Excerpts from “The Castle of Purity” by Octavio Paz, 1966

Today we have criticism instead of ideas, methods instead of systems. Our only idea, in the proper sense of the term, is Criticism. The Large Glass is a painting of ideas because, as I think I have shown, it is a critical myth. But if it was only this, it would merely be one work more and the enterprise would be partially abortive. I should underline the fact this it is also and above all the Myth of Criticism ; it is the painting of the only modern idea. Critical myth : criticism of the religious and erotic myth of the Bride-Virgin in terms of modern mechanical development and, simultaneously, a myth that burlesques our idea of science and technology. Myth of Criticism : painting-monument that relates one moment of the incarnations of Criticism in the world of objects and erotic relationships.

Being a public painter is not the same as being popular. Art, for Duchamp, is a secret and should be shared and passed on like a message between conspirators. Let us listen to him : “Today painting has become vulgarized to the utmost degree… While no one has the nerve to intervene in a conversation between mathematicians, we listen every day to after-dinner dissertations on the value of this painter or that… The production of an epoch is always its mediocrity. What is not produced is always better than what is.”

The history of modern painting, from the Renaissance to our own times, could be described as the gradual transformation of the work of art into an artistic object : a transition from vision to perceptive thing. The Readymades were a criticism both of taste and of the object. The Large Glass is the last genuinely meaningful work of the West ;i it is meaningful because by assuming the traditional meaning of painting, which is absent from retinal art, it dissolves it in a circular process and in this way affirms it. With it our tradition comes to an end. Or, rather, the painting of the future will have to begin with it and by confronting it, if painting has a future or the future a painting… Since the Second World War the process has accelerated ; painting and sculpture have been converted, like the other products of industrial society, into consumer goods. We are witnessing the end of the “perceptible thing,” of retinal painting reduced to optical manipulation. What distinguished modern from classical art was — from Romantic irony to the humor of Dada and the Surrealists — the alliance of criticism and creation ; the eradication of the critical element from works of art is the equivalent to a veritable castration, and the abolition of meaning confronts us with a production no less insignificant, although much more numerous, than that of the retinal period. Finally, our epoch has replaced the old notion of recognition with the idea of publicity, but publicity dissipates into general anonymity. It is the revenge of criticism.

The value of a picture, a poem, or any other artistic creation is in proportion to the number of signs or meanings that we can see in it and the possibilities that it contains for combining them. A work is a machine for producing meanings. In this sense Duchamp’s idea is not entirely false: the picture depends on the spectator because only he can set in motion the apparatus of signs that comprises the whole work. This is the secret of the fascination of the Large Glass and the Readymades. Both of them demand an active contemplation, a creative participation. They make us and we make them. In the case of the Readymades the relation is not one of fusion but of opposition ; they are objects made against the public, against ourselves. By one means or another Duchamp affirms that the work is not a museum piece. Is is not an object of adoration nor is it useful ; it is an object to be invented and created. His interest — indeed, his admiration and nostalgia — for the religious painters of the Renaissance has the same origin. Duchamp is against the museum, not against the cathedral ; against the “collection,” not against an art that is founded on life. Once more Apollinaire has hit the mark : Duchamp’s purpose is to reconcile art and life, work and spectator. But the experience of other epochs cannot be repeated and Duchamp knows it. Art that is founded in life is socialized art, not social or socialist art ; and still less is it an activity dedicated to the production of beautiful or purely decorative objects. Art founded in life means a poem by Mallarmé or a novel by Joyce ; it is the most difficult art. An art that obliges the spectator or the reader to become himself an artist and a poet.

To think that Duchamp is a vulgar nihilist is sheer stupidity : “I love the world ‘believe.’ Normally when people say I know, they don’t know what they are saying ; they believe that they know. I believe that art is the only activity by which man shows himself as an individual. By this activity he can transcend his animal nature — art opens onto regions that are not bound by time or space. To live is to believe — at least that is what I believe.

His friend Roché has compared him with Diogenes, and the comparison is correct. Like the cynic philosopher and like all of the very limited number of men who have dared to be free, Duchamp is a clown. Freedom is not knowledge but what one has become after knowledge. It is a state of mind that not only admits contradiction but seeks it out for its nourishment and as a foundation. The saints do not laugh, nor do they make us laugh, but the truly wise men have no other mission than to make us laugh with their thoughts and make us think with their buffoonery.

The end of artistic activity is not the finished work but freedom. The work is the road and nothing more. This freedom is ambiguous, or rather conditional ; we can lose it at any moment, above all if we take ourselves and our work too seriously.

Why study Duchamp ? Because Duchamp Virgil is my lawyer.
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  1. What, no room for Rothko ?