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 â€œart workâ€ and break down the distinction between â€˜artâ€ and â€œlife.â€ It was Duchamp, after all, who was known to insist, â€œI donâ€™t believe in the creative function of the artist. Heâ€™s a man like any other,â€ and to declare that his own â€œchoice of readymades [was] always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.â€ When Pierre Cabanne asked him how he came to choose â€œa mass-produced object, a â€˜readymade,â€™ to make a work of art,â€ Duchamp characteristically protested:
Please note that I didnâ€™t want to make a work of art out of it. The word â€œreadymadeâ€ 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 â€˜readymade,â€™ or anything else. It was just a distraction. 
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. â€œEliotâ€™s conception of tradition,â€ she insists, â€œhis idea of high culture, his notion that art is redemptive, seems to me to be so far from my understanding of Duchamp. I just donâ€™t know where to look in Duchamp to find anything that would connect to this.â€ And a little later in the discussion, when Cameron suggests that Jules Laforgue may have been the â€œconnecting point between Eliot and Duchampâ€”as a way out of Symbolism,â€ Krauss declares herself â€œenormously hostile to such a move. I think it is a betrayal of Duchamp,â€ for whom all â€œbelief systemsâ€ were anathema. Indeed, Krauss concludes, â€˜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 â€œart system,â€ of which a poet like Eliot was such a faithful proponent, had to be exploded. 
This view of Duchampâ€™s iconoclasm can be traced back to Peter BÃ¼rger 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. . . . Duchampâ€™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. 
As such, Duchampâ€™s â€œprovocationâ€ 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 â€œThe Creative Actâ€? The citation is to â€œTradition and the Individual Talentâ€:
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. 
The occasion was a roundtable discussion held at the meeting of the American Federation of the Arts in Houston in April 1957. Duchampâ€™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 â€œmere artist,â€ Duchamp slyly turned the tables on his illustrious colleagues by taking, of all things, the position that there is such a thing as â€œgreat art,â€ and that only history can provide the â€œverdictâ€ as to which of the countless productive artists working at a given moment has â€œgenius.â€ And he cites, of all texts, Eliotâ€™s â€œTradition and the Individual Talent.â€
Critics have tended to surmise that Duchampâ€™s invocation of Eliot must be tongue-in-cheek. â€œThe little essay is wickedly subversive,â€ writes Duchampâ€™s biographer Calvin Tomkins, explaining that â€œThe Creative Actâ€ is poking fun at the inflated claims of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the fifties,  artists whose elaborate statements of intent implied that each brushstroke had been calculated to express the artistâ€™s inner consciousness. From Courbet to the Abstractionists, Duchamp complained, the optical had won out (Cabanne, 43), as had the emphasis on the artistâ€™s direct â€œtouch.â€ 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 â€œTradition and the Individual Talent,â€ 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 painterâ€™s own mood and ethos. Even Duchampâ€™s rivals Picasso and Matisse remained, however distorted their representations, squarely in this tradition. Thus, we can think of Eliotâ€™s famous sentence, â€œThe progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,â€ 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 â€œTradition and the Individual Talentâ€ begins with the sentence, â€œHonest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetryâ€ (T. & I.T. 17). Note that, as Duchamp was to do in â€œThe Creative Act,â€ 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 â€œcontinual self-sacrificeâ€ and â€œdepersonalizationâ€ had been the poetâ€™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 Eliotâ€™s words, â€œThe 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 combinationsâ€ (T.& I.T. 18, my emphasis). In Duchampâ€™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 Eliotâ€™s meaning: for the latter, the mind as medium evidently produces those â€œnew combinationsâ€ quite consciously, whereas Duchamp regards the mediumistic process as wholly intuitive. But the two artists agree on the central separation between â€œthe man who suffers and the mind which creates,â€ and, accordingly Eliotâ€™s grand pronouncement that â€œthe difference between art and the event is always absoluteâ€ is endorsed by Duchamp, who speaks of the â€œphenomenon of transmutation,â€ and concludes that â€œthrough the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken placeâ€ (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 â€œForm is never more than the extension of contentâ€â€” content being the poetâ€™s intentional ideational baseâ€”to the confessionals, the Beats and the New York poets, Eliot became the bÃªte noire. In â€œPersonism: A Manifesto,â€ Frank Oâ€™Hara declared that, while he was writing a poem for a particular friend, he realized â€œthat 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.â€  And John Cage spoke eloquently of â€œpurposeful purposelessness or a purposeless playâ€:
This play, however, is an affirmation of lifeâ€”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 weâ€™re living, which is so excellent once one gets oneâ€™s mind and oneâ€™s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord. 
Such sixties movements as Fluxus carried Cageâ€™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 Cageâ€™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. â€œPermission granted,â€ as Cage quipped in A Year from Monday, â€œBut not to do whatever you want.â€  As for such Oâ€™Haraâ€™s â€œI do this, I do that poemsâ€ as â€œA Step Away from Themâ€ or â€œRhapsody,â€ the seemingly casual â€œhigh and dryâ€ 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, â€œthe difference between art and the event was always absolute.â€ Consider Cageâ€™s praise for Duchampâ€™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.â€ 
But Cage acknowledges that when he looks at Etant DonnÃ©s, the Philadelphia peep-hole piece, with its spread-eagled nude female body, he has no such freedom: here vision is â€œall prescribed.â€ â€œSo,â€ Cage concludes, â€œ]Duchamp] is telling us something that we perhaps havenâ€™t yet learned, when we speak as we do so glibly of the blurring of the distinction between art and lifeâ€ (Kostelanetz 180).
And there we have it. Cage acknowledges that the blurring of art and life doesnâ€™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 Duchampâ€™s notes and to a host of critical studies, especially Linda Dalrymple Hendersonâ€™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 â€œMalic Mouldsâ€ and the â€œOculistâ€™s Witnesses,â€ the bifurcation of the surface into two halvesâ€”the upper â€œbrideâ€ panel and the lower â€œbachelorsâ€ one, the symbolic function of individual images, and the meaning of the cracked glass itselfâ€”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 Duchampâ€™s Large Glass, whatever his mathematical theories and notes on the Fourth Dimension, it is not, to cite Eliot, â€œthe 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 countsâ€ (T.& I.T. 19).
For Duchamp, the gap between â€œwhat [the artist] intended to realize and did realize is the personal â€˜art coefficientâ€™ contained in the work.â€ What makes the â€œactual transubstantiationâ€ into a work of art happen? Duchamp makes no claim to know, but then even Eliot asserts that Keatsâ€™s â€œOde on a Nightingaleâ€ â€œcontains 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 togetherâ€ (T.& I.T. 19).
â€œNever trust the artist,â€ D. H. Lawrence declared, â€œTrust the tale.â€  For Duchamp, as for Eliot, biographical criticism was anathema. Eliotâ€™s fear of self-revelation is, of course, legendary, and he had every reason to mask his private self, to long for the â€œescape from emotion,â€ the â€œescape from personality,â€ he speaks of in â€œTradition and the Individual Talent.â€ 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 DonnÃ©s, 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 artistâ€™s biography into all these readymades. For Duchamp, as for Eliot, masking was central: Rrose SÃ©lavy, even though â€œsheâ€ is obviously Marcel in drag, is the counterpart to J. Alfred Prufrock or Gerontion. And Duchampâ€™s puns match Eliotâ€™s conceits as elaborate distancing distancing devices: â€œOvaire toute la nuit,â€ for example, with its play on â€œOuvertâ€ and hence â€œOvary/Open all nightâ€ could refer to those Eliotic â€œsawdust restaurants with oyster shells.â€
â€œThe more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.â€ Yetâ€”and here is the final ironyâ€”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. â€œMillions of artists create;â€ he declares, â€œonly a few thousands [sic] are discussed by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterityâ€ (SS 138). Clearly, this seemingly insouciant artist considers himself one of the above. Indeed, if â€œthe difference between art and the event is always absolute,â€ the artist, unable to explain what it is he is doing, becomes all the more mysterious and interesting. The Eliot of â€œTradition and the Individual Talentâ€ is more modest: when he tells us that â€œThe existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among themâ€ (T.& I.T. 15), he makes no overt brief for his own work. And yet, near the essayâ€™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 â€œgives the final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artistsâ€ (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 â€œTradition and the Individual Talentâ€ with the insistence that poetry is the â€œexpression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poetâ€ (T.& I.T. 22), he is carefully making a place for himselfâ€”no longer Tom now but the newly created British T. S. Eliot– as the author of â€œreally newâ€ work of art that modifies the â€œideal orderâ€ of the â€œexisting monuments.â€ â€œAnd should I have the right to smile?â€ asks the young man in the final line of â€œPortrait of a Lady.â€ 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, â€œGivenâ€ and the â€œDiscussionâ€ that follows, in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 1-39. Kraussâ€™s comments are on 31, 35, 37.
 Peter BÃ¼rger, Theory of the Avant Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 51.
 T. S. Eliot, â€œTradition and the Individual Talent,â€ Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1953), p. 18. Subsequently cited as TIT. Duchampâ€™s citation appears in â€œThe Creative Act,â€ 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 Oâ€™Hara, â€œPersonismâ€ (1959),Collected Poems, ed Donald Allen (New York: Knopf, 1971), pp. 498-499.
 John Cage, â€œExperimental Musicâ€ (1957), in Silence, Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 12.
 Cage, â€œSeriously Commaâ€ (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.