Another Look At What We Choose To Emphasize

            The aftermath of Marcel Duchamp’s contribution, and its evolution, touches much that has been interrogated in these posts.  A recent October essay (George Baker, Leather and Lace) “frames” one aspect of Duchamp’s 1920’s work as involving the dialectic of what is framed with the frame (including the frame), and the tension between what is staged with the stage, and what is collected (the secret) with what is exhibited (the revelation). In a Critical Inquiry essay entitled The Cybernetic Unconscious: Rethinking Lacan, Poe, and French Theory, Lydia Liu argues that Lacan was influenced by American cybernetic theory of the 1940’s, particularly game theory. This enters into the distinction of the sociosymbolic and the Real. Much of the “conceptual” emphasis initiated by Duchamp can be situated within an interpretation of code as language, of game theory.

            Who actually wins and who loses are of no import with mathematical endeavor. The dialogical process of the artist with the material that handwork implicates (the craft or skill part of making and doing) is dismissed early on with Duchamp. He relegates this aspect of the aesthetic to that of the “machine” (the manufacturing process necessitated by the definition of an art object). With the value of the doing and making in art being universalized to the repetitiveness and predictability of a machine, of course the game or coded conceptual nature would be of a much greater interest. Here repetitiveness and predictability become components of mathematical process, of systems, gambits, traps, probabilities and inevitabilities. Something appreciated by a chess player like Duchamp. The down side of all this is the guilt by association with imperialism/colonialism implicated by the exclusively winner/loser disposition of games. Without the urgency of an avant garde hierarchy of winners and losers, the value of handwork (craft) within art can reemerge as something other than the necessity of a machine process.

            What an entirely different historical scenario would have been determined if the early dialectic fascination found in Duchamp’s 1920’s work had been with the tension between the Real and the sociosymbolic, between nature (the propensities attributed to DNA) and nurture ( the behavioral modifications and interpretations brought about through knowledge and praxis). With such a shift in emphasis the dialogic process relationship of the artist and the material would maintain some interest and validity rather than be relegated to the mundane reality of the machine. The priority would not have become all “conceptual.” The “thingness” that Heidegger tried to elaborate would still have some say or place within the work of art. Lacking this scenario the conceptual reinforces the position of ownership over that of production. The rupture between the maker and the made, driven by this emphasis on the conceptual, becomes quite complete.

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