Sunday, March 17, 2013

Marcel Duchamp was a great artist, maybe the single greatest artist of the 20th century.  But unlike almost all of his admirers, and every one of his detractors, I don't think that he invented a new kind of art.  Rather, I think he called attention to a category that I will call, after my friend Roger Seamon, "the conceptual dimension in art," which is already more or less present in all art, even depictive art.  I think it has been necessary for various 20th-c. avant-gardes to conceive of Duchamp's readymades as inaugurating a decisive break, or rupture, with the depictive arts, but I don't believe this accurately describes how these objects actually function in the world.  The typewriter case, urinal, bottle rack and shovel are still legible as sculptures, though only an idiot would describe and evaluate them solely on the basis of their plastic, or physical, attributes.  They are probably better described as objects which contain, or gesture toward, a "conceptual dimension" that is not physically present in the work, but which remains an integral part of it.  The depictive and literary arts handle this problem under the category of "allegory." See Benjamin's Origin of German Tragic Drama, or, more recently, the writings of Robert Smithson, who read Benjamin closely and usefully on this point.

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