Is art the domain of the eye as we address it as visual, something to be admired through the retina or it has larger service for the mind? With the first wave of modernism came Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) which prescribed an understanding of beauty that dominated the museum sensibilities throughout nineteenth century. It believed in “disinterestedness”, that is, Art is supposed to be different from the purposeful, the utility and devoid of territorial context. Art is what can be universally admired! It heavily rested on the eye, the retinal perception of “form” in the work of art.1. Famous photograph of Marcel Duchamp, depicting the artist playing chess with nude Eve Babitz., at the opening of his first major solo show at Pasandena Museum of Art, 1963.
However, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) a French artist born in Blainville- Crenon, France produced Etant Donnes that was placed in the museum space in order to critique its judgment, demystify art from its magical connotations and deconstruct the notions beauty. His works influenced the course of post World War I Western Art, tremendously. Having experimented with variety of styles of cubism, surrealism, his works are determinately discussed in context of Dadaism of which he was a founder member. Remembered as a landmark in the history of western art and influenced trends like Conceptual Art, Pop Art and so on later, his works often contested many conventional thoughts about artistic processes and art marketing.
His art challenged the notion of art as something to be “created and crafted”, to be true to its medium, purifying its means, maintaining aesthetic distance from the consumable and the material. He demanded the “found” objects to be also considered- art, as art must incorporate the dominant modes of social production. In this respect he presented “Fountain”, a urinal before the Society of Independent Artist in 1917; however, it was rejected by the panel insisting that it was not “Art”. It led to an uproar amongst the Dadaist and series of “Readymade” as art works by Duchamp. He advocated that art is an
attitude and a way of working rather than a practice or a product. He insisted and states clearly that it was not his intention to make ‘a painting for the eyes’ but a painting for the service of the mind.
This brings about a very crucial understanding of viewing. It made the viewer to understand and question art and aesthetic meaning by attempting to demolish the difference between “the mundane” and “the artistic”. To stretch it a bit further, he extended the very body in the work of art, from something that needs “to be created” to something “found”.
In course of his several works are two very different works that we shall talk about here in reference to body and view: The famous photograph of Marcel Duchamp, depicting the artist playing chess with nude Eve Babitz., at the opening of his first major solo show at Pasandena Museum of Art, 1963 and Etant Donnes. The latter is said to have begun in 1946, done secretly and intended to make it public in 1969, the year following his death. Both the works perhaps also become significant and the first example of performance and installation genre, respectively. By 1960’s Picasso’s reputation had become eclipsed by Duchamp’s.
The two works incorporates nudes, a well admired tradition in the west, in a very different way where the spectator’s role is highlighted in a witty way. Etant Donnes also includes landscape, another established genre. It consists of a battered door through which the spectator peers via eye holes at a floodlit tableau. This consists of a mannequin, representing a naked female, lying open-legged in an artificial landscape. She holds aloft a lamp, confounding an initial sense that she has been violated. The spectator view point is enforced to ensure a shocking view through a hole. There is also a manual that lay guidelines to view the work. The viewer is enforced into a position that is directed by the artist. While they peep into the hole to see the erotic spectacle, he or she is exposed to being viewed by the third person in the gallery space. Thus, the viewer becomes part of body that was to be judged by them. In a way the painting comments over the role of spectatorship, the aesthetic tradition and the male gaze through the placement and use of female bodies in both the works.2. Etant Donnes: La chute d’eau (The Waterfall) & 3. La gaz d’eclairage (The Illuminating Gas)
Duchamp has also lectured in 1957, “The Creative Act”, where he argued that the work of art is not performed by the artist alone and that the spectator’s point of view affects the all- important ‘transubstantiation’ of inert matter into art. The nude body of Eve Babitz and the artist himself are real bodies participating in an act as viewed by the viewers. The body here has partially left the reference of an individual and has become a part of the artistic tradition of nude. She is neither ‘The Venus’ of Titian, who graciously offers her body to its “male” spectator; nor is it ‘Olympia’ of Manet, who tilts away from the spectator and confronts the “male” gaze. Instead, he questions the unequal relationship by placing the female opposite to him, playing chess in the photograph and by making the nude body in Etant Donnes a horrific site as contrast to pleasure.4. The Venus of Urbino by Titian c. 1487-15765. Olympia by Manet 1832-1883
- After Modern Art 1945-2000, Hopkins David, Oxford University Press, 2000
- A World History of Art, Seventh Edition, Honour Hugh & Fleming John, Laurence King, 1982
- Ways of Seeing, Berger John, Penguin, 1973
- Art Since 1900, Foster Hal, Krauss Rosalind and others, Thames & Hudson, 2004