Marcel Duchamp’s great work, The Large Glass depicts an abstract scene. The full title: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. It’s conceptual and heady: “…nobody fully understands The Large Glass” says Duchamp’s biographer Calvin Tomkins.
Duchamp said it wasn’t a painting, but a “delay”: “a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver,” he said. “The Bride is basically a motor,” he said. The curious title implies that she owns the bachelors, but we know the work is largely about sex.
The question: is the sex the whim of the Bride, or the whim of the bachelors? To wit, is it consensual or is it rape, this stripping bare? Duchamp said that her desire was part of the machine, that she "accepts this stripping by the bachelors, since she supplies the love gasoline to the sparks of the electrical stripping; moreover, she furthers her complete nudity by adding to the first focus of sparks (electrical stripping) the 2nd focus of the desire-magneto." So, he says it is consensual, clearly, but perhaps with a puritanistic questioning, I question that it is, fully, consensual, much like I question how consensual the sexual revolution was.
In the lower half of the painting are three circles, based on optometric testing, called: the Oculist Witnesses. The witnesses have specific purpose in the work to Duchamp but I always read them as observers. They are voyeuristic, a part of the machine. They are witnessing whatever it is the bachelors and the bride are doing. They are witnessing pleasure, or witnessing sexual assault. While they witness, they have a part in the machine of the glass (to explain it would be nearly nonsensical, either outside of, or inside of, context).
And so when it comes time to watch what happens now in our country, I think of them, the three rings, the Oculist Witnesses. I think about the witnessing, on camera, that sparked #blacklivesmatter, the witnessing, on Twitter, that sparked the Arab Spring. We are all witnesses. We are a collective body. We are a head with millions of eyes, and wet meat brains to process that vision.
Everybody has to decide what is right for them, but today I don’t turn away. Today I witness. While I witness I continue my own work. When I can't witness anymore, I will turn away and someone else who can't stand not seeing any more will turn towards.
Duchamp is my metaphor, which I offer here, but perhaps others speak to you more. Mine is abstract, needlessly-complex, just outside of my full understanding, where I'm constantly chasing it like a kid who keeps kicking a hat they're trying to pick up. I like it that way. I suspect a better metaphor would be easier to hold and share, but if you are like me and the questioning is part and parcel to the question itself, then perhaps, for you too, there is the Bride. Or the Country. Start the grinders, spark the ignition, the machine is about to turn.
The Country Stripped Bare by Her Voters, Even.