Radical Art           

Remko Scha

Kant, Duchamp, Meta-Art

Kant: Nature versus art

Immanuel Kant’s classic Kritik der Urteilskraft analyses the esthetic experience as a cognitive phenomenon: a feature of perception which is manifested when perception becomes conscious of itself -- when the process of input interpretation does not yield a definite final result, but nevertheless creates a coherent experience.

For today's reader, it is striking that Kant’s discussion is not primarily concerned with works of art, but with natural phenomena -- his paradigm examples evoke flowers, crystals, landscapes, stormy seas and starry skies. This is not a coincidence; it is connected with essential properties of Kant’s theory. In his view, the esthetic experience presupposes a disinterested attitude, which does not involve any practical purposes. It is the awareness of autonomous perceptual processes which analyse and reanalyse their input in a playful manner, without trying to grasp it under a determinate concept.

Manmade artworks have an inherently problematic status in Kant’s theory. Western highbrow art seems to agree with this point of view, in that it has increasingly emphasized its practical uselessness. But this very uselessness signals a purpose: the artwork is deliberately constructed to be experienced in the esthetic mode, i.e., to be experienced as if it does not have any purpose. This deliberateness must be ignored, if we are to experience the artwork in an esthetic way. Kant noticed this problem, and concluded that art necessarily involves a second-order mimesis: whatever the artwork does or does not portray, it must always fake its "natural" character: ". . . the finality in the product of fine art, although it is intentional, must nevertheless not seem to be intentional." [...] "Nature proved beautiful, when it looked at the same time as art; art can only be called beautiful, when we are conscious of its being art, and yet it looks to us as nature."

Perception is an abductive process. To interpret any product of a human artist is to retrace the mental processes behind it. These processes always involve the artist’s ideas, methods, goals and motives. The artists’s fellow-humans cannot be expected to overlook that content, or to deal with it in a disinterested fashion. Manmade art thus constitutes sub-optimal input for the process of esthetic reflection. Twentieth-century art-critics have not failed to notice this implication of Kant’s theory; and some of them have pointed at contingent but ubiquitous features of manmade artworks, which increase their discrepancy with his esthetic ideal.

Lyotard: "Die großen Schauspiele der sich in Unordnung befindlichen Natur sind ein beispiel dafür, daß die menschliche Kunst niemals etwas derartiges hervorbringen kann. Denn alle menschliche Kunst ist immer nur Mimesis und letztlich suspekt, weil immer die möglichkeit besteht, daß sie mit einer absicht konzipiert worden ist und von daher ein Begriff und eine Zweckmäßigkeit mit Zweck auf ihr lastet."

Huge Harry: "Is it possible to listen in a disinterested way to music which is composed and performed by humans? Human composers and musicians are not disinterested. They want money, fame, sex. They cannot hide this, and often they don’t even try. If we do not turn off our microphones when we listen to their pieces, we hear greed, jealousy, lust. Behind the apparent complexity and indefiniteness of their compositions, there are all too clear-cut meanings."

Esthetically motivated art thus faces a curious challenge: if it is created by humans, it will always be inferior to nature! In the course of the twentieth century, this challenge has been taken up by many artists. Some of them have suggested that they are in fact natural forces, beyond the ken of ordinary humans. Others have tried to withdraw from their artworks, by developing objective art-generating processes which they initiate without controlling the final result: chance art, écriture automatique, physical experiments, mathematical calculations, biological processes.

Duchamp: The Readymade

Marcel Duchamp occasionally bought simple objects in order to exhibit them as art objects. A typical example is his 1914 Bottlerack.  Duchamp thus drew a radical consequence from Kant's point of view: that the input doesn't matter, as long as the observer's process of esthetic reflection can take its course.

Clement Greenberg was correct to observe that the whole Duchampian position was essentially anticipated by the eighteenth-century notion of the "aesthetic attitude." Once it was recognized that anything whatsoever could be a work of art if contemplated aesthetically, then presenting such objects as Duchamp's Fountain in the museum merely involved drawing the consequences of this Kantian position, though admittedly with examples which would have bewildered Kant.

Carrier 1993, p. 26, note 10.      

Duchamp's gesture may seem to celebrate the sublime autonomous creative power of the artist's Kunstwollen, but his pronouncement that "The spectator makes the picture" suggests a different interpretation. It is true that Duchamp chose his objects very carefully, but his judiciousness has a very peculiar character.

Duchamp: "It is very difficult to choose an object, because after a few weeks you start to like it or to hate it. You must approach a thing with indifference, as if you have no esthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the complete absence of good or bad taste."

The readymades are ordinary, 'neutral' objects: schoolbook, coat-rack, hat-rack, bicycle-wheel, bottle-rack, snow-shovel, plastic bucket, coffee grinder, typewriter-cover. Standard objects, models from the drawing lesson. Like the chairs and tables which represent 'the object' in philosophical discussions, Duchamp's readymades are 'free variables' –– schemas that all other objects can substitute for, lacking specific properties which would block unification. (The many racks and containers among Duchamp’s readymades do support another level of interpretation: evoking their absent pendants and fillers, they symbolize their own status as "placeholders" in a self-referential way; this is of course not incompatible with equally obvious Freudian readings.)

Duchamp asserts the esthetic interpretation of everything. Esthetic perception is not tied to the art-context — it has its origin and its justification in the observer, and can be applied to arbitrary material. To embrace Duchamp's esthetics is to loose any reason to make one particular artwork rather than another, or to make any artwork at all. The esthetic way of life does not need art. The artwork has no special dignity any more, and art history has lost its driving force. It did not take long before the end of art was proclaimed explicitly. In 1921, Aleksandr Rodchenko exhibited 3 monochrome paintings, and his companion Varvara Stepanova explained: "From here, Constructivism proceeds to the negation of all art in its entirety, and calls into question the necessity of a specific activity of art to create a universal aesthetic."

  Duchamp         Readymades          Reality as art         Monochromes         The end of art   

La Nausée du Peintre

For several decades, Duchamp's readymades were dismissed as charming jokes, and Rodchenko's monochromes were simply ignored. Modern art was blooming, and the end of art's history seemed further away than ever. Constructivism, expressionism and surrealism were successful start-up enterprises with big promises for the future, presenting talented young artists with an abundance of exciting challenges. No one needed the Pyrrhonian sophisms of artists without art.

In the course of the 1950's, however, the dynamics of modern art starts to get exhausted very quickly. With Jackson Pollock's gratuitous gestures and Georges Mathieu's theatrical performances, the cult of subjective expression has culminated in its own parody. Duchamp's cerebral hypotheses have become living reality: the connoisseur's capacity to assign profound meanings to arbitrary traces of human activity is overdeveloped to such an extent, that any painting is as good as any other. The creative artist who is aware of this, is overcome with a sickening sense of senselessness: "la nausée du peintre".

"Ce qui a été ébauché n'apparaît plus que comme une barbouillage inane, sans plus de capacité à signifier que n'importe quelle autre proposition concurrente: émulsion pigmentaire amorphe, désormais collée à la semelle de ce qui n'a plus rien d'un tableau, dont elle était idéalement séparée et qui, désinvestie des rêves d'absolu qui l'habitaient, se trouve maintenant reléguée au rang d'objet parmi les autres. Un désarroi paralysant, une débâcle phénoménologique. On pense au mot qui, à force d'être répété de façon incantatoire – mais là, c'est un jeu, et c'est un jeu d'enfant – se vide de son sens, se remplit d'ouate."

Conil Lacoste 1989, pp. 11/12.

"C'était mauvais, ça faisait 'de la peinture'. (. . .) J'ai fait de la peinture d'une manière désespérée. Je n'arrivais jamais à finir mes tableaux, je pouvais peindre sur une toile pendant des mois sans aucune raison de l'achever, je n'arrivais pas à saisir l'instant, il y avait toujours une espèce de continuité, un infini agaçant . . ."

Jean Tinguely (1966)

Many artists now embrace Duchamp's point of view. The readymade becomes a standard technique in the art of Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme: Stanley Brouwn's shoe shops, George Brecht's Events, Arman's Accumulations, Daniel Spoerri's Tableaux-Pièges, Christo's Empaquetages. The esthetic validity of all and everything is asserted explicitly through mirrors, glass windows, and socles which display the whole world. Alternatively, the futile and superfluous nature of art is illustrated by means of tautologies, paradoxes, monochrome paintings, empty frames, empty rooms and closed galleries.

Note that artworks of this sort hardly count as esthetic objects in the Kantian sense of that word. They are statements with a literal meaning, didactic and unambiguous. And sterile -- because, once the point has been made, there is no reason to repeat it and no way to develop it. They are self-defeating speech acts which kill the discourse that spawned them. The end of art.

   Everything                   Anything                   Nothing               


Arthur Danto has a story about the end of art history which correlates to some extent with the above discussion. The big milestone in his narrative is Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, which we didn't even mention so far.

Assignment 1: Look up how Danto justifies that he ignored Duchamp, and discuss his arguments.

Assignment 2: The Brillo Boxes were painted on wooden blocks by means of silk-screens. Discuss their relation with
trompe-l'œil painting, with Marisol's "sculptures", with Jasper Johns' flag-paintings, and with Marcel Duchamp's readymades.

Meta-Art and Indeterminacy

The end of art was also a new beginning. Many of the artists who rejected the traditional art object found new realms to explore, by moving to a new level of abstraction, which might be called "meta-art". The meta-artwork is a class of possibilities rather than an individual thing. It may take the form of an underspecified score ("open form"), a collection of building blocks (interactivity), a physical process (process art), a computer program (algorithmic art), or a mere idea (concept art). Jean Tinguely's kinetic art is another case in point. [Cf. Hultén 1975, pp. 7-8.]

"Je pouvais continuer sur une peinture (. . .) jusqu'à usure totale de la toile (. . .) Je n'arrivais pas à décider 'Voilà, c'est terminé', à choisir le moment où, disons, (le tableau) est donné à la pétrification. C'est à partir de là, au fond, que le mouvement s'est imposé à moi. Le mouvement me permettait tout simplement d'échapper à cette pétrification, à cette fin. Disons: me permettait de décider: 'Voilà, c'est terminé'."

Tinguely (1976)

Many of these approaches use some form of non-determinism: the artist does not control the creation of the artwork, but launches processes that yield unintended, unpredictable results. Even the unconscious influence of the artist on the artwork, characteristic for Écriture Automatique and action painting, is given up. If there are human persons involved in the execution of the work, they add a layer of random variation, not a layer of expressive meaning.

The most rigorous non-determinism is exercised in the formal approach to meta-art which is known as Chance Art. (Cf. George Brecht, John Cage, Ellsworth Kelly, François Morellet, Frieder Nake, Peter Struycken, Zdenek Sykora, Herman de Vries.) The mathematical methods developed here are particularly important for the future, because they can easily be implemented on digital computers.

It should be noted that the unpredictability of these approaches is usually very limited. The framework established by the artist tends to dominate the details which he relegates to social, psychological, physical or mathematical contingencies. No absolute randomness, but form at a new level of abstraction.

  Open Form      Process      Kinetics      Algorithm       Chance       Concept

Everything and Anything

The big challenge of meta-art is posed by the doctrine of the esthetic viability of everything – suggested by Duchamp's readymades, and formulated literally by Richard of St. Victor, John Scottus Eriugena, Lewis Carroll, Francis Picabia, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Herman de Vries, Piero Manzoni, Ben Vautier, John Cage, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, George Maciunas, and probably many others. To hint at this possibility (as Duchamp did), or to claim it with so many words (as theoreticians and conceptual artists have done), is not too difficult, but to articulate an artistic program which takes it seriously is another matter. Because no one knows what everything is.

. . . le readymade, c'est n'importe quoi. Ou encore: le readymade est absolument quelconque. C'est mon droit démocratique de juger en profane qui m'autorise à dire que, malgré leur qualités - ou leur absence de qualités - plastiques, le sèche-bouteilles, l'urinoir ou la pelle à neige sont des objets quelconques. Mais, direz-vous, rien ne m'autorise à les juger absolument quelconques. En effet, rien ne m'y autorise. Mais tout m'y oblige. Duchamp ayant anticipé l'auteur du readymade dans la position du regardeur profane qui juge que l'art moderne, au moins depuis le dadaïsme, c'est n'importe quoi, oblige en retour ce regardeur, surtout s'il est "expert", à se projeter rétrospectivement dans la position même de cet auteur et à se soumettre à la même loi que lui. C'est la loi de la modernité et elle ne dit qu'une chose: fais n'importe quoi.

La loi ne fait pas qu'interdire, elle oblige. J'appelle donc moderne l'artiste dont le devoir est (était, fut, a été?) de faire n'importe quoi. C'est un devoir et non un droit. C'est un commendement que l'artiste moderne reçoit et non une autorisation qu'il se donne. Comme tel, ce n'est même pas une loi au sens ordinaire ou juridique. La phrase "fais n'importe quoi" n'énonce pas une règle à laquelle des cas peuvent être soumis, elle prescrit au contraire d'agir sans règle.

[De Duve, 1989, pp. 118-119.]

The esthetic interpretation of everything need not be limited to what we happen to encounter in the world as it is; it may include everything imagineable, all possible images. This observation creates an artistic challenge which has a philosophical dimension (how to define "everything"?), and a technical one (how to show it?).

Is it possible to define the set of all possible art objects? Not in a very general way. But once we have specified a particular medium sufficiently explicitly, we have in fact specified a particular set of possible pieces. This is especially clear when we employ a digital medium. In this case, there is a mathematical enumeration of the set of possible outputs. Look, for instance, at a black-and-white screen with a particular resolution, say m x n pixels; the set of all possible images is then defined as the set generated by all combinations of choices of black vs. white for every pixel.

A computer program that in principle generates all these possible images one by one, can be constructed rather easily on the basis of this idea. Lars Eijssen and Boele Klopman were the first to actually do this, in 1991. They used a grid of 171 x 171 pixels. For their program to run through all its possible outputs would take longer than the estimated lifetime of the universe; but an ingeneous interface makes it possible to "scroll ahead" very effectively.

The method of chance art can be effectively deployed in this situation: draw random samples from the set of possibilities, rather than enumerating it. In this way one quickly gets an impression of the range of possible outcomes. To sample from the set of black & white pixel grids, for instance, one makes for every pixel a random choice about its colour, independently of all the other pixels. Many artists have constructed random samples of "the m x n grid", for very small values of m and n; this results in the "randomized checkerboards" which were the icons of early chance art. (E.g.: Kelly, Morellet, De Vries, Winiarski.)

Now the thing about these randomized checkerboards is, that to the human observer they all look alike. If we define the set of paintings or screen-images as the set of m x  n pixel-grids, then virtually all of these will look the same. If the resolution is high enough, they will look like evenly grey planes. This kind of chance art thus gets very close to the monochrome.

Chance art comes into its own when the artists vary the specification of the set of possibilities which are considered by the sampling procedure. For different series of works they tend to employ different "image grammars", which typically define a small repertoire of shapes with a small number of variable properties. The random choices must then be made within the set of possibilities specified by the image grammar. For instance: a random number of dots with randomly chosen sizes is placed on randomly chosen positions; or, a random number of lines with randomly chosen lengths and directions is placed on randomly chosen positions; or, one line is drawn through a randomly chosen sequence of points. In work like this, the promise of surprise and diversity, which is implicit in the idea of an "arbitrary image", does not pan out. The decisions of the artist (which elements, which variable parameters, what range of variation) largely determine the character of the resulting image; the random choice which is made within the constraints of the image grammar does in fact not make that much of a difference.

   Every Grid               Random Grids          

Artificial Art

Mathematical randomness addresses Kant's critique of art in a very direct way. If the esthetic insufficiency of human art is caused by the unesthetic, practical considerations which determine people's decisions, then we can try to avoid that problem by making random artworks, which have not been subjectively constructed or chosen by a human person.

The early chance artists were content with fairly simple systems, since these were sufficient to put forward the very idea of chance. But to really take on the project of the arbitrary painting, we need more; we need a formal language which allows us to assign distinct codes to perceptually different paintings, but also to assign the same code to perceptually equivalent paintings whose details may nevertheless differ considerably (as in the case of the different instantiations of Morellet's random pixels).

Algebras like this have been developed for characterising specific styles. Harold Cohen, for instance, embued his drawing program AARON with an original style reminiscent of the COBRA painters. Programs which try to mimic existing artists have also been developed, for instance for Miró and Diebenkorn. The 'arbitrary painting' project, however, requires a system with a much richer repertoire of stylistic possibilities, and with the capability to exploit those possibilities in a very flexible way -- so that the degree of stylistic coherence within a painting (or within an exhibition) is itself a parameter whose value can be chosen at random.

From a completely different perspective, the psychology of Gestalt perception has also developed some coding languages which are relevant for our purpose -- for instance, in the work by Leeuwenberg and Buffart in Nijmegen on the mental representation of line drawings, and in the work by Lerdahl and Jackendoff in Boston on the perception of music.

Mathematically formulated image-generation processes can easily be combined and generalized. This makes it possible to put large numbers of chance-art ideas together into one super-chance-art-machine which reaches a complexity that cannot be surveyed any more by individual artists.

To take a simple example: In the chance art of the sixties one often encounters programs which repeat a particular shape (usually a square or a circle) in an arbitrary, unorderly manner on different positions on the plane. Other, similar algorithms create arbitrary closed shapes by combining line segments. These two algorithms can be combined so that both the shape and the position of the image elements are determined at random. Other algorithms generate a multitude of different regular patterns or regular shapes; these can also be integrated. We may thus gradually abolish choice, by avoiding all exclusions -- by putting every choice on a par with every other choice inside an all-encompassing probabilistic system. Art generation systems based on this approach are being developed in the project "Artificial" at the Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam.


Edward Ball and Robert Knafo: "The R. Mutt Dossier", Artforum, October 1988, p. 115.

Pierre Cabanne: Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp. Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond. 1967.

John Cage: "Lecture on Nothing" Incontri Musicali, August 1959. [In: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, pp. 109-126.]

David Carrier: "Danto as Systematic Philosopher or comme on lit Danto en français." In: Mark Rollins (ed.): Danto and his critics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 26, note 10.

Michel Conil Lacoste: Tinguely. L'Énergétique de l'Insolence. Vol. I. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1989.

Marcel Duchamp: "Apropos of 'Readymades'." Art and Artists, 1, 4 (July 1966). [Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961.]

Thierry de Duve: Au nom de l'art. Pour une archéologie de la modernité. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1989, p. 118-119.

Huge Harry: "A Computational Perspective on Twenty-First Century Music." Contemporary Music Review, 14, 3 (1995), pp. 153-159.

K.G. Pontus Hultén: Tinguely. 'Méta'. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Pontus Hulten: Jean Tinguely. A Magic Stronger than Death. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.

Dalia Judovitz: "Rendez-vous with Marcel Duchamp: Given", Dada/Surrealism 16, University of Iowa, 1987, p. 187.

Immanuel Kant: Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1799, § 45. [Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1974.]

Jean-François Lyotard: "Die Erhabenheit ist das Unkonsumierbare. Ein Gespräch mit Christine Pries am 6.5.1988." Kunstforum International, 100 (April/May 1989), pp. 355/356.

Mary A. McCloskey: Kant's Aesthetic. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987, p.108.

Remko Scha: "Artificial Art." Informatie en Informatiebeleid 6, 4 (1988).

Remko Scha: "Readymades, Artificial Art, New Media." In: Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager (eds.): Exploding Aesthetics. L&B Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, Vol. 16. Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001.

Jean Tinguely: Conversation with Alain Jouffroy, L'Oeil, N° 135 (april 1966).

Jean Tinguely: Conversation with Charles Georg and Rainer Michael Mason, June 1976. [In: Conil Lacoste 1989, p. 14. English translation in: Hulten 1987, p. 347. ]

Varvara Stepanova: Lecture on Constructivism, 22 December 1921. [In: Peter Noever: Aleksandr M. Rodchenko - Varvara F. Stepanova. The Future Is Our Only Goal. Munich: Prestel, 1991, pp. 174-178.]


Remko Scha, 1991/2001