Taken from the 1973 documentary “Painters Painting”. Graphic by me.

Any takers? Can you guess what I think is the problem here? It seems to point to a real problem with contemporary art, and how we think about it, which significantly DOESN’T apply to other creative genres like music, film, or literature.

I was re-watching an old documentary about American painters which I’d seen in art school decades ago. When art critic Clement Greenberg said this, in the interview, I typed it up. Greenberg is reviled these days because he was the preeminent promoter of American Abstract Expressionism, which belongs to Modernism, and that is now passé, and we need to reject his values in order to move on to Post-Modernism. But we still cling to the notion of the avant-garde.

The problem here, as I see it, is in NOT trying to make good art, but in trying to make oneself significant by making something recognizable new. The most important thing is to make oneself important. New styles have always evolved out of necessity, and grand paradigm shifts. This is a little different, it’s a newness for newness sake, and quality isn’t really as important. This doesn’t really happen in literature because it’s not possible to make clearly distinct and radically new styles of writing. Similarly, such early experimentation in music never found much of an audience. The more you deviated radically from melody, harmony and rhythm, the more you embraced annoying noise. People will not tolerate music that isn’t good. I, for one, have a rule that if it actually hurts my ears, I won’t listen to it.

I’ve understood the problem with avant-gardism since I saw this documentary the first time. I felt at the time that my fellow students were often trying to make art history, more than they were trying to make art. You had to make something new, and in so doing had to eschew that which had worked in the past, or disregard it altogether. The end result was that you should do anything other than what was traditionally conceived of as art. Instead, you should make a shockingly new spectacle. But how many performance art pieces with meat need to be done before it’s a bigger cliché than sitting around making pencil sketches of nudes?

I think Duchamp and Greenberg had it backwards. The aim should be to made good art, and to develop new styles out of necessity, not purely for the sake of it, in which case a lot of the new styles are empty and reflect little more than the artist’s attempt to be clever enough to secure his or her ego a place in the pantheon of modern art history.

I think it’s also harder to make good art than merely new art. I imagine it’s much harder to write a solid novel, than to devise some experimental writing system. But there is a certain allure to not having to be especially good at writing or music, and merely having to come up with a new way of doing it that somehow makes one above and beyond doing it in a more conventional way.

For example, I have an idea for a musical piece which I just came up with this instance in order to provide an example. I get a bunch of different clocks and alarms and randomly set them to go off at different times, say within a given hour. Then I set them up all around a room or auditorium. There could be hundreds or even thousands of them. The audience comes in and the unexpected result is the musical piece. No need for me to recognize a single note, be able to play an instrument, or know anything really at all about music. Once you start thinking in a “conceptual art” sort of way the ideas come fairly easily. This wouldn’t fly with music audiences, because they’d rightly think it sucked as music. It would need to be reclassified as “sound sculpture” and thus “art”, which is the arena where novelty is its own reward, even if it’s only new if you haven’t followed art at all since before you were born.

In music, new styles like rap or rock evolved out of a need and desire to express new ideas, sensations, and vantage points that couldn’t be expressed with existing styles. But with avant-garde art there is often no need driving the experimentation. It’s just trying to carve out a niche for oneself, even if the work in question can’t possible say much beyond simply being something a little different in and of itself.

If the art is good, it will probably need to spill out of existing molds anyways. Think of Bruce Lee. He was so good at martial arts that he invented his own style. If a would-be martial artist tried to invent his own style of fighting without first getting good at fighting, he’d get his ass kicked.

New does not equal good. Further, newness for newness sake is an old idea. Better to strive to make truly good art. And if you disagree I’ve got some avant-garde music and literature just waiting for you (including my illustrated novel, The Yellow Pages, signed by me and displayed on a pedestal where you can stand and read it).

Finally, don’t think I don’t like or get avant-garde art. I’m not conservative, traditional, or an old fogie. I like the painters in the documentary that Greenberg praises. And I enjoyed and understood Pollock or Rothko when I was still in my teens, and pretty much for the textbook reasons I was supposed to. I made my own abstract paintings and ink drawings then. My eventual art education was in radical art, and my teachers included big name art stars such as Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray. I’ve done performance art, conceptual art, and installations. I even like art I come down hard on, like Barnett Newman, just think it’s extremely overrated, and within a false, America-centric version of history. And I can understand why the work of a Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Paul McCarthy impresses, especially the work where they (cheated and) hired professional artists to produce their pieces for them. But there’s a reason that even intelligent, educated, cultured people who love music, film and literature don’t care about their work. Most people like art, but only a few like avant-gardism. Even those who do are a bit inured by the recycled attempts to shock that they saw decades before.


18 replies on “What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. Sure, Duchamp was more odd than good, but that’s part of what I appreciate about him. It’s an imperfect comparison, but it’s a little like Weird Al Yankovic where the oddball stunts point out the silliness and pretense in the real art. It’s a kind of comic relief that I appreciate. It doesn’t destroy the age it parodies. It just illuminates a little bit to those of us untrained appreciators.

    The alarm clock thing? I think John Cage did something like that once …


    1. Cage probably did. I know he had a performance where the piano player just sat there and everyone listened to the silence. The recordings didn’t sell, and nobody wanted to listen to a repeat performance. However, other works by Cage are quite interesting and musical. I like his works for prepared piano.

      You’re right that Duchamp gives an idea or spin on other art, but that’s the trap people fall into = appreciating art for one-liners, either single ideas about art or a single, simplistic signature style. People think of art as paragraphs in an art history book designating why this or that artist is important or what was different about them. Then we build a mental collection of them like trophies on the mantle piece. But that’s not how we relate to music. We listen to what we enjoy, and we enjoy it because it’s good.

      You may like the idea of John Cage, but do you listen to him? It’s the music that we listen to that we truly like.


    2. I agree. For me, Duchamp came across as more of a comedian that wanted to take the piss out art but just as comedians make people think anew on a range of topics, Duchamp made people think differently about art.


      1. I probably missed out on this because I was taught Duchamp in a context where it didn’t appear funny at all. I was meant to understand why a urinal was better than painting on a philosophical level, or I was doomed as an rt student to being lost in the past.

        But I think Duchamp was wrong, I and didn’t need him to show me the beauty of mass produced objects. When I was a child, long before I ever heard of him, I marveled at the beauty and simplicity of skateboard wheels. I loved the ball bearings and the translucence of the wheels. I understood that the design was beautiful and elegant without someone having to tell me the obvious. I found airplanes majestically beautiful, as most people instinctively do, which is why a lot of unsophisticated people would go to airports just to look at the planes. My grandfather took me to do just that when I was a kid, and I was blown away.

        So, Duchamp’s point that mass produced objects have scale and simplicity of form that is outside the range of conventional art practices was nothing new at all. But his idea that it was better than art and that art was dead was like choking down vomit. And he was wrong, which is why he ended up playing chess after backing himself into a philosophical corner from which he didn’t have his own permission to make meaningful aesthetically successful art. There was nothing left to do.


      2. I don’t think Duchamp was wrong, rather, your teachers were wrong because they couldn’t see that he was taking the piss. If you piece together his life you can see that art was a joke for him. Consider his L.H.O.O.Q (1919), better known as a print of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on it. The letters were an acronym for She’s Got a Hot Arse (in French.) Does that seem like a high brow philosophical artist?

        As for his urinal, his protests when it was refused entry was not that it had great insight or showed beauty around us, it was that the artist had selected it. Then he gave upon art to play chess. I wouldn’t really be surprised if Duchamp never got over his dislike of artists because he wasn’t allowed to entry Nude Descending Down the Staircase in cubist exhibition because Cubists stated that the nude is not an acceptable subject for cubists. I have no doubt that if Duchamp saw how he was spoken about with reverence today he would have a chuckle.


      3. He may have been taken too seriously, which is another artifact of the American-centric version of art history, where a once forgotten Duchamp was resurrected by the likes of Johns and Rauschenberg to help justify their American art, which in turn was bolstered by the CIA which wanted American art to triumph in world opinion as a reflection of the success of American government. So, Duchamp, who is a minor artist at best, is now a legend due to a revision of art history centering around American art.

        But Duchamp himself was wrong. He was wrong when he said painting was dead (before Picasso did Guernica even), and he was wrong when he compared art to religion in an interview in 1966, and said that it should be done away with like religion.

        What is and was dead was the self-defeating argument that art was dead. Nothing to applaud there. If Duchamp couldn’t breath life into art, that was his own creative impotence. Others artists can and did make meaningful art, before, while, and after he was making bad jokes and playing chess.

        Duchamp had a lot of potential as a painter. I’d rather he stuck with it than threw in the towel, declared the mass-produced object superior to anything artists could produce, and then having artistically dismembered himself in the process retiring to playing Chess.


      4. Whether Duchamp was wrong when he said painting was dead depends on how literally you want to take the comment. You could take it the same way as a critic saying an actor’s career “is over” when it is just diminished. Instead of being in movies, they need to be on stage on TV sitcoms. In regards to the literalness of Duchamp’s comment, as far as many art schools are concerned, painting is dead and they don’t teach it. (As a painter, I obviously disagree but I concede his beliefs have been assimilated by many people.)

        Personally, I didn’t see much in Duchamp as a painter. I recocgnise that Nude Descending Down a Staircase was culturally significant because that is the one that the American press really attacked. I think if something can evoke that much ridicule I say it has value but I am neutral towards it. His earlier works was just mundane, emotionally hollow and intellectually barren.

        I lament that so much conceptual crap is being shown by artists trying to follow in Duchamp’s foot steps but my concern is not that it is being made, my concern is that it is being so heavily promoted. I personally must be grateful for Duchamp for what he did. Last year I found an old plow, then I turned it upright so that the handles were in the ground and decided that it looked like an emu to me. Then I noticed the beauty of a machine in which every part, from the screw to the handles to the plow, had a part to play. I recognise that others would just see it as a plough turned upright and find it boring but I found it gratifying and had Duchamp not come along, perhaps my eyes would not have been open to seeing what I saw.


      5. Hi Chad. Thank for keeping the dialogue alive.

        We might have to agree to disagree a bit. I’m always happy to come that that agreement.

        Duchamp said that “retinal art” was dead, and he was concerned with the idea behind the art. This has become the mantra of contemporary avant-garde art, but having been around this idea for decades, I’ve finally decided it’s bankrupt. Yes, the work should be based on a good idea, but the execution is more important. Poorly executed art is like burnt toast – not worth ingesting. Besides which, there are ideas within the execution of the art itself, even or especially if they are the kinds of ideas or thought that can’t be put into words. A certain set of notes in a song, for instance. Duchamp privileged philosophy over art, but when you take his posturings into the realm of philosophy they are subject to being rationally defeated, which I think they are, which is why I say he was wrong.

        A philosophical attack on Duchamp is that when you take his readymade toilet out of the gallery, it ceases to be art. But if you were to hang a Monet in a public restroom it would still be art. Signing something and putting it in the museum does not make it art. What we have is a statement about art, and not a very good or interesting one. Why Duchamp is so valued that people have bought copies of his urinal, which are based on the Stieglitz photo of it at the time, is a level of stupidity I can’t fathom anymore that I can imagine what it’s like to believe in Santa Claus.
        As for Duchamp’s paintings. I rather like them. In fact, I like his Nude Descending a Staircase, and his Bride BETTER than I like most Cubism or Futurism. He had potential. I wish he’d stuck with it instead of throwing in the towel and then trying to destroy the game. I begin to wonder if his attack on art isn’t more than a little the outcome of his own feelings of failure when his best attempts at painting were rejected. If his paintings weren’t good enough, than he decided that painting itself wasn’t good enough. Along came Picasso and the Duchamp’s predictions should have been thrown in the waist bin along with his urinal. Picasso proved Duchamp wrong.

        I agree with your sentiment about the promotion of crappy conceptual art, which is not to say that there isn’t good conceptual art, which there is, though I want to call it “exhibition art”. All art is conceptual, so the label is redundant, but some art has as much in common with painting or sculpture as it does with literature or dentistry. The problem with the promotion of said art is the overestimation of it, and the continued distortion of art history caused by the influence of mid-century American art. Power, rather than creativity, has decided what art was the most important, and this trend continues, though now the power belongs not to the government, but to the rich buyers. I lament the favoring of conceptual art in the same way I am disgusted with third rate musicians like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus being listened to more by our species than real musicians. Pretend for a moment we are in an alien’s spaceship. We’d have to embarrassingly admit that we humans like to lap up the drivel the corrupt and powerful spoon feed to us, so that our most celebrated artists and musicians are often the most superficial and uncreative.


  2. I like the comparison between visual art and music. At art school I got pissed off because all the prescribed tasks were to make something different using non-traditional mediums. So in the drawing unit, instead of learning techniques in drawing, we were encouraged to do things like paint using dog food or some other non-drawing implement. I likened it to studying music and instead of learning how to play instrument, just being told to bang away on dog food cans. Ironically, excessive experimentation usually results in a lack of refinement and complexity so a class full of people trying to be different produces a body of work that all looks the same. Go to a graduating exhibition of a Duchampian art school and you wont see original work.


    1. I had the same problem, and your analogy works. In fact, I used to make music on the computer using audio editing programs and splicing up and recombining sounds. I’d go out and record sounds, such as from the subway, then spend countless hours editing them. I’d use casual conversation and the subtle sounds of the subway cars jostling around and the doors opening and closing and announcements. I was pretty good at it, but ultimately I couldn’t take it further without the training to know what notes I was hearing, what key signature, or how to produce those combinations of sounds deliberately. I wanted to intermix guitar playing with my sound collages, but couldn’t deliberately play guitar along with it in a meaningful way because I lacked the musical background. If I wanted to continue with music, I knew I was going to have to teach myself traditional composing skills. I went back to visual art instead, where I had a more solid foundation.


    1. Hey!! My iPod only showed the first paragraph!! Didn’t realize there was much more of the post! Never mind above response.


  3. Must continue the dialogue here.

    I argued on this post that 20th century Europe American art was probably defined by painters trying to elevate emotion above the idea and conceptual artist tying to elevate the idea over emotion. I didn’t really state it explicitly but I think both artforms have suffered by being polemic in their approach. I don’t think these battles need to be mutually exclusive. Art can have a great idea behind it but also be well executed with emotion behind it. A painting can also be a conceptual piece of art.

    Back to Duchamp, I thought Bride was an interesting piece but I’ve also wondered whether the need for an explanation gave rise to an unhealthy reliance on artist statements. With the explanation it looked pretty lame. His stairway nude had a good title but I found its too angular to be sensual and I suppose I just like sensuality when it comes to nudes. Perhaps a personal bias here.

    I have no issue with the popularity of Bieber and Cyrus because I just ignore their music and I am not too fussed what other people like. My main concern with the popularity of Koons etc is that his art is not interesting to me but most Euro American Australian contemporary art is not interesting to me. As a result, when I read art magazines, I don’t see much that is worth paying attention to. The commentary tends to be even worse. This frustrates me because I want to see good art and hear good commentary. I loved being in 798 for that reason and also seeing some contemporary Thai art. I just felt like I had found stuff worthy of attention.


    1. Oh good, I’ll read your post. I like having dialogue about art.

      Meanwhile, I don’t care much either about Bieber or Cyrus or even Koons. I think some are annoyed that I pay so much attention to him. But it’s like you said in that there isn’t much art that one can find (I’m guessing it’s out there) that offers the kind of mental/emotional/rational/spiritual/imaginative nutrients a hungry consciousness seeks.

      As a (former) teacher I’m aware of what kind of music students listen to, and because of commerce they have a very limited range of commercial pop that exists for them. This was in Asia, however.

      As a culture, I think more than ever we are getting crappy commercial, or commercial/corporate friendly music, film and art. The worst music is getting millions poured into it, and the best may never have an opportunity to be heard, or even created.

      I also mind that people have been brainwashed to thinking serious contemporary art is all accessible in an instant, and you get it or don’t, and if you do it’s worthy of a knowing smirk, On the other hand, the more people that fall into the shallow paradigm, the less competition for those who want to make real art.


      1. The values of music in Asia is an interesting topic. When I was in Beijing, my best friend was the music producer of the Beijing Midi festival, which was the biggest rock festival in China. Through him I gained an insight into the festival and also some of the machinations that had kept Chinese rock off Tv in favour of valueless pop. The story of Cui Jian is worth having a look at

        Anyway, the festival was doubling in size until 2008, when someone somewhere refused to give permission for security and it had to leave Beijing. Since then, there have been a few horror stories that have shown Chinese to be acting so callously (small child run over by a car and ignored by onlookers etc), which has made some people question whether trying to deny the kind of social messages rock carries is really in Chinese interests.

        Good art will always be created by people who are truly artists but there are political interests and corporate interests that prevent it being promoted. I may be cynical but I see it as pointless trying to fight. In the 1950s, some Australian artists put on a protest exhibition at the homogenising affect of abstract expressionism and its hollowness but they couldn’t beat the CIA, they were ridiculed and a few were made to repent. Today, abstract expressionism still dominates in art schools. Likewise, you can take on Koons but you are taking on everyone who has invested tens of millions into his art and have a vested interest in ensuring he stays in the news. I think the more attention he is given (even if critical) the more those investments are preserved.

        I make art, I think about art and I seek out good art and that makes me happy. I wish things in the world could be different but some things we can change and some we can’t.


      2. Right, criticizing corruption in the art world is as likely to change it as is criticizing corruption in banking. However, one task is to see through the bullshit, and this requires being critical of it. The whole pursuit is worthwhile as part of living the “examined life”. When I was an art student, I wouldn’t have loved to have read some of the kind of critiques I’m putting out there now, just as I love to read political analysts that can dissect something better than I can. Before anything can change it needs to be understood.

        I agree that the millionaires and billionaires who have invested in Koons or some other nonsense have a vested interest in the product in question and it remaining revered in the public eye, which they are all too able to insure. So what? If they want to dupe themselves into believing a fabricated copy of the urinal Duchamp once displayed is worth millions, that’s their limitation.

        I’d say anything that unravels false and stupefying beliefs, histories, or other superimposition upon reality is inherently good and useful. Part of it is just freeing one’s own mind, so to speak.


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