“Retinal” was the word Marcel Duchamp used in the early 20th century to disparage painting designed to stimulate the eye rather than the brain. Duchamp’s objection was to the kind of painting that had emerged with Courbet and been taken up by the impressionists: painting which shunned literary or religious notions and pursued visual representation for its own sake.
Duchamp abandoned oil painting and then abandoned making or displaying art altogether, preferring instead to play chess and to pursue an oblique but influential role on the margins of New York’s art world. His disparagement of retinal art (he also called it “olfactory art,” in reference to those painters who fell in love with the smell of oil paint) was grounded not only in his own interest in abstract ideas but in scepticism about the commodification of modern art and the subjective direction in which so much of it seemed to be headed.
At times, Duchamp’s attitude revealed an almost scientific disdain for the messiness of artistic subjectivity. He preferred the logician’s template, the elegance of chess’s closed circuit and the imperious objectivity of mathematics to the subjective stabs in the dark of art.
Taken on his own, Duchamp seems to me to have been a tremendously exciting figure in the history of 20th-century art. But his legacy has had an enervating effect, encouraging artists with weak ideas, and helping to make irony a sine qua non of success in the contemporary art world. Worst of all, Duchamp’s emphasis on ideas over “retinal” expression undermined the habit of looking.
Science itself may be the place to seek refuge at this point, in an effort to crack open the all but calcified art world debate between optical effects on the one hand and ideas on the other. By analysing sight, and the way images are processed in the brain, it may be possible to state what artists in the “retinal” tradition have intuited for a long time.
“There is increasing evidence from neuroscience for the extraordinarily rich interconnectedness and interactions of the sensory areas of the brain,” wrote Oliver Sacks recently in the New Yorker, “and the difficulty, therefore, of saying that anything is purely visual or purely auditory or purely anything.” Sacks describes the “enormous act of analysis and synthesis, the dozens of subsystems involved in the subjectively simple act of seeing.”
Yet while this suggests the mingling and mutual…