Tag Archives: ready-made


Why is Duchamp intent on abolishing “retinality”?

Explanations that dwell on his animus toward painters and painting miss the point.

I would suggest that underlying Duchamp’s opposition to retinality and his invention of the ready-made is the realization that the aesthetic qualities of the art object no longer determine its value in a society in which exchange value has supplanted every other value. The ready-made is, perhaps, the boldest demonstration that rarity is the fundamental determinant of exchange value and that rarity can attach itself to any object by the mere fact of its being nominated (signed) as unique entity. Significantly, Duchamp, took care to refrain (like central bankers who are cautious not to overexpand the money supply) from conferring the status of ready-made promiscuously. The ready-made would seem to confer upon the nominating artist the power of the Midas touch. But a wise Midas knows not to make gold common.

Like Nietzsche in relation to the Christian god, Duchamp does not kill the aesthetic object as much as reveal it to be already dead. The aesthetic object cannot survive the commodity form because once the latter envelops the aesthetic object, it is the worthiness of the object to function as an instrument of financial speculation that comes to the fore. And this worthiness is conferred by the irrational whims of speculators not by qualities intrinsic to the object. It is the activity of speculation itself that this privileged object comes to embody. A debt, a house, a work of art—anything at all can function as a speculative instrument if it can be made to embody the possibility of speculative profit.

The ready=made is art’s abrupt and traumatic recognition of this truth. Authorship of the art object no longer belongs to the artist. It has been seized by the larger forces that determine its speculative value. It is is in this very precise sense that a death of the author occurs. The artist remains the originator of the work but reduced to the lowly status of one of Duchamp’s bachelors in the Large Glass, whose ejaculations can only reach the Bride via the interpretive mediation of the viewer. The prominent role assigned to the viewer as co-creator in Duchamp’s work and that of other anti-authorial authors should really be understood as a sophisticated understanding of how the commodity form functions. The emptier the object, the better it can operate as pure commodity

Duchamp’s desublimation of the art object updates realism to encompass not merely “real” objects but more importantly the network of social relations in which they participate as tokens of exchange.