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Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

17 October 2011


Aucune demande ne nettoie l’ignorant ou scié teneur; toutefois, étant données quelques cages, c’eut une profonde emotion qu’éxécutent toutes colles alitées.

—Marcel Duchamp, Rendezvous of Sunday 6th February 1916
I begin with my presuppositions. If these are trivial, as the philosophers say, all the better.
1. Aesthetics has nothing to do with whether or not something is art.
2. Good art feels good.
3. All art is social, which is to say intersubjective.
4. All art-making is a question of form and expression.
5. All art is made art.
Aesthetics is the red-headed stepchild of philosophy and art criticism. Pulsing in the electric nexus of thought, feeling, culture, and commerce, “art” presents philosophy’s trickiest questions in their slipperiest forms. From Zeuxis’s birds to Warhol’s Brillo boxes, from Aeschylus’s chanting choephoroi to James Franco’s performance artist “Franco” on the daytime soap opera General Hospital, the form of the made raises questions of meaning, politics, epistemology, and ontology that may not only be insoluble, but perhaps unaskable. What is art? What is real? What is form? What is good?

The most interesting approach to aesthetics I’ve come across in a while is Ellen Dissanyake’s bioevolutionary argument that art-making is a biological activity of the human animal. For Dissanyake, art-making is—along with ritual and play—one of the forms of “making special,” which she sees as the human propensity for a complex behavior that involves social attunement, metaphysical marking, and meaning-making. Art, then, is necessarily extraordinary—it involves marking something as “outside,” “above,” or “beyond”—meta or pata—yet is the most ordinary thing in the world. In fact, insofar as art for Dissanayake is fundamentally engaged in social behaviors of attunement and entrainment, art is precisely the metaphysical dialectic of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Dissanayake and Duchamp make an obvious pairing. No one in the western art tradition since Leonardo Da Vinci has so clearly demonstrated the essential character of art-making as an activity unwed to any particular genre, object, or techne. The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. Whether the “transfiguration of the commonplace” effected by Duchamp’s Fountain signals the end of art in a Hegelian sense, as Arthur Danto argues, in that it means the subject of art is now no more than itself and art-making has become mere philosophy, is something we might talk about—though if we do so, it should be with proper awareness of the deeply provincial nature of such teleological claims. The Entire History of Western Art is epiphenomenal insofar as it is not merely fictive, and if we intend to use & abuse history we should at least be up front about it.

I will return to Dissanayake’s argument at the end of this, hopefully making myself a fair advocate for an idea that might seem prima facie a touch wobbly and goofy. Before we get there, though, we must consider what is given—étant données.

Phenomenology of the Voyeur

Off the main room, where stands the stripped bride in her broken glass, the dimly lit gray alcove beckons enchantingly. We are led to expect something—a film? A wunderkammer? A jack-in-the-box?

No. A wall of weathered wood, like an old barn, with two eyeholes cut in, out of which gleams at odd angles an obscure light. Look, it says, peek.

Who can resist putting their eye to the hole? Excitement and anticipation build as you creep closer, wonder promises sublimity, transcendence flickers at the edge of something imagined—the erotic touch of the object on your gaze, epicurean film shooting into your eye, suggests as the light floods your vision something transgressive, something holy.

What are we to make, then, of the corpse-like mannequin within? A naked female body, face obscured and hairless sex exposed, lying in fake grass, holding a fake lamp, while in the pseudo-distance a fake waterfall glitters. Her legs are spread in a clear gesture of erotic abandon, and she lies slightly off-center in the tacky diorama, slightly below, putting the viewer in the position of sexual dominance. Through the peepholes, another wall, broken open, frames the view, creating a yonic tunnel of light.

And? Is this voyeurism or its critique? The evacuation of the retinal shudder? Is it supposed to be so banal? The chat on the wall and the book on the bench make a point of the Etant donnée's scandalousness, which is perplexing. A naked woman being subject to the white male artist’s gaze—representing some transcendent truth, or even its fragility—hardly seems groundbreaking. She sang beyond the genius of the barn… Even if we take Etant données as a critique of said phallogocentric gaze, which is a reading that would have to be argued for, it is hard to credit its impact in 1969. Five years previous, before Duchamp had even finished the piece, Caroline Schneeman had orchestrated Meat Joy—several partially nude people dancing and playing with various objects including raw meat—and Yoko Ono had performed Cut Piece—where she invited audience to cut her dress off her body. Fluxus was in full swing. Louise Bourgeois was hard at work in near-obscurity. Maya Deren had been dead for eight years.

Now, maybe none of the work of these artists would have been possible without Duchamp’s anarchic blagueries, and maybe a feminist critique of Duchamp’s relentlessly masculinist and even misogynist oeuvre is one of the less interesting ways to approach his work. It is worth noting here, momentarily, that for Duchamp what is provocative about his Nude Descending a Staircase is its disrespectfulness toward the (female) nude (Cabanne 44), and it is impossible to miss his repeated expressions of hostility toward marriage as the enemy of creativity. From Nude Descending to Fountain—a womb-shaped, disattached porcelain object men piss in—to the Bride Stripped Bare to Etant données, Duchamp rehearses one of the classic moves of “western art”—the objectification of women—with invention, brio, wit, and style.

What I am perplexed about is how Etant donées does anything more than that. Maybe it’s not supposed to. Maybe that’s the joke.


When I first moved to New York in 2006, after getting out of the Army, I worked as a dog runner for a company called Running Paws. Sometimes they offered us the chance to pick up a few extra bucks dog-sitting and that winter, before going away for the break, I took on a gig dog-sitting a young pitbull for this woman in Soho. She wanted me to stay in her apartment with the dog while she was away, which I was fine with; the only weird thing was that her apartment was at the back of the office of the foundation she ran, an organization called Art Science Research Laboratory. According to their website, Art Science Research Laboratory, “is committed to the creation of intellectual environment and advocacy of interdisciplinary study, encompassing the areas of research, collections and publishing.”

They also have the largest collection of Duchamp’s works in the United States. At night there, after the offices closed and after taking the dog for a walk through the snowy streets of Soho, streets packed with shoppers coming in and out of chic boutiques I couldn’t even afford to look into, I’d come back to the shadowy loft and marvel at the countless still, impotent wheels upended on their stools, missing their bicycles, rising in the dark against the forest of useless, armless shovels hanging from the ceiling.

What is Art?

There’s a direct lineage from Duchamp to Warhol to Jeff Koons: art that is not “art,” art that is tasteless, tacky, aggressively banal, drawn from the cold hard shelves of the world, pulled from the mass-produced commodity circus forever. Duchamp and Koons both show a sensual, erotic (or pornographic) side in their work, in its materiality and content, that is absent in Warhol’s affectless mimesis, but what all three share is a sheer nonchalance about the social value of what they do. Art-making is reduced to a commodity game, the clever trick of turning detritus—garbage—toilets—shit into gold.

This sort of thing deeply bothers Dissanayake, whose otherwise thoughtful book Homo Aestheticus is marred by her repeated digressions lamenting postmodernism, which she sees as “cynical and nihilistic.” She claims that many if not most people find postmodern art “puzzling, if not shocking and offensive,” which is only tenable if you ignore popular culture as a font of art-making. Dissanayake’s view of art is shaped by her ethological and even anthropological insistence on the biological function of the human animal, which is the strength of her argument. That she insists on reading “postmodernism” (broadly construed) as a failure to adapt, rather than as an attempt at problem-solving, is an accidental weakness.

I must confess another presupposition. I believe artists are the antennae of the species. Non-utilitarian imaginative free play allows the vatic and the visionary to peer into the future, to unspool fantasies of what might be, to create space idols we might worship and work toward, to recognize the weave in the carpet, and to limn the possibilities of the present. Hence, while I share Dissanayake’s concern for the ongoing crisis that mass industrialization and urbanization simply is for the human species, I don’t share her despair toward the artistic efforts arising out of that crisis. Where she sees reactivity, I see activity. Where she sees reflection, I see vision—or at least the attempt.

Maybe the species is in fact confronting its doom, and the only real task left is to register that fact. We won’t know until it happens. In the meantime, we can only repeat the mantra of that great Enlightenment rationalist, Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

But I wonder if we’re failing. I want to return to the question of the ordinary and the extraordinary in Dissanayake’s register, to ask what it means to shift the focus of “making special” from objects to relations, from novelty to detritus, from the human to the system.

Toward the end of Homo Aestheticus, Dissanayake writes:

Regarding art as a behavior—an instance of “making special”—shifts the emphasis from the modernist’s view of art as object or quality or the postmodernist’s view of it as text or commodity to the activity itself (the making or doing and appreciating), which is what it is in many premodern societies where the object is essentially an occasion for or an accoutrement to ceremonial participation.

“Making special” is fundamental human proclivity or need. We cook special meals and wear special garb for important occasions. We find special ways of saying important things. Ritual and ceremony are occasions during which everyday life is shaped and embellished to become more than ordinary. What modern artists do, in their specialized and often driven way, is an exaggeration, an extension of what ordinary people also do, naturally and with enjoyment. Looked at in this way, art, the activity of making the things one cares about special, is fundamental to everyone and, as in traditional societies, deserves to be acknowledged as normal. And normal, socially valuable activities should be encouraged and developed (223).
I buy almost all of this, and none of it seems particularly alien to “postmodernism” in theory, if not in practice, until you get to that last bit where “normal” and “socially valuable” are synonymous. Because if there is any single truth to the contemporary condition, it is that “normal” as we understand it—as Dissanayake seems to understand it—as the verities of agricultural human society—is a thing of the past. All that is solid has melted into air. We still have norms, of course, and cultures, and so on, but the two key characteristics of mass industrial global capitalist society are change and exchange.

This Heraclitan flux is deeply threatening to long-held humanistic notions of individuality, democracy, beauty, order, selfhood, society, god, the world, etc. What’s more, we have no idea how to drag animal man and animal woman into the 21st century, or what kinds of values we need in this new world, or how we can reconcile the rapacity of capitalism with the deep human need for social welfare and cohesion. Assuming, of course, we survive the imminent environmental and economic catastrophes.

Yet perhaps Duchamp’s urinal is an apt symbol for our regeneration. The toilet is also a fountain, and vice versa, tomb and womb: creation is destruction, life is death. What’s more, the urinal is an object of waste but also a waste object: detached from the wall, it’s useless, just garbage. Duchamp, by making garbage special, opens the door to not just recycling, but to a new vision of humanity: not the conquering Faust of modernity’s ascension, but the recovering flâneur of modernity’s totalization. We shall make rag-picking special. We shall make garbage special. We shall make the untouchable and the tainted special. Because these are the central human concerns in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: how the hell do we all live together crowded on this rock, and what do we do with all our shit. Finally, Fountain is nothing but a piece of plumbing: an object that only functions as part of a system, that only works in a deep network of forces and flows.

Combining Dissanyake’s species-centric view of art and Duchamp’s post-humanist artworks allow us to consider the possibilities art-making might offer for making the world, the weather, the social, and the environment special, metaphysically urgent, and utterly necessary. Certain things we take as ordinary must be made to be seen, must be made extraordinary, must be the focus of our attention. We must begin with what is given: 1) the waterfall; 2) the illuminating gas.

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