Notes on Étant Donnés and Aesthetic Desire, 2019

In his own words, Duchamp's central concern of his work was "the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react," that is to say, in the metabolic process that occurs at the meeting point between object and seer that changes both, respectively, into art and viewer, initiating an aesthetic experience. Étant Donnés works as a perfect example of Duchamp's aforementioned preoccupation and demonstrates how, through both an adherence to and subversion of artistic conventions, Duchamp creates a reflective experience, which seeks to comment on the work's modes of operation.

Upon first encounter with Étant Donnés, the viewer is met by a door of substantial solidity. Its weathered and aged appearance does not detract from its impression of impenetrability, but, rather, this impression is reinforced – it has withstood the ravages of time. However, despite this impression, impervious to permeation, it is not. Upon closer inspection (driven by one's desire to penetrate, no doubt), two peepholes become visible – an invitation to look. Immediately, the viewer is confronted with two countervailing prompts – do not enter and come hither and see. This opposition is inherent in all art; however, Duchamp reveals the viewer's role in this process, renders it explicit, and plays it out. The viewer encounters a choice: come closer and peer through the peepholes, or turn around and walk away. By acknowledging this choice, the viewer becomes aware of their own participation in the aesthetic confrontation. The desire to see, to look, has been revealed. Like Watteau's jester in Fêtes Vénitiennes, pointing at the seductive sculpture, the peepholes act to signal an assumed expectation of art to gratify aesthetic desire, which it then, in turn, defers.

Through the peepholes, a further confrontation is met. One sees a female nude sprawled, legs spread, nestled in a bed of twigs. The figure's head lies outside our allotted field of vision, which is restricted by the edges of a hole in a brick wall. Her left arm reaches out and clutches a gas lamp. The lamp, although lit, provides no apparent function as the surrounding scene is set in daylight. Perhaps the lamp serves as yet another signal to look – that the wall of the fourth dimension, once severing the bachelors from the sight of their bride in the Large Glass, has been broken, and the oil has reached the bride's lamp, illuminating it, exposing the object of desire. However, this is not without cost. As in Watteau, the erotic is invoked but ultimately deferred. The artificiality of the nude, her waxen appearance, and the superficiality of her surroundings throw desire back onto itself.

Art's illusionistic potential is not the only convention being interrogated. Classical linear perspective is as well. The peepholes refer to our binocular vision and the transformation of sight to a monocular image. In Étant Donnés, however, this device is externalized for us to see and no longer exclusively the province of the body or embedded in the image itself. In this work, the act of seeing has become the subject of representation, externalized and made visible, tangible, and material. The nature of sight, for Duchamp, is not the classical or rational one assumed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts or the illusionistic rapture of the eighteenth-century colorists. Instead, it is a sight more aligned to Bergson's qualitative space, made homogenous only by dint of our will.