Dialectics becomes materialist when the primacy of the object is established; yet, Adorno warns, “the primacy of the object notwithstanding, the thingness of the world is also illusory. It tempts the subjects to ascribe to the things themselves the social conditions of their production. This is elaborated in Marx’s chapter on the fetish …”13 What is crucial for Adorno is to combine “tenacious opposition against that which exists: against its thingness,” with a staunch rejection of attempts to identify thingness as evil.14 “In thingness there is an intermingling of both the object’s unidentical side and the subjection of people under the prevailing forms of production—their own functional relations, which are obscure to them.”15 While, on the one hand, thingness (das Dinghafte) stands for the subjection of people under alienating and mystifying forms of production; on the other, the thing stands for the non-identical, for that which escapes the clutch of instrumental reason. It does so more fully than the object, which is “the positive face of the non-identical”; in other words, “a terminological mask.”16 Objecthood is thingness objectified, subjected to concepts in the same way that a subject is a person become concept, a legal-philosophical abstraction; a thing is to an object as a person is to a subject.
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- bill 8-03-2010 9:36 pm

The rejection of the readymade by critics and artists such as Greenberg and Newman was shaped by a fear of the collapse of categories, the fear of identity, of the work of art becoming just another “arbitrary” object. In addition to such critiques, which we may label conservative, the 1960s saw the emergence of a second strand of anti-Duchampian discourse. Its proponents were artists including Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, and Daniel Buren, and an important point that their different criticisms had in common was that Duchamp’s own practice was itself conservative in that it merely seemed to confirm and exploit the existing art-world structures and their power of definition.10 Apparently working on the assumption that Duchamp’s work was fully accounted for by the then-emerging institutional theory of art, these artists felt that Duchamp merely used the institution(s) of art to redefine objects as artworks, thus multiplying their aura, their fetishistic allure, and their value. As Robert Smithson put it, “there is no viable dialectic in Duchamp because he is only trading on the alienated object and bestowing on this object a kind of mystification.”11

Such remarks were no doubt made in view of Duchamp’s own commodification of his readymades in the 1960s, with the Schwartz editions, and of the proliferation of Neo-Dada and Nouveau Réalisme objects, accumulations, and assemblages. This type of art object was tailor-made for the dismal science called the institutional theory of art, which it helped spawn, and which statements by artists such as Buren and Smithson parallel. However, if we look beyond the horizon of the 1960s reception of Duchamp, at the repercussions of the readymade among the surrealists around 1930 in particular, things become rather more complicated and interesting.

- bill 8-04-2010 4:37 pm [add a comment]

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