tentatively, how it might be, more generally, for the workly nature of all great works of art. He concludes that art just is truth, but truth construed in a radically different way. It is the “truth of beings setting itself to work.”9 Here “beings” is read as a verb, comprising multiple dynamic actions of things over time. In the case of the van Gogh artwork, the truth of a particular “being” (i.e. the truth of the shoes doing their work), is made to “stand in the light of its being.”10 This process of engagement leads us to see what and how this “thing” (i.e. the shoes) is in the context of its world.

In this way, a work by a great artist “discloses a world” for us, revealing an endless array of possibilities that can flow from a multitude of similar phenomenal engagements with the artwork. Heidegger’s phenomenological hermeneutic analysis of a painting turned modern aesthetic theory on its head and came to be an influential forerunner of postmodern art interpretation.11

For Heidegger, modern aesthetic theory,12 popular among philosophers in the early twentieth century, views the art experience as “subjects” accessing art “objects,” through the senses (fig. 4). Artworks are the result of creative exercises that reflect the experiences of the artist.

The artist embeds these experiences in the body of the artwork and, in-turn, the artwork elicits similar experiences in the art consumer.13 Heidegger views modern aesthetics problematically in that it creates a subject/object dualism. In short, he sees modern aesthetics as making art available to be “consumed” and, along with technology, science, and culture, is part of a world trend to objectify and control the whole of reality.14 According to Heidegger, this subject-to-object view of aesthetics mischaracterises the way we actually encounter the world on a day-to-day basis. Heidegger does not deny that the subject-object view of the world forms part of the artwork experience, it is just that a richer engagement with art derives from a more fundamental phenomenal connection with things in the world.

What applies is a more complex interweaving of subjective self and objective things in the world. In our use and experience of objects, we are colonised by them directly into a unified engagement with the artwork and its contents. We become immersed in a largely unconscious process of our lived experience of those things.
To understand how Heidegger sees this unified system working, it helps to reflect on the lived experience of a bike-rider.

A champion cyclist effects manoeuvres rapidly and unreflectively and only occasionally stops to think if an error has been made or a change of movement is needed. Heidegger believes an everyday notion of direct phenomenological access better reflects our encounters with artworks than the more traditional account of a subject consuming the rewards of an art object (see fig. 5). In clarifying his account of phenomenal engagement, Heidegger warns against seeing it exclusively as a phenomenal experience in which the participant is engaged with the artwork. Were this exclusively the case, the person would be unable to distinguish her being from the thing.

On the other hand, it is incorrect to see the artwork entirely in a distinct subject-to-object relation. He sees it as a kind of experience lying somewhere between or moving between a distinct subject and object stance and a total unification of the self with the artwork.15

Heidegger demonstrates his theory of phenomenal aesthetics by guiding us through a series of encounters with the van Gogh painting and its contents – “a pair of peasant shoes and nothing more.” 16

But then, we are made to see the way the shoes are shaped and presented, and what the shoes are as essential equipment for a wearer, a person who toils on the earth. The shoes are understood, both in themselves and in their relationship to all the other things in the world they suggest. You can see the “truth” of the shoes encountered in the artwork because you have experienced it directly through the art of the painting. Heidegger’s phenomenological method provides a novel combination of lived experience and hermeneutic analysis which describes and interprets the lived experience. Moving back and forth between these two modes of thought, he takes us in ever widening circles encountering individual things as resources of the earth, and how they work and relate to the people who work with them. These parts reveal the whole and the world is seen in the work of art and, in turn, the whole discloses the truth in the parts (e.g. the shoes). Three kinds of “work” are relayed here; the woman using the shoes as equipment as she toils in the field, the work of the artist through the artwork bringing to life the world of the shoes and the woman, and the works done by great artists who, through their art, disclose a seemingly unlimited number of new ways of seeing the true nature of everyday things.

If Fountain was Heidegger’s chosen artwork

Heidegger’s theory of a work of art had one artwork as its guiding source. But what if Heidegger chose Duchamp’s Fountain rather than van Gogh’s Shoes as his starting point? A theory of the origin of an artwork should be robust enough to cover a work that perhaps more than any other provided the grounds for changing what we understand art to be. Could Fountain launch Heidegger’s theory?

This paper will review Heidegger’s theory employing Duchamp’s Fountain as the subject artwork. It will proceed by first clarifying why focusing on Heidegger’s theory and Duchamp’s Fountain is important. It will then attempt to answer four questions that this encounter raises. It will show that the theory is found wanting in some key respects. Finally, it will conclude that the identified limitations of Heidegger’s theory apply to other approaches which share Heidegger’s commitment to a fixed ontology for artworks and the exclusion of performative acts in the making of an artwork.

Why Heidegger’s theory?

Heidegger’s theory was a seminal influence in early post-modern art criticism. It helps explain artwork contributions that extend beyond the Kantian notion of “disinterested pleasure,”17 thereby opening up the possibility that great art will reveal new knowledge, and novel ways of seeing. This, in turn, shows how the creation of artworks can contribute in a profound way to how individuals and communities see themselves and provide a major impetus for the evolution of culture. Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art” became an important base for other philosophers including existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and later post-modern theorists such as Hans Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, all of whom repurposed Heidegger’s approach into their own interpretations of aesthetics.18
Many current theorists share with Heidegger an understanding that the revelatory or affective art experience derives from an engagement with the artwork and the artwork alone. Extrinsic features including artistic intention, social relations to the artwork, and art interpretation, may be excluded as not constitutive of the artwork itself. Some highly influential theories also share with Heidegger a respect for standard ontological boundaries regarding the chosen communication medium – whether it be painting, novel writing, drama, or poetry, these media are viewed as determinately distinct forms. Perhaps, most tellingly, the prospect that an object, concept, or material may be transferred in to or out of the artworld entirely by the design or intention of its maker, collaborator, or appropriator necessitates a fluidity in ontological boundaries that is beyond the countenance of Heidegger and like theorists. These two features, intrinsic features confined to the artwork and media boundaries around artmaking, prove crucial to this analysis. Proceeding to test Fountain against Heidegger’s theory arguably has implications for a broader group of contemporary art theories.19

Why Fountain?

Repurposing “found” or manufactured objects as artworks was an early twentieth century innovation that created a paradigm shift in philosophy of aesthetics. Fountain and similar “readymades” are credited with influencing the development of many later innovations including pop art, op art, conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, and art-reflexive or self-referencing artworks.20 Fountain is unique among repurposed objects because Fountain has doubtful provenance and was lost or destroyed soon after being rejected for exhibition. A background such as this provides a uniquely poor platform for an art object by itself to provide rich aesthetic or revelatory value. There are numerous critical assessments of why Fountain played a significant role in twentieth century art.Most of these accounts fall broadly into two camps. Firstly, there is a focus on the object as anti-art, a disruptor mocking the hallowed institutions of art including the veneration of great artworks, the artist as genius, and the status of art professionals as supreme arbiters of taste.21Fountain is simply “chosen” for admiration in the artworld when it is otherwise indistinguishable from hundreds of identical objects, mass-produced for their instrumental bathroom value. The very idea that a work with such a tenuous claim to artworld status should be presented as such establishes “mockery” as part of the artist toolkit. On this view, Fountain is a seminal source for many later art disruptors.

Second, Fountain references the concepts, planning and collaborative actions that brought into view Fountain’s transformative nature. The simple act of choosing an object, together with the subsequent associated collective actions that made it art, expanded our concepts of what art can be. Art becomes fundamentally conceptual and not merely “retinal” like so much art that went before it. Van Weeden claims that in choosing Fountain as a work of art, Duchamp recasts the space that art occupied – everything could be art.22 Artworks and artmaking are no longer distinct. They occupy a continuum of relations wherein artmaking acts are seen as the principal output and artworks themselves can be a window revealing these acts. Artwork and art acts are juxtaposed on a level playing field. Moreover, Fountain affirms that artmaking can be as straight-forwardly simple as selecting an object or concept as art. This makes the artworld the province of whoever deems what they do as “art”; no hierarchies involved; we all get to interpret and judge what is good and bad art.

Artists have available to them an unlimited range of ideas, materials, and audiences to choose from in the making of their art.23 In Roberts view the cognitive, cultural and political tenor of twentieth and twenty first century art is reshaped by Fountain so that we are now all “post-Duchampians.”24

A promising prospect

The idea of applying Heidegger to Fountain has some promise of bearing fruit. Duchamp and Heidegger had much in common in their construal of art. First, they both reject the notion that an artwork harbours aesthetic features gifted to the viewer through the senses. Heidegger rejects modern aesthetic theory on these grounds and Duchamp rejects “retinal” or visually-appealing art,opting instead for art that engages the mind. Second, both see engaging with an artwork as opening a multiplicity of revelations and interpretations. For Heidegger engaging is an in-the-moment experience for the individual with the work, a “presencing” that does not exhaust the world of meanings.25 This enables each individual engagement (for different people and different times) to produce a multiplicity of phenomenally grounded revelations.26 And for Duchamp, “aesthetic relativity” situates artworks as nodes in a relational web comprising multiple meanings.27

So with this promising beginning the paper will review key features of Heidegger’s model through the prism of Fountain.

Applying Heidegger’s theory of art to Duchamp’s Fountain

While Heidegger described a phenomenal engagement with one particular artwork, he intends his theory to apply to how we might engage with other great works of art. Engaging in this way with a work of art involves at least four relevant criteria implied or explicitly entailed by Heidegger’s model. These can be expressed as a list of questions needing answers:

1. What kind of thing is the “artwork” or object under study?

First, we need to settle on the work’s ontology or decide on exactly what kind of thing the artwork is. This first step seems a trivial one for conventional art; the artwork just is the painting, or sculpture, etc., before you. However, Fountain is anything but conventional. Is it art, plumbing, or something else?

2. Is there a singular creative agent behind the making of the work?

This second key feature follows from Heidegger’s assumption that each great work of art requires a singular great creator to realize and illuminate profound and unique truths about things in the world through their art.

3. What counts as “earth” in the creation of Fountain?

This third question involves fundamental resources (“the earth”) being “worked” to create and inform how things are in the world?

4. Does Fountain stand as an artwork, in its own right, without relying on the artist’s intentions or performative acts in its appreciation?

Finally, to be consistent with Heidegger’s model, whatever experiences or revelations arise will stem from a direct engagement with the artwork unsullied by anything external to the work.

Does Heidegger’s model for the creation of an artwork work for Fountain? If so, our phenomenal encounter will need to answer these questions.

What is the nature of Fountain?

Urinal as art object

If art is the origin of the artwork and of the artist, but no art object remains for our gaze, then we will need to rely on a photograph of the original by Alfred Stieglitz.28 Resting on a plinth, the object is transformed just enough so that its abstract form can be appreciated. It soon becomes clear that the thing depicted is a male urinal.

It is called Fountain and it is signed “R Mutt.” Before it was transformed for exhibition, the urinal was designed and produced to be restroom equipment and not a work of art. Whoever was the original designer is not the “artist” here. The urinal itself is transformed in the most meagre of ways – turned on its side with the inlet facing the viewer so it suggests a fountain. It is named, signed, submitted for exhibition, and rejected. There is not enough artistry here to call the “transformer” an artist either. No artwork and no artist should mean, at least in Heidegger’s terms, that this is not art. But whatever happened in the New York Spring of 1917 changed twentieth century art. Finding the “art” in this puzzle necessitates a different path to the one taken by Heidegger with van Gogh’s Shoes.

Fountain as drama

No object remains and the collaborators are long since dead so the story of the Fountain is sketchy and uncertain. However, what is known is that it has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a very long epilogue. It also has “dramatis personae,” an “auteur” of sorts. There is no art object, but there is a mildly vulgar prop around which the drama unfolds. The story has atmosphere, a backstory, it is riddled with puns.

There is not the space for a full exegesis of Fountain as drama or as a succession of performative acts. Doing so would reveal a cast of larger-than-life characters, a famous photographer, a most interesting director and the no-rules-barring-entry exhibition curators who broke their only rule by excluding Fountain from being exhibited.29

The drama would explain the quixotic quest of Dada to get a mad world to abandon the brutal logic of war on the eve of young Americans signing up for service to the background lyrics of “Johnny get your gun”.30

It would show that Duchamp’s play most probably has not ended. The long epilogue may show that, as he promised,31 Fountain really is for future generations.32

It would appear the urinal, taken as artwork in and of itself, leads to a lean reading; a dead-end. But znderstanding Fountain as a collaborative drama does have the potential to “disclose a world” in the way Heidegger would recognise. Duchamp himself adopted a deliberatively performative stance with regard to his artmaking and its reception by the public:

“You’re on stage,” he explains, “you show off your goods”; right then you become an actor; one accepts everything, while laughing just the same. You don’t have to give in too much. You accept to please other people, more than yourself. It’s a sort of politeness.33

Moreover, Fountain is invested with that polysemic potential that Heidegger sees as a necessary ingredient of great art.34 Is it a pun for “taking a piss” or a crypto-feminist plot for “taking the piss” out of men? Is it art, not art, neither or both; a real case of a true contradiction?35 Even the Fountain-as-drama reading bifurcates into a man-story with artist Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg art critic, and Duchamp planning the “Fountain play” prior to Duchamp’s execution36 and a less told under-story with Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, Louise Norton, Katherine Dreier, and Beatrice Wood playing leading roles37 with Duchamp as ally.. Rival narratives only add to the dramatic potential. If we do accept Fountain as drama for a Heideggerian analysis, this move is still problematic for his theory on a number of fronts. This leads us to the next important question.

Is there a single creative agent behind the making of the work?

While not ruling out collective acts, Heidegger’s project suggests he had in mind that a great artwork was the product of a single great creator uniquely realising her vision through the act of artwork creation. But with Fountain, there is no singular artist to take the mantle of greatness that Heidegger seems to assume is required for artworks to be imbued with the necessary transformative qualities. In Fountain, it would appear a collective of creative talents worked collaboratively, arguably, under the direction of Marcel Duchamp although there remain doubts concerning who exactly played what role in the Fountain drama.38 Removing the stricture of artist as sole creative agent does not affect the overall project dramatically. It means we accept that collective creativity can sometimes be transformative as well. Heidegger at least acknowledged that the “createdness” of the work was to be seen as distinct from the greatness of the singular artist:

The emergence of createdness from the work does not mean that the work is to give the impression of having been made by a great artist.39 In moving forward then, we tentatively have Fountain being read as drama with a collective of creative players. But how might we construe Heidegger’s earth-to-world relation which proves so crucial in his origin of an artwork?

What counts as “earth” in the creation of Fountain

Construing Fountain as drama and assuming a collective process of creation does not fully address the problem of applying Heidegger’s model to this iconic creation. A third hurdle for Fountain as drama relates to the earth-to-world metaphor. Heidegger enlists a variety of “world-forming” material resources that normally count as “earth.” While the urinal is certainly “material,” we have shown that it is an inadequate source for what Fountain becomes. In the case of van Gogh’s Shoes, the connections Heidegger makes between earth and world via the constitutive materials of the artwork and the relations of the shoes to the peasant’s work40 provide a rich account of how a great artwork can be culturally transformative. Contrasted with this rich account for ‘Shoes’, the physical object of the urinal by itself tells us little about how ‘Fountain’ comes to be a major catalyst in changing twentieth century art. In the case of Fountain then, what counts as earth? What can be the constitutive source for the “thingness” of no-thing? The construal for earth needs to be extended to, somehow, accompany the ‘Fountain’ performance. This includes the formative ideas that lead to the playing out of “Fountain as drama”; or, at least, the available records of what is said and done to enact those ideas as the basis of a plan to acquire a ready-made, display it, reject it, etc. Heidegger provides us with a clue in his discussion of poets using words inhe way artists use pigment:

To be sure, the poet also uses the word — not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who have to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word.41

In fact, Heidegger says that the defining feature of all great works of art is found in “poesis” or their poetic nature of bringing important things into being:

All art, we learn from “The Origin of the Work of Art,” is essentially poetry, because it is the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is. And poetry, as linguistic, has a privileged position in the domain of the arts, because language, understood rightly, is the original way in which beings are brought into the open clearing of truth, in which world and earth, mortals and gods are bidden to come to their appointed places of meeting.42

The constitutive origins of words are phonemes, and phonemes as physical acoustic artefacts may qualify as the “earth” of poetry. But what about the succession of performative acts at the heart of the “Fountain drama”? The earth could be seen here also as residing in the non-verbal signs and symbols of the actions of the players coupled with these same “acoustic artefacts” informing what is said. With this account of earth, the emerging “artwork” can be seen as the drama derived from performances of the players transforming acoustic artefacts with their utterances and the signs and symbols manifest in their actions revealing a world; a Fountain world.This brings us to the final question.43

Does Fountain stand as an artwork without relying on the artist’s intentions or performative
acts in its appreciation?

So far, we have seen that with some significant adjustments Heidegger’s phenomenal aesthetics can be made to work for Fountain. But a final hurdle remains for his construal. Heidegger is strongly of the opinion that the artwork and the artwork alone should be the focus of our phenomenal engagement:

Where does a work belong? The work belongs, as work, uniquely within the realm that is opened up by itself. For the work-being of the work is present in, and only in, such opening up.44

Moreover, Heidegger emphasises that this engagement should be considered as it is and not be narrowed by its creator:

The thrust that the work as this work is, and the uninterruptedness of this plain thrust, constitute the steadfastness of the work’s self-subsistence. Precisely where the artist and the process and the circumstances of the genesis of the work remain unknown, this thrust, this “that it is” of createdness, emerges into view most purely from the work.45

For Heidegger, direct phenomenal engagement with the artwork requires the undivided attention of the person. Taking into account the artist’s opinions and constitutive actions count as distractions to this primary purpose.

How does Fountain challenge this position? As we have seen, if Fountain is to be read in a manner that exposes us to its full revelatory potential, then it must be interpreted beyond the physical object itself. Reframing Fountain as drama provides such a rich reading. A consequence of this move is that the contents of the artwork necessarily comprise narratives of what the actors do and say. In this regard, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the art; that is, the performative acts themselves from the opinions of the actors/artists.

As an example, Louise Norton writes an article in the Blind Man magazine shortly after Fountain’s rejection.46 Her article is both artist opinion and also a key step in a later chapter of the Fountain drama; making it a necessary part of the artwork-drama itself. Problematically for Heidegger’s theory, the performative acts of the artists must be included because they are constitutive of the artwork as drama and contradictorily not included to meet Heidegger’s stipulation of excluding the artist’s opinion. Separating this kind of opinion destroys or obscures the very work itself.

The problem of excluding the artist’s “opinion” and other key constitutive elements from the analysis extends to artworks generally. Access to Shoes suffers from being confined to a hermeneutical analysis of the painting itself. What if a work identical to the van Gogh masterpiece were produced by a forger simply copying the original stroke by stroke? Would we be in error if a phenomenal engagement with the copy means we imbued the shoes with the “earth and toil of the peasant”? Our only means of knowing the copy’s status derives from evidence of the faker’s performative acts in making the forgery – evidence, possibly, only available externally to the painting.

But surely the problem of conflating interpretative opinion with the composition can be addressed by finding a way of distinguishing acts that are part the creators’ critique of their art from those that are part of the art act performance simpliciter? In other words, why not place a boundary around artmaking performative acts and separate these from interpretations that lie outside the artmaking acts? The problem is that “Fountain-play” is not a formally framed orthodox “play” like a Shakespeare play with clear boundaries between the play and the play’s creation. Constitutive acts of the players are no less important than the object created. Duchamp would see other boundaries being blurred as well; the “spectator’s role” after the objects’ creation becomes equally informative of what the work is.47 Fountain has no such clear boundaries. All the creative acts connected to the Fountain drama are both acts of creation and performance with no clear limits of time, space or characters.

Opting for a “Neo-Heideggerian” solution

We have shown Heidegger’s theory provides an inadequate response to Fountain unless four important questions integral to his approach, can be addressed. So why not just “bite the bullet” and accept some adjustments to Heidegger’s theory to enable Fountain to be accommodated? This move has the advantage of preserving the core innovative feature of the theory – hermeneutical phenomenology. Heidegger’s artwork methodology helps explain the revelatory potential of engaging with an artwork while avoiding the subject/object dualism that Heidegger roundly criticises. While adopting a substantially modified “Neo-Heideggerian” theory of the origin of an artwork is plausible, the move creates something like the problem of the old kitchen broom – the one that has three replacement handles and four new heads. It really isn’t the same broom. In addition, the revised theory is lacking an adequate explanatory account for any of the relaxed criteria – for example, how should we understand performative acts of multiple players undertaken over different times and places as the “work” of art when Heidegger’s account is confined to engaging with a single art object ostensibly at one sitting. Even in its expanded “Neo-Heideggerian” form, Heidegger’s original analysis lacks the epistemic resources to accommodate this move and it is therefore lacking in the required explanatory narrative to enable a robust account of Fountain.


Heidegger’s phenomenal hermeneutics was instrumental in forcing a re-evaluation of modern aesthetic assumptions in the early twentieth century. Heidegger’s theory of the origin of the artwork is born from a hermeneutic analysis of a single van Gogh masterpiece. This essay turned his analysis to another great artwork – perhaps the most influential work of the twentieth century – Fountain. While Heidegger’s method can accommodate some hurdles thrown up by Fountain, the requirement to confine phenomenal engagement to the art object alone leads to problems when the object has such limited potential as an influential work of art. The prospect of broadening the focus of our attention to the drama of Fountain provides for a much richer phenomenal engagement.
However, this move runs counter to a second stipulation that the artist’s intentions/opinion and performative acts in making the art should be excluded from our engagement with the work. Adjusting Heidegger’s theory to better accommodate works like Fountain also fails.

This paper focused on the capacity of a single early post-modern theory of art to explain a singular work. However, the two key limitations that defeat Heidegger’s theory also limit similar theories, particularly those approaches that privilege the intrinsic features of the artwork but exclude the actions of artmakers, collaborators and appropriators. It also places pressure on aesthetic theories that lack the fluidity to reset ontological boundaries when the richer revelatory experience is found beyond the exclusive remit of the object alone.

This theory limitation would be of minor consequence if it applied to a singular exception – Fountain. But as we have seen, Fountain is only the first in a long succession of art making practices characterised by repurposing or appropriating objects, concepts, and styles into the world of art from elsewhere. Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art” and like theories are restricted in their capacity to reveal the rich potential of Fountain’s innovative progeny, the very progeny that have helped to define current art practice.


Figure 1: Fountain – Marcel Duchamp

1917 Photo – Alfred Stieglitz Retrieved from,%20fountain.htm

Figure 2: Shoes Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Oil on canvas, 38.1 cm x 45.3 cm van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)


Figure 3: Heidegger’s Hermeneutic cycle applied to van Gogh’s painting. Heidegger employs a series of connected earth-to-world relations to understand the origin of an artwork. ‘Things’ like shoes and artworks are ‘formed matter’. Van Gogh’s painting reveals shoes and, in turn, their ‘being’ brings into being the working life of the woman. This very process illuminates the workly character of a particular artwork and, tentatively, for Heidegger, the true nature of all great works of art.

Figure 4: The modern aesthetic model of art requires a subject/object dichotomy between the subject and artwork.


Figure 5: Heidegger’s alternative model for engaging with an artwork


1 Robert Kilroy, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later, 2017 ed. (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Palgrave Pivot, 2017), 51.
2 George Dickie, “Defining Art,” American Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1969): 254.
3 Kilroy, 1.
4 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, Translations and Introduction by Albert Hofstadter, Perennial Library (New York ; Sydney : Harper & Row, 1975, c1971., 1975), 15-86.
5 Ibid., 17.
6 Ibid., 26.
7 Ibid., 19.
8 Ibid., 33.
9 Ibid., 35.
10 Ibid., 35.
11 Iain Thomson,Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 65-77.
12 The modern aesthetic tradition that Heidegger criticises had its origins in the eighteenth century through the writing of a number thinkers, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Immanuel Kant, prominent among them. Modern aesthetic theory held that beauty existed in things independent of humans. In the ‘Critique of Judgement’, Kant emphasised that judging the ‘taste’ of an object requires the subject to adopt a state of disinterest to enable the experience of delight derived from the object to be fully appreciated.
Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory,”The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), no. 43 (1961).; Immanuel Kant,
Critique of Judgement (Oxford University Press, 2005), 37.
13 Thomson, 47-51.
14 Martin Heidegger and William Vernon Lovitt, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Harper Torchbooks: Tb 1969 (New York [etc.] : Harper and Row, 1977., 1977), 116; Thomson, 45.
15 Heidegger, 25.
16 Ibid., 33.
17 Kant, 41.
18 Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1987); Hans Georg Gadamer and Robert Bernasconi,The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays
(Cambridge University Press, 1986); Leonard Lawlor and Ted Toadvine, The Merleau-Ponty Reader (Northwestern University Press, 2007), 69-84, 241-82, 351-78; Emmanuel Lévinas and Seán Hand,
The Levinas Reader (B. Blackwell, 1989), 129-65; Paul Ricoeur, “Aesthetic Experience,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, no. 2-3 (04/01/ 1998); Jean-Paul Sartre,
Essays in Aesthetics, Essay Index Reprint Series (Books for Libraries Press, 1970).
19 Arguably, Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer are theorists who fall short in these respects. Paul Ricoeur emphasizes the
singular character of the ‘work’ as crucial in engaging with art. He alludes to the significance of the frame of a painting in
separating the work from its background. In so doing, it provides us with a window on the world of the painting. He finds contemporary
notions of appropriation, for example ‘a chair being placed on a platform’, troubling for art. Ibid.Ricoeur, 30. Merleau-Ponty argues
the authenticity of a painting can only be judged by examining the painting and ‘if the counterfeiter succeeded in recapturing not only the
processes but the very style of the great Vermeers he would no longer be a counterfeiter’. See Lawlor and Toadvine, 261-62. Gadamer comes
closer to realizing the fluidity in art boundaries with his idea of the ‘play’ in artworks and how spectators are not excluded from joining in
the ‘play’ suggested in the work. See Gadamer and Bernasconi, 24. On the other hand, Gadamer understands works of art as being ‘set free’ and
‘released from the process of production because it is, by definition, destined for use’ Ibid., 12. Duchamp’s ‘Bottle-rack’ is viewed through
the object’s determinate character in suggesting the effect it once produced Ibid., 25. The performative acts of the appropriator are not
needed here to fulfil Gadamer’s account of the ‘Bottle-rack’.
20 William A. Camfield and Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (Houston Fine Art Press, 1989), 88; Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp : A Biography
, 1st ed. ed. (H. Holt, 1996), 455-56.
21 Allan Antliff, “The Making and Mauling of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Made,” Canadian Art 23, no. 1 (Spring2006 2006): 57; Camfield and Duchamp, 42; Kilroy, 48.
22 Dirk van Weelden, “Black Coffee. Marcel Duchamp’s Pataphysical Sensism,” Relief: Revue Électronique de Littérature Francaise, Vol 10, Iss 1, Pp 70-76 (2016),
no. 1 (2016): 71.
23 If ‘Fountain’ does lead us to a greatly expanded construal of art, it also increases uncertainty concerning the boundaries of art. Where should I draw the line
between what is and is not art? Of course, contesting the boundaries of art did not begin with Duchamp. Resolving the art status of borderline works may be a less
rewarding exercise than finding the pathway that reveals the revelatory potential of any given work despite its status as art or something else.
24 John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,” Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,”
6, no. 3 (2013): 256.
25 Iain Thomson, “Heidegger’s Aesthetics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010).
26 Heidegger, 81.
27 van Weelden, 71.
28 Mystery surrounds even this one photograph with some claiming it is not all it seems. See Rhonda R. Shearer, “Why the Hatrack Is and/or Is Not Readymade :
With Interactive Software, Animations, and Videos for Readers to Explore,” Tout-fait 1, no. 3 (2000).
29 Paul Franklin, B., “Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History,” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (2000).
30 Lyrics from the popular song ‘Over There’ by George M Cohen.
31 Camfield and Duchamp, 142.
32 Duchamp in a talk titled ‘The Creative Act’ acknowledges the role of the spectator as collaborator in art-making: “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone;
the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and ‘ interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

33Kilroy, 84.
34 Thomson, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, 69.
35 Damon Young and Graham Priest, “It Is and It Isn’t,” Aeon 2018 (2017).
36 The story of ‘Fountain’ is a collection of narratives arising from actions by members and associates of the Society of Independent Artists.
Alfred Steiglitz is credited with the one known photograph of ’Fountain’ taken shortly after its rejection from the exhibition, and Walter Arensberg,
art critic and collector, who together with Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp arguably planned the exhibition of ‘Fountain’. Marcel Duchamp himself may
have ‘directed’ much of the execution of the ‘Fountain play’ Camfield and Duchamp, 20-43.
37 There is a significant body of evidence that the women collaborators played a far greater role in Fountain’s creation than has been historically
acknowledged. Beatrice Wood, the ‘Mama of Dada’ along with Henri-Pierre Roche and Duchamp edited the Blind Man which provided narrative for the ’
Fountain’ story. Louise Norton’s article in the Blindman “Buddha of the Bathroom,” The Blind Man1917. played a seminal role in making what ’Fountain
eventually became particularly given the object’s early disappearance and continuing uncertainty surrounding its origins. Katherine Dreier was the
first to offer the ‘originality objection’ against ‘Fountain’ but subsequently became an advocate for the Society of Independent Artists to rescind
their rejection of the work, Camfield and Duchamp, 28-32. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is credited, by some, as being the real creator of
Fountain. See, for example, Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa : Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity : A Cultural Biography (Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT,
c2002., 2002); Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, “Did Marcel Duchamp Steal Elsa’s Urinal?,” Art Newspaper 24, no. 262 (2014). Gammel. Spalding and
Thompson. However others have disputed this claim. See Thierry de Duve, “The Story of Fountain: Hard Facts and Soft Speculation,” Nordic Journal of
28, no. 57/58 (01// 2019): 42.
38 Anne Sejten, “Art Fighting Its Way Back to Aesthetics: Revisiting Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain,” Journal of Art Historiography 15, no. 2 (2016): 3-4.
39 Heidegger, 63.
40 Ibid., 30-36.
41 Ibid., 46.
42 Ibid., 73.
43 Including the words and actions of all those with a part to play in the making of ‘Fountain’ as drama does not exclude the role of the object i.e.
the urinal itself. It remains a central defining point of reference – one that the ‘Fountain’ players continually reference as
the drama unfolds. In a certain sense, the urinal becomes a ‘prop’ essential to the drama.
44 Heidegger, 40.
45Ibid., 63.
46Norton, 5-6.
47Camfield and Duchamp, 142.


Antliff, Allan. “The Making and Mauling of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Made.” Canadian Art 23, no. 1 (Spring2006 2006): 56-60.

Camfield, William A., and Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain. Houston Fine Art Press, 1989.
de Duve, Thierry. “The Story of Fountain: Hard Facts and Soft Speculation.” Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 28, no. 57/58 (01// 2019): 10.

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Dickie, George. “Defining Art.” American Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1969): 253-56.

Franklin, Paul, B. “Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History.” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (2000): 25.

Gadamer, Hans Georg, and Robert Bernasconi. The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa : Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity : A Cultural Biography. Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT, c2002., 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought, Translations and Introduction by Albert Hofstadter. Perennial Library. New York ; Sydney : Harper & Row, 1975, c1971., 1975.

Heidegger, Martin, and William Vernon Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Torchbooks: Tb 1969. New York [etc.] : Harper and Row, 1977., 1977.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kilroy, Robert. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later. 2017 ed. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Palgrave Pivot, 2017.

Lawlor, Leonard, and Ted Toadvine. The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Northwestern University Press, 2007.

Lévinas, Emmanuel, and Seán Hand. The Levinas Reader. B. Blackwell, 1989.

Norton, Louise. “Buddha of the Bathroom.” The Blind Man, 1917, 2.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Aesthetic Experience.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, no. 2-3 (04/01/ 1998): 25-39.

Roberts, John. “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp.” Journal of Modern Craft 6, no. 3 (2013): 255-66.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Essays in Aesthetics. Essay Index Reprint Series. Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Sejten, Anne. “Art Fighting Its Way Back to Aesthetics: Revisiting Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.” Journal of Art Historiography 15, no. 2 (2016): 15.

Shearer, Rhonda R. “Why the Hatrack Is and/or Is Not Readymade : With Interactive Software, Animations, and Videos for Readers to Explore.” Tout-fait 1, no. 3 (2000): 10.

Spalding, Julian, and Glyn Thompson. “Did Marcel Duchamp Steal Elsa’s Urinal?”. Art Newspaper 24, no. 262 (2014): 59-59.

Stolnitz, Jerome. “On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory.” The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), no. 43 (1961): 97.

Thomson, Iain. “Heidegger’s Aesthetics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010): n/a.

———. Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp : A Biography. 1st ed. ed.: H. Holt, 1996.

van Weelden, Dirk. “Black Coffee. Marcel Duchamp’s Pataphysical Sensism.” Relief: Revue Électronique de Littérature Francaise, Vol 10, Iss 1, Pp 70-76 (2016), no. 1 (2016): 70.

Young, Damon, and Graham Priest. “It Is and It Isn’t.” Aeon 2018 (2017).


The author would like to thank the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference and the University of Melbourne Philosophy Post-Graduate Colloquia participants for helpful suggestions on early drafts of this paper.

Photographic Masquerades: The Readymade Femininity of Greta Garbo and Marcel Duchamp

Always the vamp I am, always the woman of no heart.

– Greta Garbo 1

Nowadays, this may be all very well – names change with the times – but Rrose was an awful name in 1920.
– Marcel Duchamp 2

Click to enlarge

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
Illustration 1: Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, 1931 Illustration 2: Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, 1921
Let us compare two photographs…

The first is of Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, one of several from a series of publicity stills of the movie star taken in 1931 by Clarence Sinclair Bull. In this particular image Garbo’s hands are posed on the white fur of her collar, which, pressed suggestively against her cheeks, frames the mysterious beauty of her face; half hidden in shadow and with a notably seductive arch of her eyebrows, her eyes stare boldly out of the picture. A large ring on her left hand calls attention to her ambiguous marital status, allowing for the possibility that any viewer could possess her. It is important to remember that Garbo, in the words of Roland Barthes, “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” 3 The ecstatic beauty of Garbo’s face in this image is at once captured and produced by the medium of the photograph, which represents a space of simulation in which the reality of the movie star can be said to truly exist.

The second photograph, taken by the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, pictures the artist Marcel Duchamp posturing as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. This image, referred to as Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, is visually quite similar in composition and pose to that of the Garbo photograph, except Duchamp uses the standard feminine props to photographically invert his gender. Interestingly enough, Duchamp tells us that his first idea “was to take a Jewish name,” but he considered the possibility of changing sex as “much simpler.” 4 Richly dressed in dark furs and a geometrically patterned hat, Rrose’s fingers arch in a feminine gesture as she holds the fur collar close to her exposed face. On her right hand is a simple wedding band that, in European fashion, mates her to her male counterpart Duchamp. Rrose is in this way created as a readymade woman that is constructed out of readymade elements, Duchamp’s body and Germaine Everling’s hands. Through the strategic implementation of readymade femininity, Rrose is brought to life in New York in 1920. Her reality is quite literally sustained within the frame of the photograph, which demonstrates, as we argue, the readymade nature of gender positions.

Duchamp’s use of femininity in this photographic sex-change is a direct extension of his famous artistic readymades, in which (often mass-produced) objects are chosen rather than created by an artist to be art. Fountain (1917), for example, is a urinal purchased from a lavatory supply store, one of a series of virtually identical objects within a commercial line of products, which could be easily replaced by another with little to no difference in the object itself. The only feature that distinguishes this artwork from the other urinals in the series is the signature of R. Mutt, Duchamp’s pseudonym for this piece. As Duchamp makes clear in his discussion with Pierre Cabanne, the readymade is based within object-relations: “It’s difficult to choose an object, because, at the end of fifteen days, you begin to like it or to hate it. You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” 5 Prominently included in a list of Duchamp’s readymades, Rrose exists as a photographic – a readymade medium par excellence – manifestation of the already existing language or signifiers of femininity. According to Judith Butler, “femininity is an ideal which everyone always and only ‘imitates.’ Thus, drag imitates the imitative structure of gender, revealing gender itself to be an imitation.” 6 Duchamp’s imitation of femininity in his pose as Rrose is in this way an imitation of the imitation of femininity as a cultural discourse of gender, a discourse that Garbo also participates in with her own imitation of the feminine.

In addition to the remarkable similarity in the respective poses of Garbo and Duchamp (or Rrose), the photographs also share a visual psychology that, as Moira Roth points out, is astonishing similar in terms of their “beauty and remoteness: staring out of their photographs, with their hands idly protecting them, they both project an image of utter aloofness. In both portraits there is an impenetrable impassivity.” 7 It is the photograph as a major site of the production of femininity that we argue is the basic subject of both Garbo’s and Duchamp’s portraits and, more significantly, it is their apparent playing with the productive capacity of the photographic medium that allows them to perform a masquerade.

In “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere makes the point that womanliness can “be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it.” 8 Yet it is this possession of masculinity or masculine traits that made Garbo such an attractive public figure, not the least of which is due to her deep voice and the questions surrounding her sexual orientation. There is a dramatic contrast between Garbo’s photographic eroticism, a quintessential visual representation of the female film star, and her active challenge to the strict understanding and even performance of gender identity. Throughout her career Garbo highlighted the ease with which cultural conceptions of gender and sexuality can be manipulated. Through her masquerade of masculinity and her homosexual tendencies, Garbo lays claim to the masculine characteristics that at the time were outside the realm of most women’s experience – and in this way she appropriates a certain amount of power with her pose.

This power is evident in Garbo’s direct gaze in the Mata Hari photographs, since it is still rare today to see an eroticized feminine figure challenging the viewer with such a bold look. A comparison can be made between the gaze of the courtesan in Édouard Manet’s Olympia , confronting the viewer with the power of a woman as a sexual subject that looks back, and the gaze of Garbo. Manet’s painting is still discussed as controversial for the simple fact that cultural presentations of eroticism do not make room for the female gaze and, more specifically, women’s active acceptance and employment of their own sexuality. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey points out,
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.9

While Garbo is set up as an erotic feminine figure to be looked at in the Mata Hari publicity still, she undermines the traditional presentation of women as passive by powerfully looking back at the viewer.

Whereas Bull’s photograph of Garbo is specifically intended to produce a feminine consumer object (through photography and film) that is womanly , it is clear that Duchamp’s Rrose is not attempting to be a woman but instead is trying to bring into dialogue the cultural signifiers of man and woman through Rrose. Although constructed and staged using similar readymade feminine props and poses as those employed in the image of Garbo, Rrose remains obviously not a woman – or at least can be seen as an intentionally fake woman. Yet Rrose is no longer strictly a man either, the photographic medium allowing Duchamp to perform both genders simultaneously. Poised in a feminine masquerade Duchamp can be seen taking on the cultural qualities that are considered “feminine” or “womanly.” As Amelia Jones states: “It is because Duchamp and Man Ray constructed Rrose Sélavy through photographic conventions that draw directly from cultural codes constructing femininity in relation to commodification that the images can be said to subvert these inexorable effects of the advertisement’s production of femininity.” 10 Duchamp’s masquerade as Rrose, similar to Garbo’s photograph as Mata Hari, draws upon the methodology and processes of popular culture advertisements, specifically the manner in which femininity as a social category is constructed or assembled through the production of imagery.

This complex relationship between Duchamp the “man” and Rrose the “woman” performed by the “man” is made evident in the works title: Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy. Duchamp sets up his name in a typographical pairing with Rrose, in a typical surrealist game where words are seen as making love with words, in this case “Marcel Duchamp” poetically making love to “Rrose Sélavy” and vice versa. Hence, for Duchamp, it is possible to unhinge his gender through a reinvention of his name and play with other matings of meaning. This multiplicity of meanings is most evident in the wordplay of Duchamp’s chosen name Rrose Sélavy , which is an elaborate double pun in French: “eros c’est la vie,” eros that’s life, and/or “arroser la vie,” drink it up, celebrate life.

Duchamp uses the photograph as what he terms an inframince or infrathin medium. 11 Through this quality of the photograph, he both is and is not Rrose Sélavy, is and is not a woman. This inter-distinction is reflected in the use of the term “and/or” to negotiate the relation between Duchamp and Rrose, connecting them through the “and” while at the same time separating them through the “or.” Jones even suggests that this and/or is a mating device in which Duchamp and Rrose “are related by way of an inframince asymmetry (incongruence) carried through all of Duchamp’s productions: Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy, bride and/or bachelors, man and/or woman, viewer and/or viewed.” 12 The photograph functions as a means of visually positing such inframince visual relationships through the materialization of the image as a simulation or representation. “In the photographic process it’s not a question of considering the world as an object, of acting as if it was already there as an object, but of making it become an object, in other words, of making it become other,” Jean Baudrillard states. 13 In this way, Duchamp’s relationship with Rrose Sélavy is an infra-thin coupling of sexual identity that is accomplished strictly within the representational space demarcated by the photograph.

Duchamp’s use of the advertising industry’s strategies of producing femininity can be seen as a parody of gender differentiation. But, as Jones asks:
What are the specific codes of femininity the Rrose Sélavy images parody? Here it is worth turning to studies in the history of photography that have linked nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century representations of women to the massive expanse of consumer culture and concomitant developments in photographic technology and the mass media. Since its origins around 1840, photography has developed a special relationship to both the commodity and femininity. 14

We can readily see this relationship in the Mata Hari photograph in which Garbo is presented as a commodity object of the film industry, embodying the fantasy of femininity that Hollywood sells. In images of Garbo, the relationship between commodity and femininity is made explicit: she is the object of desire who seduces spectators who seek to consume her image. Garbo the fetishized movie star exists only as a product of this system of signification. Similarly, Rrose is “also highly seductive, having been photographed with portrait conventions used in advertisements and celebrity photos of the time, conventions used for eroticizing the female image to sell commodities or the female herself as a commodity.” 15 As an extreme example of this same system of cultural signification, Rrose exists as a representation defined through the readymade modes of femininity she exhibits, yet without the relation to any “real” womanly presence. In other words, Rrose represents all of the signifiers used in the photographic commodification of femininity without a bodily or “real” referent.

In Belle Haleine (1921) Duchamp uses the star power of his alter-ego to sell perfume under the readymade label Belle Haleine (Lovely Breath), Eau de Voilette, which bears the authorizing signature of RS: Rrose Sélavy. But like the signifiers that constitute the feminine, this perfume bottle is only the surface appearance of what is actually an empty shell. This work consists of a readymade Rigaud perfume bottle originally labeled Eau de Violette (Violet water), which Duchamp slightly alters to say Eau de Voilette (Veil Water) and uses the reversed R of the Rigaud label to create the initials of Rrose Sélavy. Rrose, like many other celebrity figures, is pictured – a photograph of her, again taken by Man Ray, graces the custom cut label affixed onto the crystal surface – as the embodiment of feminine beauty on a perfume bottle, a commodity object advertised as a key element in the cultural production of the feminine. Duchamp’s Belle Haleine can in this way be seen as a parody of the conception of purchasing a readymade product the sole purpose of which is the production of womanliness.

As a cultural readymade, Butler reminds us, “femininity is an ideal which everyone always and only ‘imitates,’” and Duchamp’s imitation of the feminine or womanly through Rrose, his act of transvestitism, reveals the imitative structure of gender itself as a product. 16 Photography is also based upon imitation and therefore reinforces the imitative qualities of Duchamp’s act. “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise,” Susan Sontag notes, “in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” 17 What is the duplicate gendered role that Duchamp is creating? The answer appears to lie in the masquerade of representation: the interchangeable signs of gender, the poses and its props, that constitute the erotic play of femininity that Duchamp and Garbo engage in.

Let us consider in more detail the significant similarities between the photograph as an imitative form and the notion of the readymade. This overlap is particularly apparent when considering the representation or masquerade of femininity as a cultural readymade, which significantly uses eroticism to hide sexuality both in terms of the physical body and the power dynamics that accompany gender constructions. Eroticism, according to Duchamp, becomes a tool to reveal “things that are constantly hidden – and aren’t necessarily erotic.” 18 In this way, Rrose’s erotic traits are largely the result of the photographic medium that quite literally hides the reality of what is pictured, turning all that it captures into a readymade image. This, stated simply, is the power of the photograph that reveals the masquerade hidden within life, showing us not what we see but rather what we want to see.

As Garbo and Duchamp demonstrate in different ways, femininity is a culturally transmitted and easily purchased readymade language, one that can be used by anyone who wants to participate in the production and/or reproduction of its qualities. This aping of the masquerade of femininity by Duchamp illustrates the construction of the feminine self that Susan Bordo describes as a manifestation of social control of women: “With the advent of movies and television, the rules for femininity have come to be culturally transmitted more and more through standardized visual images. As a result, femininity itself has come to be largely a matter of constructing[…] the appropriate surface presentation of the self.” 19 Bordo’s observations can readily be seen in the ready-made or standardized visual images that constitutes Duchamp’s work and also the whole of the industrial world; the ready-made is tangible in all aspects of modern life, including the objects of femininity that are used to create a surface illusion of what it is to be a woman. Rrose bears the photographic surface presentation of a woman because she, paradoxically, visually reproduces all the signifiers of femininity without having to physically embody them as a reality. In the hyperreality of the photographic image – which generates real models without origin or reality 20 – there is a level of perfection that cannot be achieved outside its simulated frame. It is therefore no coincidence that photography is the primary means through which femininity as a readymade cultural object is produced and communicated.

The use of readymade femininity is most evident in the popular culture use of film or publicity stills, which function as fetishistic objects that stand in for the hyperreal movie star. In photographic film stills produced by the film industry, John Ellis states:
The star is tantalizingly close and similar, yet at the same time remote and dissimilar. Further, the star is a legitimate object for the desires of the viewer in so far as the star is like the viewer, and an impossible object for the desire of the viewer in so far as the star is extraordinary, unlike the viewer. There is a complicated game of desires that plays around the figure of the star: every feature in it is counteracted by another feature. The male and female star can be desired by either sex, yet that desire has access to its object only on condition that its object is presented as absent. Desire is both permitted and encouraged, yet knows it cannot achieve any tangible form of satisfaction, except the satisfaction of looking.14

The desire exhibited by Garbo and Duchamp is permitted and encouraged through the mode of still image presentation, the tangible photographic object achieving a hyperreal eroticism that is not possible outside the illusionism of this frame. There is a complicated game of desire being played out within the photograph of Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, a tantalizing closeness resulting from her tightly cropped face that makes her a legitimate object for the desires of spectators. The Hollywood publicity still is not simply a means of promoting and selling films, it is also an active site within modern culture for the production of feminine desire based upon the spectator’s ability to experience this erotic encounter as an act of (visual) consumption, with women being the primary object of this envisioning desire.

Using the conventions of the publicity photograph readily seen in the Garbo image, Duchamp disappears as a subject in order to recreate himself as an object: the photographic Rrose. The photographs of Garbo and Rrose use the seductive gaze of womanliness to create masks that are adorned with readymade signifiers of femininity such as the furs and rings that accentuate their overtly feminine postures. Such classic props, as Barthes refers to those objects that “constantly make the unveiled body more remote,” function as a powerful means of making “the living body return to the category of luxurious objects which surround men with a magical décor.”22 This effect in fact is a key purpose of the publicity still, which is a fetishistic object that distinctly separates the erotic representation from any physically reality. Garbo, considered from this perspective, is a model produced through the processes of photographic image creation that is created without an original “Garbo” – Greta Gustafson being simply the feminine prototype from which Garbo the international icon was formulated. Stated differently, Garbo the movie star is a hyperreal construction that exists through the reproducibility of photographic technology, which makes her become or disappear into the object of the photograph.23 But, whereas Garbo is transformed into an object through the photograph, Duchamp uses the photograph to make the object of Rrose around which there is literally no reality: Rrose is purely hyperreal (infrathin).

The paradox of the movie star is that, in the case of Garbo, the spectator’s experience of eroticism is based on a pretense of the possibility of a real encounter with the object of the image, namely Greta Gustafson. Duchamp forgoes this possibility, instead basing Rrose’s eroticism in the readymade cultural signifiers that are used to produce femininity as a hyperreal state. Rrose is in this way not a photographic representation of feminine eroticism but rather exists as an object of the erotic female stripped bare of any pretense or mask of real or authentic subjectivity.

Georges Bataille points out that it is through objects that we first flirt with sexuality, the photographic object being a key example. He observes:
We thus achieve awareness only by condemning and by refusing to recognize our sexual life. Eroticism is not the only thing to be brushed aside: we have no direct awareness of anything within us that cannot be reduced to the simplicity of things, of solid objects. In the first instance we are clearly conscious only of things, and anything less sharply defined than a physical object is not clearly perceived at first. It is only later that analogy provides us with concepts not possessing the simplicity of a solid object.24

Duchamp is masking the illusion of his gender identity with another mask, one constructed through the significations of femininity with which he as Rrose adorns himself. This dual identity, being both the male Duchamp and the female Rrose, is made possible by the hyperreal space of the photograph, which allows him to escape the physical genital reality of maleness or femaleness and to propose an infra-thin gender position based on the realities of the masquerade.

In Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy , the figure of Rrose is a play of feminine parts that collectively contribute to the creation of a gender and identity while at the same time making us aware of this constructed nature. For example, the fragmented signifiers of the “real” woman’s hands, the fur collar, the hat, the wig, the made-up face of Duchamp all function as parts in an elaborate cultural masquerade. These fragmented effects, however, are visually resolved in the medium of photography, through which the real and/or masquerade is brought into dialogue. Duchamp’s pictorial cross-dressing as Rrose, however, embodies the fragmented process of gender signification as a means of parodying the production of sexual and gender identity. This embracing of the fragmentation of femininity as a cultural product or commodity allows for multiple meanings and, as evidenced in his photograph, opens up possible perspectives that cannot exist in gender roles as they are culturally constituted.

Unlike Garbo’s penetrating gaze, which visually seduces us into her image, Duchamp’s look is drowsily seductive and suspiciously evasive. Rather than an overt sexuality that invites the possibility of an erotic encounter, Duchamp presents a mysterious sexuality that, although playing with the signifiers of femininity, calls our attention to the fact that he is a man masquerading as a woman. In fact, this masquerade is made even more clear by the signature in the lower right corner of the photograph that reads lovingly Rrose Sélavy, alias Marcel Duchamp. Here Duchamp presents the full complexity of this pictorial representation: Duchamp is named as the alias of Rrose and/or Rrose is the alias of Duchamp. More generally, masculinity is presented as a masquerade of femininity and/or femininity is a masquerade of masculinity. Femaleness, according to Bordo, is an artificial constitution the rules of which are learned “directly through bodily discourse: through images that tell us what clothes, body shape, facial expression, movements, and behavior are required.”25 Garbo, although born a woman, was not born feminine and, just like Rrose, has to pose in order to achieve this feminine state. What Duchamp makes obvious with the readymade feminine character of Rrose is that bodily discourse is regulated through a complex network of already existing cultural conceptions of gender and sexual identity, with femininity in particular being powerfully enacted through consumerist enterprises – the film industry representing a key example – that sell the image of the feminine.

Gender and sexuality are projected onto subjects and objects alike, functioning as symbols and signs that subvert and conceal the complex and convoluted reality of identity as a lived state. Identity becomes a floating category, a game to be played by social subjects. As Riviere states in response to her use of “womanliness” as a category: “The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial: they are the same thing.”26 Duchamp draws upon this indifference between genuine womanliness and the “masquerade,” that Riviere highlights, in the (photographic) creation of Rrose, who, at her most basic level, exists as an active questioning of the strictly binary view of gender in modern culture. Both Garbo and Rrose exist through a play with the culturally constructed and disseminated nature of gender, which in both cases supersedes any physical or bodily reality.

On this point, therefore, we can recognize a key distinction between the two photographs. In Garbo as Mata Hari – as well as in most if not all publicity stills – the expression of gender functions through an assumed reality that is projected onto the image, with viewers assuming the persona of “Garbo” to be the same as the person named Greta Gustafson; it is the possibility of this fantasy becoming a reality that is at the heart of these erotic images. The same is not true for Rrose, who exhibits readymade gender signifiers not as a prelude to the real but instead to accentuate the unreality of performed gender roles. In Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp pictures a coming together of the polar categories of male and female in order to produce an ambiguous and dialogic eroticism only possible in the object of the photograph.

1 Greta Garbo, quoted in Alexander Walker, Garbo: A Portrait (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 11.
2 Marcel Duchamp to Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp , trans. Ron Padgett (Cambridge: Da Capo Press. 1987), 64.
3 Roland Barthes, Mythologies , trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 56.
4 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 64.
5 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 21.
6 Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 145.
7Moira Roth, “Marcel Duchamp in America: A Self-readymade,” in Difference / Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1998), 20.
8 Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (New York: Methuen, 1986), 39.
3 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 837.
10 Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994: 168.
11 Duchamp never directly defines the term “infrathin.” Instead, he presents examples of how it functions. As he writes in one of his notes: “infrathin separation – better/ than screen, because it indicates/ interval (taken in one sense) and/ screen (taken in another sense) – separation has the 2 senses male and female.” Marcel Duchamp,Marcel Duchamp, Notes , ed. and trans. Paul Matisse (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980), np.
12 Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 95.
13 Jean Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” in Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 30.
14 Jones,Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 164.
15 Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 147.
16 Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 145.
17 Susan Sontag,On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 52.
18 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 88.
19 Susan Bordo, “From Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: Norton, 2001), 2366.
20 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 2. There is a comparison to be made between Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal and Duchamp’s idea of the infrathin, both of which define a form of simulation as model.
21 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video (London: Routledge, 1992), 98. 22 Barthes, Mythologies, 85.
23 Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” 30.
24 Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 161-162.
25 Bordo, “From Unbearable Weight,” 2366.
26 Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” 39.