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  • Readymades, Monochromes, Etc.:Nominalism and the Paradox of Modernism
  • J. M. Bernstein (bio)

If Schopenhauer's thesis of art as an image of the world once over bears a kernel of truth, then it does so only insofar as this second world is composed out of elements that have been transposed out of the empirical world in accord with Jewish descriptions of the messianic order as an order just like the habitual order but changed in the slightest degree.

—T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

Adorno's philosophy as a whole, and his aesthetic theory in particular, is irrevocably bound to the tradition and achievements of high modernism. Although Adorno himself did not recognize American Abstract Expression as the apotheosis of high modernism in painting, that judgment now hardly seems contentious.1 And that raises a problem: it is the problem of R. Mutt, again, the problem of the porcelain urinal called Fountain, which was refused admittance to the Society of Independent Artists' Exhibition in April 1917 in spite of the Society's proclaimed democratic slogan "No jury, no prizes"—the work whose life or after-life begins with the beautiful photograph of it by Stieglitz set against the background of Marsden Hartley's The Warriors and that appeared shortly thereafter in the new avant-garde journal The Blind Man. Whatever the immediate repercussions of Fountain, there can be little doubt that much of what is most vital in art in the second half of this century is unthinkable without it; Duchamp's readymade offers an exemplary alternative to the tradition of high modernist painting that has continued to be generative. For a modernist like Adorno, for whom authentic art is that which best rises to the demands and necessities of artistic materials, for whom internal consistency and rigor would appear to be everything, for whom, finally, aesthetic form is the "objective organization within each artwork of what appears as bindingly eloquent" [AT 143; emphasis mine], Duchamp's gesture of simply naming or claiming artistic status for an ordinary bathroom fixture must be anathema. In this respect, Adorno's aesthetic theory would seem to be in the same predicament as Clement Greenberg's modernism: inextricably bound to a tradition that history has left behind. And while the option of refuting the claim of Fountain is certainly possible, and should not be too quickly suppressed (there is something in the claim that will forever be skeptically self-defeating), nonetheless there does appear to be an exemplariness to Fountain that exceeds the narrow provocation of Duchamp's nominalist gesture; something in the readymade, in fact, seems (art historically? aesthetically? conceptually?) irresistible. If so, then modernist [End Page 83] formalism must either find a way of accommodating the readymade without departing from its internal logic or find its claim to our attention forfeited.

After laying out the bold outlines of Adorno's formalism, the remainder of this essay will seek to uncover an account of the readymade in the context of what I will eventually call "the paradox of modernism" in order to locate in what way the readymade can be accommodated to a defense of Adorno's late modernism. For the purposes of this argument, I am going to assume that the best overall defense of Duchamp's gesture, which makes it foundational for the understanding of modern art, is that offered by Thierry de Duve in his Kant after Duchamp. My elaboration of Adorno's late modernism will hence proceed, in part, through a charting of some of the fault lines in de Duve's Duchamp. My contention shall be that the generativity of Fountain as readymade not only belongs within modernism, but is only intelligible within a wholly modernist and formalist frame of reference.

Adorno's Formalism and the Material Motive

Adorno opens the section of Aesthetic Theory entitled "Coherence and Meaning" with the drastic sounding thesis that "Although artworks are neither conceptual nor judgmental, they are logical" [AT 136]. He continues:

In them nothing would be enigmatic if their immanent logicality did not accommodate discursive thought, which criteria they nevertheless regularly disappoint. They most resemble the form of a syllogism and its prototype in empirical thought. That in the temporal...

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