I encountered Marcel Duchamp’s work first in 1964 in the library of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm in West Germany, where I was studying industrial design. (It took me a few years to realize that I was not gifted.) I was reading a book on Dada and, of course, it had a reproduction of Fountain, the (in)famous urinal signed R. Mutt and dated 1917. What struck me was that this guy Duchamp got away with calling a urinal art without designing it, while I might someday have to design a urinal without calling it art. There was a logical chiasma there, at the center of which was the issue of the name. It stayed with me.
The Ulm School was the postwar resurrection of the Bauhaus, and like at the Bauhaus, the words art and artist were taboo; designers and architects were Gestalter; there was no fine arts curriculum. The school’s ideology was strongly non-aesthetic, even anti-aesthetic: “form follows function,” that kind of thing. In practice, like at the Bauhaus, its best teachers and students were formalists constantly in denial of their formalism. Awareness of that denial also stayed with me as I left the school and decided to study aesthetics.
When I bumped into Duchamp’s work again a good ten years later, I was a young teacher at an art school working on becoming an art historian and theorist. My favorite artists were painters and my favorite painters were Richter and Ryman. Conceptual art was an intellectual beacon. Fountain, and Duchamp’s readymades in general, were beckoning more than ever. The rest of Duchamp’s oeuvre was mostly supporting evidence testifying to his importance as an artist. The readymades clearly begged a new theory of art. It had to be valid for both traditional media and conceptual art, otherwise it would leave half of the facts on the side of the road.
Scholars who make Duchamp the ancestor of conceptual art insist on his breaking away from painting and often quote his anti-retinal pronouncements, forgetting that these date from the 1960s, when conceptual artists had already elected him as their grandfather. I thought the period of his life that needed to be scrutinized first was when he abandoned painting and switched to readymades, in 1912–13. This inquiry, summed up in Pictorial Nominalism (1991, 1984 for the original French), revealed Duchamp’s complex melancholy for the art of painting and the lucid awareness that he would not be on the level of the great painters of his time, say, Picasso and Matisse. Some readymades such as Comb (1916) called in French Peigne (a pun on the subjunctive of the verb peindre, to paint) encapsulate that melancholy.
Studying aesthetics, I began reading Kant’s Critique of Judgment seriously at the end of the 1970s. No Kant scholar would read the “Analytic of the Beautiful” mentally replacing the word beauty with the word art but that’s what I did, even the first time around. That’s how much Duchamp’s readymades were on my mind. It was the obvious thing to do since I was interested neither in natural beauty nor in academic exegesis of Kant; I was interested in figuring out the art theory that would account for painting and readymades in the same breath. It is only in Aesthetics at Large (2018) that I began to argue why I thought Kant’s third Critique was the best aesthetic theory, but I was convinced of that since 1982. It needed to be updated. The Kant after Duchamp (1996) approach is predicated on the fact that baptizing a readymade by the name of art has made the phrase “This is art” into the canonical expression of a modern aesthetic judgment— replacing (but not dismissing) “This is beautiful” or “This is sublime.”
I no longer believe “This is art” is such a canonical expression. And somewhere along the way I stopped treating all readymades as if they commandeered a single, all-encompassing art theory or meta-theory, such as “art is a proper name.” Fountain stands out: it and it alone among all Duchamp’s readymades brought us the news that the art world had switched from the Beaux Arts system, in which something is art if it is a painting, a sculpture, a poem, a piece of music, etc., to the Art-in-General system, in which art can be made from anything. This switch is the real historical break that I had sought to account for in my forty-five-year-long affair with Fountain. Duchamp was not responsible for it: he was merely its brilliant messenger. Anyone familiar with contemporary art knows that the switch is trivial. What is not trivial and may surprise many a reader of my next book, Duchamp’s Telegram (forthcoming in February), is that the switch did not happen in the 1960s but rather in the 1880s. Before Duchamp’s birth!