Research - Kant After Duchamp / by Ally McGinn

It would not be a large step to say that in ‘Kant after Duchamp’ the author is writing about perception. In it the author, Du Duve, imagines works of art seen through the eyes of an alien anthropologist. A being that has no access to the cultural or social associations we have and likely few of the other factors. Du Duve believes that our judgment of art is an essential factor. That we use our biases to form a filter, through which we view, and therefore, judge art. (It's worth noting here that the word ‘view’ is not solely associated with ‘seeing’ but more the sensory experience of art, through which we take the artwork into ourselves in some way)

In Du Duve’s eyes art functions more like a noun than a term designating an idea or a concept. He argues that this uncertainty is due to the all-encompassing nature of art, in that art has no definite meaning and can be made to fit many contexts.

Calling something art does not bring it under the concept of art, there are an entirely different set of circumstances involved. What the naming does do is relate it to other things named art.

Seen from the perspective of the alien, art is a product of human activity that is almost entirely reliant on the contextual and theoretical ideas surrounding it.  For art to be anything more than aesthetically pleasing, the context must be understood.  Seen in this way artworks can be understood not only as intentional records of emotion, time, event, issue, etc. but also of moments that occupy their own space.

The book begins with a series of dramatic ‘acts.'  De Duve imagines intelligent alien life has come to earth and began to ask a series of questions about the nature of objects and activities that humans refer to as ‘Art.'  

This iconic outsider perspective is then used to survey the labels and ideas we use to conceptualist art, from traditional theories through to societal impact.

The alien asks the questions; What is art? What should art be? And others.

The new student, gaining a basic knowledge of what we mean by art, then turns to aesthetics; what do I like?

Here the author reminds the alien, and us, of the importance of judgment. Judgement is a way of realigning the insights we take in throughout our lives and pushing art through the resulting filter.

De Duve speaks about the reasons for wanting to judge a work, and the possible gap between viewer and artwork, along with the conflict that might cause.

Judgement is separate from beauty….because beauty is pure where judgment is not?

This separation from beauty further defines the gap between art and object; beauty is a universal quality that is not only attributed to art.  

Back to the alien once more for the final part of the narrative. De Duve reintroduces the problem of theory, which he concludes diverges from emotion and criticism.  

“What matters,” De Duve states, “is that the word ‘art’ expresses a feeling or set of feelings, but that it does not mean what it expresses. In fact, it means nothing, or too many things all at once, which amounts to the same thing.” (De Duve, 1998: 59)

Using archaeology as a tool for explaining these ideas De Duve avoids having the ideas labelled as a concept of art rather than an idea about art.  

“The mistake thanks to which modern art, imagining itself as enacted philosophy, came into being is no more than a historical fact to be reinterpreted as such,” De Duve writes. “This is a task for the archaeologist, and probably no longer one for the artist or the critic. With this task, modernity is brought to a close and yields a new injunction: that of the postmodern.” (De Duve, 1998: 79)

De Duve sees Duchamp's ‘Fountain’ as an exemplary work of the moment modernism turned into post-modernism.  The moment when modernity turned into historical fact. De Duve explores Duchamp's Fountain in great detail and with some fascinating insights into some of the controversy around the iconic piece.

Discussing what ‘Fountain’ and other readymades meant for the future of art, and its history, De Duve reconsiders what tradition might mean from an archaeological perspective. Interestingly the tradition he is speaking about directly concerns a rejection of tradition, which modern painters and artists were concerned with. De Duve points out that one of the features of modern art is the inclusion of everything and a somewhat “anything whatever” philosophy, Dadaism for example.

“Anesthesia, visual indifference, better, the freedom of indifference, specify the maxim of the choice of a readymade. However, it is not yet by the maxim, of indifference as a subjective attitude, that we must say that the readymade amounts to absolutely anything whatever. [...] What forces us to say that the readymade (not the urinal) amounts to the absolute whatever is that through the maxim according to which Duchamp chose the urinal, according to which he judged, he was able—and with him the uninitiated spectator whose judgment he anticipated—to will that the whatever become at once a universal law: art, what one universally calls art, must be whatever and named as art by whomever. This is the modern imperative stripped bare.”  (De Duve, 1998: 357)

He recognizes that this embrace of “anything whatever” is not a show of apathy towards art but a calling to arms to transform art into what it needs to be.  

De Duve suggests that Duchamp's work can represent a new realignment of art and politics, and indeed of art and other fields.  

To him, history is neither a heritage to be valued and preserved or something to ignore, but something transmitted and transmuted.

Du Duve concludes his book with the distinction between the idea of art and the labelling of it.  He likens the development of the art world to humanity's emancipation.  

Art is not trying to change the world or life but to open the potential for new kinds of knowledge, experience, and communication.  De Duve didn't see tradition as something to be demolished or freed from but something to be returned to and reexamined, echoing the philosophy of Foucault.

This process of art as enhancement or realization celebrates art that is progressive and revolutionary. Ethics and aesthetics meet.

“What is it that the critical function of aesthetic or artistic activity watches over?” De Duve asks. “It watches over the requirement of universality which in its own sphere— the aesthetic-reminds us that the same requirement should regulate ethical action in its sphere. And it warrants a passage from the aesthetic to the ethical, a passage, however, which is not transitive and ideological but rather reflexive and analogical.”  (De Duve, 1998: 446)

Art can affect ethical action, but not by modelling it or agitating it directly, but by allowing a platform for the action to begin.  

De Duve speaks about the distancing from the relation of art to tradition and emancipation.  Not a quest for utopia or advancement for its own sake.  Instead, the focus is on the less ambitious, but possibly more important, labour.

Not to try to change the world or life but to open the potential for new kinds of knowledge, experience, and communication.  

Or it could be seen this as - not trying to change the world by individual art object but through a process of interpreting and understanding art to develop the brain's capacity for thought. Using art to open the mind.

If seen in this way it would be true that the art object is not the important factor in Art, but the experience of and thinking about Art.


What does this text mean or influence in my practice? A move away from the art object and the perspective of the alien anthropologist, which I am going to try to use in my practice. It is an interesting tool in distancing from the work, to better achieve a critical eye.


De Duve, T. (1998) Kant after Duchamp. Massachusetts: MIT Press.