This book is a significant re-thinking of Duchamp's importance in the twenty-first century, taking seriously the readymade as a critical exploration of object-oriented relations under the conditions of consumer capitalism.
The readymade is understood as an act of accelerating art as a discourse, of pushing to the point of excess the philosophical precepts of modern aesthetics on which the notion of art in modernity is based. Julian Haladyn argues for an accelerated Duchamp that speaks to a contemporary condition of art within our era of globalized capitalist production.
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This is a book not only about ideas of accelerationism but a specifically Duchampian form of accelerationist aesthetics. If, as Steven Shaviro suggests, accelerationism is “the argument that the only way out is through,” that overcoming globalized capitalism requires not a withdrawal from it but rather an act of pushing “it to its most extreme point” – which he states is “an aesthetic program first, before it can be a political one” – Duchampian accelerationism describes a specific speeding up of the logic underlying modern aesthetics.2 It proposes an alternative vision of the notion of accelerating culture, still grounded within a critical approach to capitalist practice, but one that is enacted in and through the concept of the readymade – a mode of artistic production initiated in the early 20th century by Marcel Duchamp.
While regularly viewed as objects of criticism – the readymade challenged the institutional power of the museum to transform an object into ‘art’ – the acceptability of this mode of art making, which has since become a ubiquitous component in contemporary art practices, has rendered this critique a thing of the past; historical at best, at worst mere art history. What does the idea of (almost) putting a pseudonymously signed urinal in an exhibition, an act that took place 100 years ago, say in a world of rampant appropriation and self-conscious, even self-congratulatory simulation? How can the readymade, particularly when associated with the historical personage of the modernist artist Marcel Duchamp, have relevance in a day and age when virtually all aspects of our lives are beholden to ready-made products, ready-made experiences, ready-made meanings?
Yet it is this quality of the readymade that is too often overlooked. As a mode of creation, it mimics precisely what we as consumers perpetually do within consumerist society: we choose from the multitude of already existing objects (pre-made en masse for the masses) to express our ‘self’. The readymade is not an early 20th-century critique of art – it may have been at one time, but no more. What the readymade has been and continues to be is an act of accelerating art as a discourse, of pushing to the point of excess the philosophical precepts of modern aesthetics on which the notion of art in modernity is based. Duchampian accelerationism is a new way of thinking about objects and art objects within our era of globalized capitalist production.
We begin on the level of the object. To be considered a readymade in the artistic sense, a work must consist primarily or exclusively of an already existing or pre-constructed object, which the work’s creator(s) have not produced by their own hands. The artist’s act of creation is shifted away from the material production of an object – the physical action of painting a painting or sculpting a sculpture – becoming instead grounded in the moment of an artist’s choice of this or that object.
For Duchamp, this meant a parade of mass-produced objects from everyday life that he chose to be ‘readymades’: a wooden stool and a bicycle wheel, a reproduction of an artwork, a snow shovel, a cattle comb, a typewriter cover, a urinal, a bottle rack, a coat rack, a hat rack, a bathing cap and a birdcage, among others. More contemporary enactments of the ready-made aesthetic push this idea of the artist’s choice to various extremes – including, as in the case of Sherrie Levine’s photographs After Walker Evans from the 1980s, the choice of photographing an already existing photograph (of appropriation) or, as in Maurizio Cattelan’s formation of a soccer team of North African migrants in Italy A.C. Forniture Sud (1991), the choice of recruiting human beings as readymades. Such extensions provide a radical reading of Duchamp’s own criteria for selecting his readymades: “The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste … in fact a complete anesthesia.”1
We are a bit ahead of ourselves, but what is important to acknowledge is that the object that will be the readymade exists in the world in some manner, serving a function and all but indifferent to the label ‘art’, before the artist’s act of choosing it. With this choice, the object becomes schizophrenic. While the person creating the readymade may alter the already existing item, perhaps in significant and personal ways, at its base the original ‘indifferent’ object chosen by the artist remains at the core of the work and working process.
If we take as an example Pharmacy (1914) (see Figure 2), the object used to create this readymade is a mass-produced chromolithograph of a painted winter landscape at night that Duchamp informs us he purchased – three copies in fact – in an art supply store in Rouen. “It was a commercial print reproduced in thousands of copies, and thus it had the same character as a manufactured object,” Duchamp says to Arturo Schwarz.2 Consisting primarily of bare trees, some stylized flora and a small body of water in the foreground, this traditionally ‘beautiful’ scene appears to emerge out of the neutral space of the supporting surface, in this case the paper stock of the commercial print, which is also used to denote the snow covering the ground.
Of the original artist, there are visible initials in the bottom left within the stylized vegetation that begin with ‘S’ and end with ‘N’ (see Figure 3); in the middle is most likely ‘de’. While much of the existing literature indicates that this is the work of an unknown artist, some scholars have suggested it is by the Swiss artist Sophie de Niederhausern, which corresponds to the signature.3 I agree with this suggestion, especially given a comparison between this print and Niederhausern’s landscapes reproduced in the 1894 calendar issued by Damond, Coulin & Cie., which show very similar compositions and painting styles, as well as the artist signing her work with ‘S de N’.
Figure 3 Sophie de Niederhausern, Calendrier pour 1894, view of Janvier. Lithograph booklet, published by Damond, Coulin & Cie. 21.5 x 15.3 cm.
Photo by Julian Jason Haladyn.
Images such as this winter landscape were made available for beginning and amateur artists to copy from, a traditional means of learning artistic techniques and compositions. That Duchamp would choose this object, from an art supply store no less, can be – and has been – interpreted in various ways. What is important for us is to recognize that his choice, since he obviously was not planning on using the image to ‘learn’ or copy from, plays upon his sense of visual indifference to this type of painting (qua reproduction) and approach to art.
To this already existing (‘cheap’) reproduction of a winter landscape Duchamp added two small dabs of paint on the horizon, slightly off-centred in between the trees: red on the left and yellow and/or green on the right.4 As Duchamp himself notes on several occasions, the two colours make reference to a traditional image of pharmacies, which in France often displayed bottles of coloured water, red and green characteristically, in their windows.5 Hence his title, Pharmacy, which he writes in the lower right-hand corner of the print followed by his full name (Marcel Duchamp), with the year of the work just below. This textual material and the two dots are the only elements separating this object from the multitude of identical images of the winter landscape produced in this batch of reproductions.
While it is typical to focus attention on the differences that distinguish Duchamp’s ‘art’ object from the original object used, I want to first discuss the similarities in these two states. At the base both are produced as part of a series of practically indistinguishable objects that are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable. The facts that Duchamp would re-reproduce Pharmacy in two additional versions, for his Boîte-en-valise (1935–1941) and for the 1945 deluxe edition of View magazine, and that these re-reproductions have been at times treated in the Duchampian literature as if they were the original 1914 version point to the extent of this interchangeability (on an historical scale) – the hallmark of a ready-made mode of artistic production. The point is that if Duchamp bought a copy of the winter landscape in two separate art supply stores, even in different cities or countries, both versions of the object would provide the same experience, quite literally allowing him to remake his readymade with, similarly, little to no difference from a previous version.
Like the mass-produced objects that constitute the bulk of them, the readymades are for the most part equally (in potential) reproducible. If Duchamp’s sisters threw one of his readymades in the trash, Bottle Rack (1914) for instance, he could go to a store or send someone else in his place, purchase another bottle drying rac...
Table of contents
Citation styles for Duchamp, Aesthetics and Capitalism
APA 6 Citation
Haladyn, J. J. (2019). Duchamp, Aesthetics and Capitalism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1476834/duchamp-aesthetics-and-capitalism-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Haladyn, Julian Jason. (2019) 2019. Duchamp, Aesthetics and Capitalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1476834/duchamp-aesthetics-and-capitalism-pdf.
Haladyn, J. J. (2019) Duchamp, Aesthetics and Capitalism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1476834/duchamp-aesthetics-and-capitalism-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Haladyn, Julian Jason. Duchamp, Aesthetics and Capitalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.