“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/25/2013

Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades – Helen Molesworth

[There are a host of problems with this piece –

A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?

A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.

Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…

And why is being “romantic” so terrible?

Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]

These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.

In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9

In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.

… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.

We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.

While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.

In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.

Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.

Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.

Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.

Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.

Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43

In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46

Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.

Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52

Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.


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