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Duchamp’s Failure
Goenawan Mohamad

Difference as an intense moment of (re)discovery is what art is all about. To find out about it you don’t have to go to a big exhibition hall filled with works of diverse painters like this Jakarta Biennale. Even a pisser, in the hands of an aesthete, can serve as a powerful reminder of the tenuousness of indifference.

Of course I am referring to the legendary urinal of Marcel Duchamp, a “real aesthete”, as Robert Lebel, the author of Sur Marcel Duchamp, once called him. The story of his Fountain is well-documented in art history books. Signed under a different name, entered for the Society of Independent Artists show in New York in 1917, and irately refused by the committee, it has since succeeded in becoming the world’s most celebrated ready-made object. It has become a work of art.

Yet its very success is a story of a flop. Duchamp’s original plan to make it into “a distraction” missed the mark. Years later he would say of the mundane objects put outside their usual, functional context and exhibited as pop art or Dadaist pieces: “The fact that they are regarded with the same reverence as objects of art probably means that I have failed to solve the problem of trying to do away with art.”

Trying to do away with art, for him, was to stop living as an artist. As historians describe it, when Duchamp worked in Walter Arensberg’s home after arriving in New York in 1915, he refused the many offers from art galleries scrambling to exhibit his works. It was as if he wanted to escape from his own fame following his much-publicized work, Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, in 1912. He did not want to be a full-time painter; spent his time attending chess games; and, to support himself, gave French lessons. Among his very few “works” performed during this period was an ordinary bicycle wheel turned upside down and mounted on a kitchen stool; in 1913, he announced it to the world as, of course, Bicycle Wheel.

But Duchamps’ intent to signal the end of art – and not just the kind of post-auratic art Benjamin speaks about – was doomed to fail. A urinal or a bicycle loses its quality as equipment as soon as the artist divests it from its usefulness and reliability. “Reliability” is what Heidegger, who ponderously discusses the origin of the work of art, pins down as “an essential being of the equipment”. Taken away from it, the urinal, now called Fountain, is stripped of its previous role as a pisser; it ceases giving the “world” its “reliability” and “security”.

Heidegger’s thesis, despite its rambling prose, provides a good conceptual framework to examine Duchamp’s aesthetics (or his denial of it). Writing about the origin of the work of art, the author of Being and Time points out that “the production of equipment is finished when a material has been so formed as to be ready for use”. Now we understand why Fountain has something unfinished about it – something that has transformed it into a subject of endless discussion among critics, historians and philosophers. Right after Duchamp used it as a provocative sign and presented it to the New York’s Society of Independent Artists, it departed from, to use Heidegger’s words, the “boringly obtrusive usualness” of “use-things” falling into disuse. Fifty years after the show, Duchamp recalled, “I threw the urinal in their faces and now they admire it for its aesthetic beauty."

Duchamp should have known why. The urinal, or the bicycle, is admired or distinguished as a work of art once it has the distinction of having been created. The “createdness” of the object makes it separate from things “made”. It is true that the Greeks use the same word techne for craft and art, but Heidegger warns us that the word denotes also “a mode of knowing”. The nature of knowing consists of aletheia, that is, “the uncovering of beings”.

Obviously, this has something to do with “truth”, albeit one quite different from the way “truth” happens in science. “Science”, Heidegger argues, “is not an original happening of truth, but always the cultivation of the domain of truth already opened”. In the work of art, there is no truth “already opened”. What prevails, according to Heidegger, is truth that is “un-truth”, insofar as there belongs to it “the reservoir of the not-yet-uncovered”. In other words, the truth of the artwork is present “only as the conflict between lighting and concealing”.

But the conflict is not a rift; rather, it is “the intimacy with which opponents belong to each other”. Heidegger even speaks of the rift (Riss) as “a basic design”. In other words, this rift “does not let the opponents break apart; it brings the opposition of measure and boundary into their common outline.” In figure, shape, or Gestalt, there is an element of “strife” that is fixed, immutable, or is in place. As I see it, what Heidegger may be straining to argue is that in the work of art as Gestalt there is always tension between the revealing and the guarding of the undisclosed. In its basic design there is always the tension between “the Open” and “the reservoir of the truth not-yet-uncovered.” In other words, art is about “movement and happening”. In fact, Heidegger defines art as “the becoming and happening of truth”, or, in his typically convoluted words, “the setting-into-work of truth”.

Fountain and Bicycle Wheel, losing their “readiness of equipment”, bring themselves into such tension and ambiguity. They “thrust up the unfamiliar and extraordinary” and “thrust down the ordinary and what we believe to be such.” They become works of art much like the Greek temple in Heidegger’s essay that “opens up a world and at the same time sets this world back again on earth.”

Ultimately Duchamp failed to create out of his pieces absolute, foolproof, ready-mades. They are no longer a commonplace, familiar things wrapped, as it were, in sameness. In 1917, when Duchamp defended Fountain on the pages of The Blind Man, it was promoted for its aesthetic properties. In 1960s, when it was finally accepted as an aesthetic object, Duchamp, somewhat puckishly, stressed its functional origin.


Still, one can discuss Duchamp’s failure from yet another angle. Both his urinal and the bicycle wheel are similar to signs cited and put between quotation marks: they break with every given context and engender an infinite number of new contexts.

Ultimately, none has the ultimate say of its true meaning. There is a quote attributed to Duchamp, that art is “like a shipwreck…it's everyman for himself”. On another occasion he insisted that one should think of an artist as vegetation, or, to be more precise, as an “almond tree that blossoms”. Simply put, the artist is no master of the work. In an interview published in Le Surréalisme, meme in 1955, Duchamp said that it is “the onlookers” (les regardeurs, printed in capital letters) who make the paintings. As such, her/his work is akin to a plea, or an amorphous project of which she/he does not her/himself know the content and which she/he submits to others for approval.

Fountain was obviously such a project. One of the reasons it was not selected for the 1917 show was precisely because of the artist’s absence; the urinal was what is now called a "found object," implying something not physically made by the artist. Hence, it could not be accepted as part of an exhibition of original artworks.

And yet the author is far from dead. Heidegger was probably too steeped in his Black Forest mood when he accused “modern subjectivism” as misrepresenting the process of creation as “the self-sovereign subject’s performance of genius”. After all, even in a simple piece like Fountain, it was Duchamp, arguably a renowned genius who did the famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, and not just any old body, who entered the urinal into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. In fact, Duchamp had made a small alteration to the original product. Presented as Fountain, its surface that normally would be mounted on the wall was transformed into its base, and a name, “R.Mutt 1917” was inscribed on it.

There are records suggesting that the selection committee of the New York show knew all along who “R.Mutt” was. He was indisputably no vegetation. Fountain is simply a failed project of anonymity. For better or worse, the history of art is also a history of personal names.


What is in a name? Modernity registers personal name as the site of “the self-sovereign subject” Heidegger disparagingly speaks about. From this perspective, Duchamp’s “R.Mutt” is its parody. Probably it was also out of his desire to lampoon the cult for the unique among aestheticians of his time that he named the pisser Fountain.

Naming is an ambivalent act. It began with human (or, if you will, the Biblical Adam’s) longing for the Other’s return and the enigma of the singular. Referring to someone as “R.Mutt” or labeling something “fountain” is to inaugurate an identity, and, at the same time, it is also an attempt to redeem the unclassifiable and the non-exchangeable (or Adorno’s “non-identity”). Duchamp made it obvious that the identifying project would (necessarily) have to fail. Who is “R.Mutt” anyway? The mysterious name signifies nothing, implying that it is independent from the artist and from everybody else. And why is it a “fountain”, when robbed from such a name and put inside a restroom among other things, it would be a “urinal”? Perhaps the story of Duchamp’s failure – including his and everybody’s failure to use names as pointers of stable and transparent presence – is also a story of the “rift” in the work of art, particularly in our time; it is a “rift” in which identity and difference are perpetually at play.

Today, almost nine decades after Duchamp’s assault on the New York Society of Independent Artists’ idea of beauty, the kind of iconoclastic jolt of the “New York Dada” is nowhere in sight. The impulse of the “Machine Aesthetic” as created by Duchamp, Picabia and Apollinaire to dismiss the veneration of the singularity of “objet d’art” - or, as Duchamp puts it, to “wipe out the idea of the original” - has come to a full circle. A new “machine aesthetic” finds its powerful expression in the works of Jean Tinguely who used machine parts and scrap-yard finds to reveal pathos, irony and horror. After Jasper Jones’ flags, Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Lichtenstein’s comic strips and their dispassionate view of familiar objects, Hain Steinbach’s works go back to the pre-Duchamp expressive mode. Steinbach lets his aluminum, plastic and rubber walking canes speak with a trace of melancholy or anger. Mike Kelly’s dolls send signals of subdued protest in pain, with an allusion to someone’s early childhood repression. Closer to home, Agus Suwage’s recreated child’s toys suggest a desire for playfulness amidst a sense of transience and fragility. Popok Tri Wahyudi from Apotik Komik permeates the flat, outlined images of his imaginary comic strips with an atmosphere of violence and terror; they are distant from Lichtenstein’s detached and impersonal approach to human faces.

And the agenda to celebrate familiar objects with no originality, names with no distinctive presence, and art works without aura, all end up in something both Duchamp and Benjamin failed to foresee.

Benjamin believed that the disappearance of “the phenomena of distance”, the loss of the work of art’s uniqueness and hence the decay of its aura, would ultimately democratize art in the age of mechanical reproduction. “For the first time in world history,” so runs his much-quoted saying, “mechanical reproduction emancipated the work of art from its parasitical dependency on ritual.”

Obviously, Benjamin’s pronouncement betrays his version of Marxist optimism -- with a trace of naïveté. Seven decades after he completed his essay, the work of art has not been entirely independent, for a new sort of ritual has come into play. It is a ritual observed and managed by curators, art dealers, and art critics; one duly attached to a new kind of “magic” – the “magic” of oligarchic wealth. Unlike commodities affordable by most people, original works of famous painters, due to their exclusive quality, are attainable only by a very few. What we are witnessing, in fact, is the birth of a new aura.

An aura, too often, of the “anti-auratic”. Nam June Paik’s Piano Intégral consists of eggshells, bicycle bells, a vacuum cleaner and other banalities -- all outcomes of several concerts during a five-year period. Like other pieces created and performed by the Fluxus Movement, it is an assemblage of everyday life items, a fusion of pure chance (“unspecific creativity”, as George Macianus, the Fluxus “Pope”, put it) and absurdity, something that Tisna Sanjaya did in some of his installations. And yet Piano Intégral now stands among the works preserved by Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art.

In short, the familiar, with its “boringly obtrusive usualness”, has become a rarity. Warhol’s Campbell soup can, initially an attempt to stress the notion of repetition as an operation of identity, has become a 20th century icon of difference; in the manner of Duchamp’s Fountain, it is a duplicable thing turned into a singularity. Jeff Koon’s idols of celebrities, frozen in icy stainless steel and smooth porcelain, aim to appear as works of clichés and replicas, but ultimately, they too cannot escape the artist’s ubiquity and his “patte”, as Duchamp called the artist’s personal touch.

It would seem that, in and among works of art, we gradually discover history as the story of eternal return. And as Deleuze rightly articulates it, “the subject of the eternal return is not the same but the different, not the similar but the dissimilar.”