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The Modern Fetish

WHAT DO MAX KLINGER’S GLOVE, Georges Braque’s guitar, Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower, Umberto Boccioni’s bottle, and Marcel Duchimp’s readymade have in common? How is it possible to say that they also share something fundamental with Picasso’s Head of a Woman, ca. 1909, Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s Maggy, 1911, and Constantin Brancusi’s Mlle. Pogany, 1912? Is it important that all these latter are heads of women, that they are considered seminal works, that they were created relatively early in their makers’ careers, that they were assessed as crucial to each artist’s development, and that they earned each a reputation for originality and innovation?

All these objects, I want to claim, have a fetishistic function. They are whole works of art that function the way single objects function in certain pictures, like the candle in Max Beckmann’s The Night, 1918–19, and the horn in his Family Portrait, 1920; like the various objects in Giorgio de Chirico’s and René Magritte’s pictures. From Man Ray’s Gift, 1921, through Alberto Giacometti’s Disagreeable Object, 1931, and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-covered Teacup, Saucer, and Spoon, 1936, to Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison (Woman-house, 1981), and Meyer Vaisman’s The Whole Public Thing, 1986, a strong streak of fetishism travels through Modern art. This has certainly been acknowledged, but it has not been adequately investigated. Does William Rubin, for example, realize the full import when he remarks, referring to Picasso’s idiosyncratic collection of “visually interesting” materials “ranging from paintings, sculptures, and textiles to musical instruments (both tribal and modern), bibelots, souvenirs, and toys,” that “Picasso held on to this material with fetishistic devotion throughout his life”?1 Too often we have relied on the word “fetishistic” when we want to suggest an obsessive commitment. But what is the nature of the obsession itself? Do we really understand the weight of the word “fetishistic”?

The “invisible object” that Alberto Giacometti’s female figure is holding in the 1934–35 sculpture of that title, the constellation of objects in Haim Steinbach’s Spirit I, 1987, the equally highly sheened objects made by Richard Artschwager, R.M. Fischer, Rebecca Horn, and Jeff Koons—their intense polish their most salient quality, making them vibrantly alert with a strange consciousness for all their inanimateness—all resonate with fetishistic significance. Thus it is important that Koons’ vacuum cleaners and Steinbach’s exercise machines look simultaneously brand new and age old. Steinbach in fact uses archaeological artifacts and decorative objects associated with “high art” alongside contemporary consumer products, suggesting a cross-pollination. For Modern art long ago discovered, in Jean Rousselot’s words, that “there are no poetic objects as opposed to others that are not”2—indicating “the crisis of the object,” as it was called in a 1936 issue of Cahiers d’art. But the reason for both the discovery and the crisis has not always been clear. It is because all objects, through stylistic transformation, can be given fetishistic implications, can be “assisted” to fetishism, like Duchamp’s assisted readymades. All objects implicitly embody—again in Rousselot’s words—"the harshnesses and impurities of the world,”3 and so especially, we might add, the impurities of the psychic world. What, then, are the fetish and fetishism? Though psychoanalytic theory has gone through a significant shift in orientation over the years, certain characteristics of the fetish object have been rather consistently defined. It is, first of all, as Phyllis Greenacre notes, “a non-genital object [used] as part of the sexual act without which gratification cannot be obtained.”4 Often, “not only the possession of the object but a ritualistic use of it . . . is essential.”5 According to Freud, the male fetishist regressively believes in the primal fantasy that woman—the mother, everybody’s first woman, as it were—has a phallus. The fetishist clings to this infantile fantasy with unconscious tenacity. The fetish is a “compromise” construction—“such as is only possible in the realm of unconscious modes of thought”6—that provisionally resolves, by psychically functioning as a substitute phallus, the conflict between “the unwelcome perception” of woman’s lack of a penis and “the opposite wish” that she have one.7

Recent psychoanalytic thinking argues in effect that the oedipal drives serve as a kind of symbolic camouflage for the pre-oedipal conflict, the ego-splitting of the body image, that occurs when the child confronts its individuation from the mother. The fetish, in this case, as Robert Stoller notes, is “a body part (or an inanimate related object such as a garment) . . . split off from the whole human object.”8 According to Greenacre, the fetish functions as a “new body, . . . a sublimely economic condensation”9 of the mother’s body that provides, “especially through vision,”10 the illusory comfort of union with the mother and simultaneously disengagement, detachment, disidentification from her. The fetishist’s transformation of prosaic objects into poetic symbols is convincing and binding because it reflects the relationship between mother and child, the most intimate, exclusive, and complete relationship there is. It serves to overcome separation anxiety, thereby satisfying a deeper need than the sexual, for it is implicit in these interpretations that the sexual is both the mask and medium of the self.

Greenacre has suggested that there are many social conditions “where the fetish is not related specifically to the genital performance.” It can function “as an amulet or magical object, as a symbolic object in religious rites, as a token in romantic love, and as a special property in children’s play.”11 And, we might add, it can function in an artistic rite or as a special property in artistic play. Any object “capable of remaining intact outside the body so that it may at the same time be visually introjected”12 can operate fetishistically, so long as “the . . . demand for indestructibility of the fetish” be satisfied to assure the fetish’s “reliability” as a “supplement to fill a sense of lack in the body [and self] image.”13 In these terms, then, one way of compensating for a sense of lack in the body—of making a body unconsciously experienced as defective seem complete or adequate—is through the supplement of the work of art. In fact, what more reliable source can this fantasy demand than works of art, whose presumable immortality—“eternal presence,” as it has been called—signals indestructibility?

It is essential to note that psychoanalytic theories identify the initial need for the fetish object as emerging out of the “anxiety-provoking situation” in which the conflict between dependence on and independence from the mother is most intense. In this situation, the fetish as “security prop” brings anxiety under “illusory control.”14 This idea finds its parallel in art, where, typically, we have seen the fetishistic artwork emerge in our century at similarly sensitive, conflict-filled moments in the artist’s creative development, the times when he or she, bound to a nurturing tradition, struggles to assert independence from that tradition. Much as Antaeus renewed his strength through contact with his mother the Earth, the Modern artist has been acknowledged as most potent when he or she creates an object that taps the imagined power of the phallic mother. It is no wonder that in the 20th century, when tradition bears down so heavily, the creation of fetishistic works, works full of “still life”—repressed life—has become one of the signifiers of important creative achievement.

Here it must be remarked that while Freud discusses fetishism as essentially a masculine phenomenon—and Greenacre follows him, noting that “fetishism, like genital exhibitionism, is a condition limited almost entirely to males”15—yet the making of fetish objects is of course not confined to men. Given the oblivion to which history has consigned so much women’s art, it is difficult to construct an ancestry for the female-produced fetish object. Yet such works have been and are being made, and a number of theoreticians, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel foremost among them, point the way to some useful interpretations.

There is, first of all, sufficient clinical literature to corroborate the notion that the female as well as the male child may in some cases internalize severe anxiety at the recognition of the mother’s penislessness. Equally important, as Chasseguet—Smirgel posits,16 the penis may be understood symbolically rather than literally as the emblem of security and power for both men and women. Thus, artists of both sexes would gain strength by attempting to reify its power in their work. (This reading would not deny the importance of vaginal imagery for some artists.) In this sense—as the phallus, rather than the penis—it can be associated unconsciously with people and things perceived as powerful, and thus we arrive at the fantasy of the phallic mother.

And so a kind of reversal, or shift, has taken place: where the oedipal consideration of the fetish in the early years of psychoanalysis emphasized its value as an instrument and support of masculinity, the more recent pre-oedipal consideration of the fetish emphasizes that, by evoking primary identification and union with the mother, it puts the child in her position. If we apply this understanding to the modern artist, this risky yet unavoidable position seems at once secure and safe,but also potentially self-annihilating, suicidal, and thus a position fraught with creative possibilities.The very threat of self-loss in the identification can serve as a spur to the Modern artist’s self-creation. By fetishistically mimicking the phallic mother (the Urkünstler, the primary artist or creator)—often evidenced in identification with the female model, or in the emphasis on the female as subject matter—the artist may marshal the power to give birth, to bring a new object into the world. (An object, it should be noted, that, like a child, is “typical,” is “traditional,” yet also unique. For the artist as “first parent"—the mother—is, in fact, what the notion of the artist’s “divinity” articulates in metaphoric disguise.) The fetish, in this case an idealization of origination and originality, reflects the artist’s anxiety in creating that new object—the fear of impotence, inconsequence—at the same time that its production signals a triumph over that anxiety: potency and significance.

At this moment of creative anxiety, the Modern artists discussed in this article have been at their most “perverse,” as it were. For just as Stoller has pointed out that “unconscious risk-taking” is “a prime component of the sense of excitement and sexual pleasure in perversion,” is an antidote to “sexual boredom,”17 the risk-taking implicit in producing a fetishistic work of art can be an antidote to creative boredom. Indeed, it is a cliché of Modern art that the risk-takers are the ones who produce the greatest art. In fact, the more perversely new and risky that art, the more we honor it. And further, the more those works of art seem to embody a perverse fantasy—seem simultaneously hostile and ideal, inhuman and erotic, cruelly destroyed yet reinvented objects18—the more unconsciously taken with them we are. (Andy Warhol’s subtly abusive treatment of Marilyn Monroe is one exemplary case.) The modern artist’s alternations between bouts of ennui and fits of spleen, to use Charles Baudelaire’s distinction, can be seen as an expression of the predicament of the would-be phallic artist, whose struggle against the bourgeoisie—which will at first resist and then assimilate and master the rebel, quite easily, it seems, these days—has engendered an ever more regressive relationship to the phallic woman, and thus an inevitable intensification of fetishism in modern art. In a situation in which the artist must sail between the Scylla of social assimilation and the Charybdis of social groundlessness, a primary course can be unconscious appeal to the mother, the perverse use of the mothering medium or of the mothering tradition. It may be that the risk-taking modern artist is unwittingly acting out bourgeois fantasies of risk-taking and perversity, that works of art in general have become bourgeois fetishes, that is, constructions rejuvenating and signaling the “brilliance” of bourgeois power. That still unsurpassed exemplary fetishization of the aggressive rebellious artist remains Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, 1897. Balzac is literally phallic, and even beneath his robes, as preliminary models suggest, he has an erection, signaling his creative power. Even in public, he can walk around with an erection, invisible, yet communicated in his arrogant bearing. It is no accident, I believe, that this is a representation of a writer who so forcefully revealed the vicious psyche of the bourgeois—in fact, integrated its fantasies and realities into his own behavior—and was honored for this by the public he so violently barbed. For the bourgeoisie will honor those who reveal their pathology, so long as it is revealed as evidence of their excessive phallic power, and fetishized.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, however, lends an interesting twist to the interpretation of the fetish, arguing that it represents a fantasy of “an anal phallus which attempts to exclude the genital penis from the sexual stage.”19 This notion is relevant for the interpretation of many 20th-century works. Duchamp’s readymades, for example, through their radical antiart stance, can be seen to mock the potency of the traditional artist’s genital phallicness. Fountain, 1917, seems to do this explicitly. (Clearly, its point is to call attention both to the penis and to the lack of it. For by itself, the urinal is a penisless woman—a female receptacle in shape. With the imagined addition of the penis of the man urinating in it, it symbolically becomes a phallic woman.) The twisted composition of flattened objects in his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23, is a tour de force of fetishistic ritual: a radical bifurcation of masculine and feminine imagery in which the bachelors spill their seed as homage to the bride. This masturbatory fantasy indicates a perverse fascination with a regressive, implicitly incestuous, pregenital union with the mother. In fact, throughout his career Duchamp consistently offers us works of art based on anality, “the nipple in the mouth, the stool in the rectum,” denying genitality, sweeping away the father “like a magic wand.”20 (Think of his nipple piece, Please Touch, 1947.)

Thus it hardly seems surprising that more recent artists such as Ashley Bickerton, Frank Majore, John Miller, and Cindy Sherman, who mock the decadence of art and society by linking them in a common destiny, utilize or feature our society’s “objective” remains, fetishizing its hardened feces, as it were, bringing it to a bright, polished, expensive shine in works that seem to defy putrefaction in the act of vigorously, if ironically, asserting it. Like any fetish, these artist’s objects are “essentially excremental,” idealized excrement, excrement made “colored, bright, sparkling, glittering,”21 cosmetically appealing, excrement glamorously “made up.” In recent years, few more excremental objects have been made than Jeff Koons’ silvered trophies.

Exploring another “magic wand” that sweeps away the father, Chasseguet-Smirgel proposes that “the practice of embalming . . . exactly produces a fetish,” by recalling the frequent fantasy of the mother’s “unspoiled beauty.”22 And indeed, through intense stylization, artists have embalmed that desired-for unspoiled beauty—think of all those radiant Italian madonnas glowing in the idealizing light cast by the infant’s love for them, reflected in their own eyes, lighting up at the very fact of his existence—and we might also smile, recalling Freud’s interpretation of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Ultimately, art in general might be understood as a kind of embalming of an important, deep content. Chasseguet-Smirgel writes:

Puppets, mannequins, waxworks, automatons, dolls, painted scenery, plaster casts, dummies, secret clockworks, mimesis and illusion: all form a part of the fetishist’s magic and artful universe. Lying between life and death, animated and mechanic, hybrid creatures and creatures to which hubris gave birth, they all may be likened to fetishes. And, as fetishes, they give us, for a while, the feeling that a world not ruled by our common laws does exist, a marvellous and uncanny world.23

One can’t help but think of all the modern works involving the mannequin/puppet/doll, from Duchamp’s dioramic last work, Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. the waterfall, 2. the illuminating gas, 1946–66), to the “stage sets” of Edward Kienholz and the life-size plaster figures of George Segal, from the morbid mannequinlike prostitutes in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, to Salvador Dali’s violated mannequins of the ’30s, from Hans Bellmer’s dolls to the eerie creations of Duane Hanson and John de Andrea. The whole artificial cosmos that art is—its inherent theatricality, exhibitionism—is explicable in terms of fetishism, down to the tendency of the male artist to both abuse and idealize, dispute and identify with the female figure, often simultaneously.

In my opinion, we see this dynamic at work most notoriously in Matisse’s four-sculpture series “The Backs,” which was begun in ca. 1909, and culminates in the fourth, final, and emotionally as well as stylistically climactic piece of 1931. Matisse turns the female figure away from us so that we cannot see her lack of a penis. Then, in this series, head and spine transform into scrotum sac and phallus before our eyes. Something similar occurs with the figure of the bound and trussed woman in Beckmann’s The Night. Her back is to us, but a candle is placed on the floor in front of her rigid body—at the level of her buttocks. In David Salle’s paintings, his female figure is frequently embalmed by her fashionableness—she is typically a kind of mannequin/model—and is often seen from behind, while phallic rigidity is split off from the body image, assigned to/displaced on the inanimate objects in the picture. (One can’t help but connect Salle’s images with Dali’s Young Virgin Self-Sodomized by her own Chastity, 1954, in which the phalluses that threaten to violate the woman are explicitly defined as her own, yet conspicuously rendered as independent of her body.) And primary identification with the phallic woman might be seen as the core of Francesco Clemente’s “The Fourteen Stations” series, 1981–82, in which Clemente presents seemingly contradictory views of the female figure. In one picture, three hovering, witchlike—bewitching—spirits look down at us, reducing us to the child’s position. In another, a woman, again in triplicate, is shown in a prostitutional pose: suggestively seen from the rear, with forbidden but enticing anal entry implied. I would argue that it is because the prostitute permits the forbidden pregenital acts desired with the mother that her image is wed in art to the fantasy of the anal phallus. The fact is that the infantile man rarely relates to the prostitute with the genital phallus, but generally practices the forbidden acts of fellatio and sodomy. Similarly, in the infantile position imposed by creative anxiety, it would be reassuring to the male artist to posit an image of woman that is also the mother in disguise. We have certainly seen mother/prostitute emerge as a typical binary pair, as a vision of woman as either/or, in modern art. But through the lens of psychoanalytic fetish theory, we could see them as two sides of the same psychic coin.

Returning to Matisse, in his Jeannette V, 1910–13, the bulbous forehead and nose of the female face form a genital unity. Here again, Matisse’s tendency to abstraction suggests a fantasy of the phallic woman, for his destruction of the integrity of the female figure is often inseparable from the phallic idealization of “suggestive” parts of it. In fact, it may be that the Ego Ideal of the fetishist, which, as Chasseguet-Smirgel says, “remains attached to a pregenital model,”24 would be best realized through abstraction. (The fetish is of course an object abstracted from the body, and abstract in itself.) As she says, “Pregenitality, part objects, erotogenic zones, instincts: all must be idealized by the pervert so that he may be able to pretend to himself and to others that his pregenital sexuality is equal, if not superior, to genitality.”25 What distinguishes the modern fetish-art makers from the Freudianly defined pervert, of course, is that rather than being “threatened [by] the disclosure of the infantile, pregenital nature of [their] sexual attributes,”26they have been willing, with both conscious and unconscious exhibitionism, to flaunt “the undifferentiated sexual dispositions of the child,” diverting them to “higher asexual aims” to “provide the energy for a great number of our cultural achievements.”27

At the same time, in Jeannette V, for example, and in the other female head pieces mentioned, we can also see at work the full violative implication of the male artist’s treatment of the female. For to phallicize the head of the woman—the symbolic locus of self and mind—is to deny her any other identity than that of mother to the creatively ambitious artist. The problem is that in reducing woman to the phallic role, the artist and the public often think that this constitutes relating to woman more “authentically.”

THE GRANDFATHER OF the modern fetish object is Max Klinger’s glove. The ten etchings of his series “A Glove,” 1878–1880 (engraved in several editions, 1881 on), tell the story of a young man’s traumatizing obsession with a lost glove. The seventh drawing, Anxieties, suggests the total irrationality of the young man’s relationship with the increasingly obscene, grotesque glove: the intensity of ambivalent feeling he has invested in an object that clearly suggests a female body part.

Klinger’s series had a profound influence on de Chirico, and through de Chirico on the Surrealists, and through the Surrealists on such artists who simultaneously adulate and punish the object as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lucas Samaras. (Joseph Cornell’s boxes seem to be the bridge between the European and American surreally oriented object-artists.) The fragmentation that is central to Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Expressionism has been deployed in different ways in this century to divide and conquer the body. Each of these seminal Modernist styles is an apotheosis of destruction and idealization: dismemberment itself, we might say, through the ever-shifting balance between bodily substance and body shapes in the work, becomes a fetishistic ritual. Think of Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), 1910; Hannah Höch’s The Mother, 1930; Victor Brauner’s The Morphology of Man, 1934; Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” paintings of the ’50s. The aura of losing control, or of incomplete control—as in compositions that don’t quite congeal, that retain a rawness, that seem arbitrary assemblages about to fall apart, that suffer from body image problems—is crucial to the work of the contemporary fetishmakers mentioned, to which list we might add the work of others, from the self-constructing, self-destructing machines of Jean Tinguely, to the huge and disjunctive compositions of James Rosenquist, to the smashed-plate paintings of Julian Schnabel. Though these approaches evolved independently of Klinger, nonetheless his conscious indifference to conventional technical excellence and solid unified structure, his grimness (for which he was both faulted and celebrated), and the harshness of his apparently ill-composed etchings, with their vertiginous, centrifugal look, suggest him as an important precursor of Modern disintegrative strategies.

Certainly Klinger’s glove is the fetish object par excellence. For an item of women’s clothing, Freud proposes, is generally “the last impression received before the uncanny traumatic one,"28 and therefore typically becomes the fetish object. “Thus,” he wrote, “the foot or shoe owes its attraction as a fetish, or part of it, to the circumstance that the inquisitive boy used to peer up the woman’s legs toward her genitals. Velvet and fur reproduce—as has long been suspected—the sight of the pubic hair which ought to have revealed the longed-for penis; the underlinen so often adopted as a fetish reproduces the scene of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.”29 Kurt Seligmann’s Ultra-Furniture, 1938, Magritte’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, 1947, and Rosemarie Trockel’s Schwarzendlos Strümpfe (Black endless stockings, 1987) certainly seem to commemorate this moment. Greenacre notes, from clinical studies, that “articles of clothing are the most common [fetishes] and include soft silky feminine undergarments. But the commonest fetish of all is the shoe.”30 A glove, in German, is a Handschuh, that is, a shoe for the hand. Both glove and shoe share another important quality—they contain and constrict part of the body. And as Greenacre writes, “thongs, laces, and straps”31—and other items that wrap and constrain—apotheosize skin-closeness with the mother, absolute bonding with or bondage to the phallic woman. Christo’s wrappings of buildings might be seen as hyperbolic examples of such fetishization. Think also of collage—the preoccupation with the skin of the picture. Indeed, the works of Kurt Schwitters fetishize surface as much as they do the dregs of everyday life, their tactility suggesting the anal and excremental.32 In line with this, soft sculpture, from Duchamp’s Traveller’s Folding Item, 1916, and Man Ray’s The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1921, to Claes Oldenburg’s and Eva Hesse’s soft sculptures of the 1960s, clearly disputes the genitally firm or hard.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers, such as Tulips, 1987, and Calla Lily, 1988, are perfect fetishistic gloves—metaphoric orifices that offer a tight, intimate fit for the fantasy anal phallus. Mapplethorpe’s portraits of body parts—climaxing in his phallicization of Lisa Lyon’s already phallic body in 1980—is what gives rise to Susan Sontag’s assessment of his ability to articulate the “quiddity or isness of something.”33 Sontag’s reliance on the medieval concept of concreteness indicates, I believe, a blindness to the possibility that fetishism in operation can project a seemingly perfect object—and one not just of beauty, but of a superior concreteness—in order to satisfy an illusion of (emotional) perfection. Sontag’s interpretation, acknowledging the idealizing potential of fetishistic activity while disavowing its simultaneously destructive nature, only serves to confirm fetishism’s dual nature, for it is apparently as emotionally difficult to see both aspects of a fetish object at the same time as it is impossible to determine both the position of the electron and its velocity: only one or the other is observable at any given moment.

Greenacre also points out:

Other leather objects [than shoes] . . . all have their place. . . . It is a usual requirement that the fetishistic leather object should not be new, and should have been worn by some woman even when it has a somewhat masculine form.34

Nancy Grossman’s black leathered and zippered sculptures of heads from the late ’60s through the ’80s, and Richard Lindner’s various prostitutional “leathery” women, immediately come to mind, of course.35 But more important is that the requirements Greenacre lists for leather point to the “janus-facedness in the fetish,” as she puts it. “The fetish is conspicuously a bisexual symbol and also serves as a bridge which would both deny and affirm the sexual differences.”36Brancusi’s Adam and Eve, 1921, in which the twisted, compressed form representing the male is the support for the more curved, yet phallic prominence of the form representing the female, is a tour de force demonstration of this, as are many of Bourgeois’ sculptures, Femme Couteau(Knife woman, ca. 1969–70), for example. Equally compelling in this respect is Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror, 1932, in which the woman pictured hallucinating her dark phallic side in the looking glass is one among the many anatomically split ancestors of the mythototemic figures prevalent in the early 1940s work of such artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In recent years, increasing numbers of artists have devoted themselves to important explorations of that “bridge which would both deny and affirm the sexual differences.” In her strange and compelling self-portraits of the 1930s and ’40s, Frida Kahlo, while explicitly rendering her female anatomy, simultaneously emphasized its “masculine”—that is, erect, rigid, severe—qualities. In his film Conversions, 1971, Vito Acconci “disguised” his penis between his legs, visually transforming himself into a female while still effectively announcing himself as male. In her films and performance pieces, Carolee Schneemann explores and explodes conventional notions of female sexuality. Hannah Wilke’s simultaneous abuses and embellishments of her own body dramatize the power—as well as the victimization—of the assertive woman. Luigi Ontani’s “impersonations” of Saint Sebastian, Daphne, and the Angel of the Annunciation, for example, are also metaphysical inquiries into the nature of androgyny. Rhonda Zwillinger’s sequin-adorned medieval armatures, some with breasts, some with phalluses, some with swords, and some with several of these elements, combine a surfacefetishizing that recreates the illusion of complete binding with the mother and the upright, stiff structures that we traditionally associate with male aggression. And Joel-Peter Witkin’s chillingly explicit photographic portraits of hermaphrodites and transvestites force us to question the very notion of sexual and gender difference.

It is certainly Duchamp, I believe, to whom we can look as the source for such explorations of this century. He gives us the phallic woman implicitly in Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912—erect at the top of the staircase, her body, in her descent, reduced in a series of ejaculative spasms from tumescence to detumescence. She then appears more explicitly in L.H.O.O.Q., 1919—by his conversion of the Mona Lisa through the addition of mustache and goatee. He offers her again in an unrealized detail for the bride of the Large Glass—the phallus of the phallic woman—that Duchamp himself called a Pendu Femelle (“female hanging thing”). And Duchamp finally, in his greatest, most conceptual work—his self-creation as Rrose Sélavy—presented himself openly as the phallic woman. Finally permitting, I believe, latent homosexual and transvestite desires to come to the forefront, Duchamp became his own fantasized mother.37

We might, in fact, consider the silence for which Duchamp became famous as a declaration of his complete prostitution to art as, through Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp became the grand courtesan in the bordello of art, the only realm where he could openly enjoy and flaunt his fantasy relationships. And as Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp in the end became Art, that is, the mother of illusion.

Stoller has pointed out that perversion is at bottom “the erotic form of hatred,” that behind the seductiveness of the fetish is the wish “to harm an object.”38 When we look closer at Duchamp’s work with this understanding, and look particularly at his treatment of the human body, his fusion of that body with machines (think also of Picabia’s Universal Prostitution, 1916–17, Oskar Schlemmer’s mechanical dancers of the ’20s, and Vettor Pisani’s installation Studies on Marcel Duchamp, of 1970), we indeed find the object harmed. The fetishist artist/seducer, in harming the object, also succeeds in harming the spectator—who, after all, as Duchamp insisted, gives the work of art its meaning-by stabbing at his or her unconscious, cutting through stylistic expectations, offering something behind Baudelaire’s notion of the surprise of the new. In short, the fetish objects produced by such artists derive their power from stirring up the uncomfortable recognition, whether acknowledged or not, of the most repressed secrets of our psyche and our culture.

And, paradoxically, from the unconscious of Duchamp, history springs us to the self-conscious Warhol, whose assaults on the spectator may suggest the trajectory of the fetish in our century. Warhol, in fact, seeks to seduce us with images that have supposedly already seduced us. From his soup cans and Brillo boxes to his Marilyn Monroes and electric chairs, Warhol panders to us with the overfamiliar, the pervasive and cheap, the loved and limited, the ideal and actual. His work makes clear that the media creates seductive, thoroughly artificial fetish objects through its mechanical process. A genius at recycling the throwaway public fetish, Warhol reinforced the social hostility and indifference embodied in the media’s self-promotion and supposed omnipotence. He made a high art of the delusions of grandeur implicit in the social star, be it person or object—or personified object, or objectified person. Warhol simply extended the star-making—the creative fetishizing process—of our media-oriented society, planting it deep into the art-making process. For the fetishizing process is eagerly—addictively—used by our society to support its performance, its functioning, as though the social body would falter without it. Perhaps this is why the products and the process of the mass media seem to have become the preferred security prop in today’s art.

Source Article from Artfroum Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the editor of Art Criticism. His latest book, The New Subjectivism: Art of the 1980s, was published by U.M.I. Research Press in August. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Lucas Samara, Box #113, mixed media


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