Duchamp’s Eliot:

The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of Individual Talent

By Marjorie Perloff

Published in T.S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding, Cambridge University Press (2007).

T. S. Eliot and Marcel Duchamp: literary and art historians have placed these two artists, whose chronologies (Eliot: 1887-1968; Duchamp 1885-1962) overlap so neatly, at the opposite poles of Modernist aesthetic. Eliot, so the standard narrative goes, was a High Modernist, an elitist poet who believed in the autonomy of the work of art; Duchamp a Dadaist iconoclast whose object was to demolish the very notion of the “art work” and break down the distinction between ‘art” and “life.” It was Duchamp, after all, who was known to insist, “I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist. He’s a man like any other,” and to declare that his own “choice of readymades [was] always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” When Pierre Cabanne asked him how he came to choose “a mass-produced object, a ‘readymade,’ to make a work of art,” Duchamp characteristically protested:

Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it. The word “readymade” did not appear until 1915, when I went to the United States. It was an interesting word, but when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a ‘readymade,’ or anything else. It was just a distraction. [1]

Given this familiar Duchamp discourse, it is not surprising that when, at a 1987 Duchamp symposium held in Canada, the artist Eric Cameron linked Duchamp to Eliot, the prominent art critic/theorist Rosalind Krauss was indignant. “Eliot’s conception of tradition,” she insists, “his idea of high culture, his notion that art is redemptive, seems to me to be so far from my understanding of Duchamp. I just don’t know where to look in Duchamp to find anything that would connect to this.” And a little later in the discussion, when Cameron suggests that Jules Laforgue may have been the “connecting point between Eliot and Duchamp—as a way out of Symbolism,” Krauss declares herself “enormously hostile to such a move. I think it is a betrayal of Duchamp,” for whom all “belief systems” were anathema. Indeed, Krauss concludes, ‘Duchamp is one of the few artists in the twentieth century who really did think through the problem of negative dependency, who recognized that the traditional “art system,” of which a poet like Eliot was such a faithful proponent, had to be exploded. [2]

This view of Duchamp’s iconoclasm can be traced back to Peter Bürger who famously insisted, in his Theory of the Avant-Garde:

When Duchamp signs mass-produced objects . . . and sends them to art exhibits, he negates the category of individual production. . . . Duchamp’s provocation not only unmasks the art market . . . it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art. [3]

As such, Duchamp’s “provocation” could be construed as an attack on the very aesthetic principles of Eliot, Pound, and their Modernist confreres. And further: there is no evidence that Eliot and Duchamp ever so much as met, and Eliot never mentioned Duchamp in print.

Why then would Duchamp cite Eliot (Cameron points out that Eliot is the only critic whom Duchamp ever cited word for word) in his talk “The Creative Act”? The citation is to “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material. [4]

The occasion was a roundtable discussion held at the meeting of the American Federation of the Arts in Houston in April 1957. Duchamp’s fellow symposiasts were three famous academics: the art historians William C. Seitz and Rudolf Arnheim, and the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Self-deprecatingly referring to himself as a “mere artist,” Duchamp slyly turned the tables on his illustrious colleagues by taking, of all things, the position that there is such a thing as “great art,” and that only history can provide the “verdict” as to which of the countless productive artists working at a given moment has “genius.” And he cites, of all texts, Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Critics have tended to surmise that Duchamp’s invocation of Eliot must be tongue-in-cheek. “The little essay is wickedly subversive,” writes Duchamp’s biographer Calvin Tomkins, explaining that “The Creative Act” is poking fun at the inflated claims of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the fifties, [5] artists whose elaborate statements of intent implied that each brushstroke had been calculated to express the artist’s inner consciousness. From Courbet to the Abstractionists, Duchamp complained, the optical had won out (Cabanne, 43), as had the emphasis on the artist’s direct “touch.” Indeed, such readymades as Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Dryer were prized precisely because they led what seemed to be an independent life, bearing no touch, no direct imprint of their creator.

And here the Eliot connection comes in. In 1919, when Eliot wrote “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the normative poem was still the Romantic lyric, in which an impassioned autobiographical self ruminated on its relation to the external world. In the visual arts, the situation was quite similar: the normative painting was the Impressionist or Post-Impressionist landscape, portrait, or still life, expressive of the painter’s own mood and ethos. Even Duchamp’s rivals Picasso and Matisse remained, however distorted their representations, squarely in this tradition. Thus, we can think of Eliot’s famous sentence, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” as a kind of call to arms, not, as is usually thought, only for such conservative New Critical poets as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, but for the avant-garde as well.

Let us see how this works. Part II of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” begins with the sentence, “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry” (T. & I.T. 17). Note that, as Duchamp was to do in “The Creative Act,” Eliot has shifted ground from the artist to the work and especially to the reception of that work by its audience. In the final paragraph of Part I, after all, the “continual self-sacrifice” and “depersonalization” had been the poet’s. But now, without warning, it is the reader/spectator who is warned that it is the poetry, not the poet, whose role, Eliot and Duchamp agree, is that of a medium. In Eliot’s words, “The mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one . . . by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” (T.& I.T. 18, my emphasis). In Duchamp’s:

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.

If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out. (SS 138, my emphasis)

Here Duchamp gently tweaks Eliot’s meaning: for the latter, the mind as medium evidently produces those “new combinations” quite consciously, whereas Duchamp regards the mediumistic process as wholly intuitive. But the two artists agree on the central separation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” and, accordingly Eliot’s grand pronouncement that “the difference between art and the event is always absolute” is endorsed by Duchamp, who speaks of the “phenomenon of transmutation,” and concludes that “through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place” (SS 140).

The difference between art and the event is always absolute. For the past half century or so, it is this declaration and its corollaries that has given Eliot a bad name. From Williams and the Black Mountain poets, whose mantra was that “Form is never more than the extension of content”— content being the poet’s intentional ideational base—to the confessionals, the Beats and the New York poets, Eliot became the bête noire. In “Personism: A Manifesto,” Frank O’Hara declared that, while he was writing a poem for a particular friend, he realized “that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. . . . the poem is at last between two persons instead of two readers.” [6] And John Cage spoke eloquently of “purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play”:

This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord. [7]

Such sixties movements as Fluxus carried Cage’s program to its extreme, their performances and artworks purporting to present to their audiences slices of actual life: someone putting cold cream on her hands and rubbing them, someone else balancing a full wine glass on his head until it spills, and so on. Yet the life =art equation was always something of a ruse. At a performance of Cage’s James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, which I first saw performed in the mid-eighties, I noticed that a woman who came down the aisle of the orchestra in spike heels, was asked to take off her shoes because the clicking sound distracted the audience from the performance itself. The same rule applied when an infant began to cry. “Permission granted,” as Cage quipped in A Year from Monday, “But not to do whatever you want.” [8] As for such O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that poems” as “A Step Away from Them” or “Rhapsody,” the seemingly casual “high and dry” surface is in fact highly structured, every word, sound, and visual phrase contributing to a carefully planned effect.

Duchamp seems to have understood this seeming contradiction. Poets and artists, himself included, could protest all they wanted that there was no distinction between art and life, or between high and low art, but, in the end, “the difference between art and the event was always absolute.” Consider Cage’s praise for Duchamp’s Large Glass [The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even] :

The thing that I like so much is that I can focus my attention wherever I wish. It helps me to blur the distinction between art and life and produces a kind of silence in the work itself. There is nothing in it that requires me to look in one place or another or, in fact, requires me to look at all. I can look through it to the world beyond.” [9]

But Cage acknowledges that when he looks at Etant Donnés, the Philadelphia peep-hole piece, with its spread-eagled nude female body, he has no such freedom: here vision is “all prescribed.” “So,” Cage concludes, “]Duchamp] is telling us something that we perhaps haven’t yet learned, when we speak as we do so glibly of the blurring of the distinction between art and life” (Kostelanetz 180).

And there we have it. Cage acknowledges that the blurring of art and life doesn’t take place as readily as we think. Indeed, even in the case of the Large Glass, we now know, thanks to the publication of Duchamp’s notes and to a host of critical studies, especially Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s monumental Duchamp in Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), nothing in the Large Glass was left to chance. On the contrary, the placement on the glass surface of the various figures like the “Malic Moulds” and the “Oculist’s Witnesses,” the bifurcation of the surface into two halves—the upper “bride” panel and the lower “bachelors” one, the symbolic function of individual images, and the meaning of the cracked glass itself—all these have been shown to have subtle and complex implications designed by its maker. Whatever the passions and erotic notions that motivated the composition of Duchamp’s Large Glass, whatever his mathematical theories and notes on the Fourth Dimension, it is not, to cite Eliot, “the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts” (T.& I.T. 19).

For Duchamp, the gap between “what [the artist] intended to realize and did realize is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work.” What makes the “actual transubstantiation” into a work of art happen? Duchamp makes no claim to know, but then even Eliot asserts that Keats’s “Ode on a Nightingale” “contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, partly because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together” (T.& I.T. 19).

“Never trust the artist,” D. H. Lawrence declared, “Trust the tale.” [10] For Duchamp, as for Eliot, biographical criticism was anathema. Eliot’s fear of self-revelation is, of course, legendary, and he had every reason to mask his private self, to long for the “escape from emotion,” the “escape from personality,” he speaks of in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Duchamp may have had less to hide, but he too was plagued by gossip about his possibly incestuous feelings for his sister Susanne, his rivalry with his painter brothers, and the mercenary motive for his six-month marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in1927. Duchamp, moreover, was extremely secretive about his work: in the years when he was working on Etant Donnés, his friends assumed he had given up art for chess.

The art object, in this context, must be considered autonomous; the upside-down urinal called Fountain, the snow shovel called In Defense of the Broken Arm, the french window called Fresh Widow: none of these seem directly connected to Duchamp, although of course, as in the case of Eliot, one can read the artist’s biography into all these readymades. For Duchamp, as for Eliot, masking was central: Rrose Sélavy, even though “she” is obviously Marcel in drag, is the counterpart to J. Alfred Prufrock or Gerontion. And Duchamp’s puns match Eliot’s conceits as elaborate distancing distancing devices: “Ovaire toute la nuit,” for example, with its play on “Ouvert” and hence “Ovary/Open all night” could refer to those Eliotic “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.”

“The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Yet—and here is the final irony—even though Duchamp, like Eliot, separates the creative act itself from its creator, he manages, with typical slyness, to turn the attention on the artist after all. “Millions of artists create;” he declares, “only a few thousands [sic] are discussed by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity” (SS 138). Clearly, this seemingly insouciant artist considers himself one of the above. Indeed, if “the difference between art and the event is always absolute,” the artist, unable to explain what it is he is doing, becomes all the more mysterious and interesting. The Eliot of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is more modest: when he tells us that “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them” (T.& I.T. 15), he makes no overt brief for his own work. And yet, near the essay’s end, Eliot cannot resist a little one-upmanship in the form of sarcasm:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. (T. & I. T. 21).

There it is: the self-importance that often gives Eliot a bad press. Duchamp is more circumspect; he ends his essay by putting the burden on the spectator: it is the spectator who “gives the final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists” (SS 140).

Was Duchamp one of the forgotten? Yes and no. In 1957, when he wrote these words, the avant-garde of the early century was in eclipse, especially in France, although Duchamp remained very much at the center of the New York art world, now dominated by the Surrealist exiles from Europe. Thus Marcel was, in true Duchampian style, able to have it both ways. Yet it is perhaps Eliot who has the last laugh. For even as the poet concludes “Tradition and the Individual Talent” with the insistence that poetry is the “expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet” (T.& I.T. 22), he is carefully making a place for himself—no longer Tom now but the newly created British T. S. Eliot– as the author of “really new” work of art that modifies the “ideal order” of the “existing monuments.” “And should I have the right to smile?” asks the young man in the final line of “Portrait of a Lady.” In the scheme of things, the answer is surely yes.


Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, translated from the Frech by Ron Padgett (New York: Viking, 1971), pp. 16, 47-48.

See Eric Cameron, “Given” and the “Discussion” that follows, in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 1-39. Krauss’s comments are on 31, 35, 37.

Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 51.

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1953), p. 18. Subsequently cited as TIT. Duchamp’s citation appears in “The Creative Act,” Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975), pp. 138-40; see p. 138. This book is subsequently cited as SS.

Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 197.

Frank O’Hara, “Personism” (1959),Collected Poems, ed Donald Allen (New York: Knopf, 1971), pp. 498-499.

John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1957), in Silence, Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 12.

Cage, “Seriously Comma” (1966), in A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 28.

See Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Press, 988), pp. 179-80.

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 14.

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