Translating the Invisible Wind – Part Twelve

by Geoff Hall on September 9, 2010

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’. 1917.

If as an artist, your work only points to the real, that is, you have been persuaded that one must communicate to an audience only through the phenomena of this life, then all this does is confirm that change is impossible, all you can do is move the furniture around; you cannot change the architecture, nor the infrastructure.

Marcel Duchamp’s famous, but on its public release infamous found object, stands as a turning point in Western Art.  One of his philosophical influences was Henri Poincaré, a Physicist who suggested that the laws which governed matter were simply ‘man-made’ and that ‘The things themselves are not what science can reach…but only the relations between things.  Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality.’ (Quoted in, ‘Duchamp- Art as Anti-art’ by Janis Mink.  Published by Taschen. 2000. p43)  

In the light of this, art cannot tell us anything about the world, it has no epistemic function.  Reality is unknowable and all we can know is a relation ‘between things’.

This is of course problematic, as if we cannot know the ‘things’, then how can we know the relations between them? This very much seems to me where Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics’ is placed, in the interstices, the cracks between things.  It warrants the question that if reality is unknowable, then how can we talk of the relation between various elements.  We can see the effect, but not the cause!  Poincaré’s thought, according to Mink, is the seminal influence on Duchamp’s work from that point in time – the first decade of the 20th Century.  (Duchamp translates this scientific thought into aesthetic form.)

Conceptual art is based on such ‘insights’. If bourgeois values & virtues along with their communication through art are to be undermined, then the spell of this purported illusion is broken by the ‘found object’; the object of everyday reality, not of virtues and values alien to proletarian life.  Art as anti-art then stands as the epitome of this art practice.  What Duchamp achieves through everyday objects is to show the conceptual relation between things, how various objects interact/react to one another, or how they react to one another when held together by a concept.  It is the art of scepticism and concept, materialism and atomisation; it is realism per se.  All that is solid melts into the air!

If you are someone who believes that reality and its creator are knowable, then you cannot embrace this point-of-view and its art-form uncritically.  If you are active in conceptual art, then your work should be on the basis of questioning the presuppositions and assumptions of Duchamp (and Dada) and undermine their influence.  If however, you wish to show a different form of art practice, then consider perceptual art forms.

In the next instalment, we will look at perceptual art and some of the possibilities it holds for the spiritual artist; the artist who understands that the spiritual informs the material.

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