“This is Art”: The Anatomy of a Sentence, by Thierry de Duve

From Post-Kantian Thought and the Production of Subjectivity in Contemporary Art

Thierry de Duve deftly dissects the deceptively simple injunction “this is art” to show how Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917 forces us to rethink Kantian aesthetics when encountering “candidates” to be considered as art.

De Duve outlines three categories of art theory that are unable to deal with the challenge of Fountain: i) art in general; ii) feeling art as such; and iii) a universal basis of comparison for art, which he calls “art altogether.” He states that aesthetic theories of art empirically based on taste/feeling accommodate these specifications of art because they can invoke affect or comparison as criteria of judgement. However, in front of a urinal, affect and comparison are not suitable because a urinal randomly chosen by an artist is chosen for its incomparability (its randomness) and its banality (its lack of affective qualities).

From this, he proposes three possible directions in which art theory can go. The first is to stop any expansion of art theory and declare that a urinal definitively cannot be art—leaving traditional aesthetic theories safe. The next direction is the anti-aesthetic, in which art theories move laterally from theories of taste towards conceptual or institutional definitions of art. Here, traditional aesthetic theory is declared bankrupt, and art that relies on feeling is pejoratively designated as “formalist.” This approach, de Duve implies, appeals to an authoritarian consensus-building, which, counter-intuitively, reduces heterogeneity in art and its future possibilities. His third approach, outlined in his well-known book Kant after Duchamp, is to agree that feeling and comparison falter as criteria of judgement in the face of Fountain, but such an encounter can and does produce the search for a speculative certainty in the subjective assertion that “this is art,” which does not seek “a view that replaces feeling with another category that redeems the urinal.”

De Duve’s “speculative universal judgement of art” claims that “this ought to be art,” thus avoiding the traps of essentializing inherent to the statement “this is art.” As he explains, any universal comparison of all art is obviously doomed (as it would be impossible to compare a given candidate for the status of “art” with every other object in the universe) and any claim that one has knowledge of the essential nature of art per se reduces the possibilities of what art might be in the future to a simple reproduction of what has been in the past and is in any given present—both are unsatisfactory and stultifying positions. However, he goes on to say that even though we claim to assume the position of the universal judge when we claim “this is art” or “this is beautiful” in the face of Fountain, we must assume this position of the universal judge of art. We no doubt make an unwarranted claim, but we make this judgement based on a feeling nonetheless, and in doing so we make recourse to a “je ne sais quoi,” which we have felt with other works of art that have presented such a challenge. This judgement should not seek the artwork’s “animation” by “the tremor of life (that which is human) that runs through the collection of things we call art,” but “by the idea that the tremor of life ought to run through it and through all things we cherish as art” (that idea he calls “art itself”) in the name of which we judge aesthetically. In this, de Duve updates Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic judgement to arrive at his concept of an art theory that can accommodate Fountain without falling prey to essentialism or institutional authoritarianism, allowing for both a present and future valency of art.

Thierry de Duve is an art historian and philosopher. He is Professor Emeritus at the Université de Lille.

March 2, 2015

New York University

Curated by

Matthew Poole