Much of the discourse surrounding the importance of Marcel Duchamp, and his status as the most influential artist of the 20th century, operates as if Picasso didn’t exist. It’s somewhat surprising to think that Picasso’s career completely eclipses that of Duchamp, so that while Duchamp was declaring visual art “too retinal” and moribund, Picasso was churning out innovative paintings. These guys were rivals, and probably because they had diametrically opposed beliefs about art. Picasso outlived Duchamp, and upon Duchamp’s death famously declared, “He was wrong”. Current art trends, however, tell the opposite story. Picasso may have outlived Duchamp in the flesh, but Duchamp is credited with rendering Picasso’s entire career irrelevant when he presented a urinal as art in 1917. Evidence of this sentiment is that I have seen a lot of highly regarded artists claiming Duchamp as an influence, and none I can think of mentioning Picasso at all. The world is big enough for both artists, but their ideas are contradictory, and you can’t believe one without disbelieving the other.
People will say that they don’t need to make a choice, and they can appreciate both artists. One could, in the same way one could listen to Heavy Metal AND Disco, but one couldn’t accept both the underlying theories as true. This would be like believing in evolution and creationism at the same time. They are contradictory and mutually exclusive convictions. And art and anti-art are also opposites. In a nutshell, Duchamp’s anti-art gives you nothing to look at (color, form, composition, rendering, and content are all nonexistent or irrelevant in his readymades), whereas Picasso attempts to give you something fascinating to look at. Picasso is about visual language and visual intelligence, and Duchamp is completely against visual language.
I side with Picasso for a lot of reasons. Try as I might to find some sort of clear writing about what Duchamp’s crowning ideas were, or why they are so important, I only find mere assertions that he changed the way we see, praise of his audacity, and claims of his influence. “He was the first to…” isn’t really an argument, unless that which he was the first to do is itself relevant. As far as I can tell, people seem to value him for helping people see conventional objects as art, and to appreciate them as equal or superior to art. This is a bit like going around lapping up library paste, or chewing on shoe leather and savoring it as food, and no more revolutionary than enjoying the smell of a man-made product other than perfume, which was not created in order to please the senses. When I was a boy I loved the smell of gasoline. Nobody needed to put it in a perfume bottle and spray it in a boutique for me to understand that. Were one to serve up a pile of sawdust at a banquet as the main course, it would have required a certain audacity, but it would have made for a lousy meal. The same could be said for leaning on a car horn in a symphony hall. Somehow, exhibiting a urinal as art is supposed to undermine the seriousness of all art by implicitly bringing it down to the level of a mundane object that is perpetually pissed on.
All of that Duchampian rhetoric is an insult to everyone who lived before Duchamp, as if they couldn’t appreciate the aesthetics, or essential quality of an object without it first being exhibited in a museum. As if there weren’t libraries full of poetry using metaphor to conjure just such appreciation. Just last night I happened upon a car show near my house, and the crowd of people were leaning over and looking at details such as tail lights, wind wings, fenders, and grills. I live in Thailand, and my guess is that probably only a few of the people there had ever heard of Duchamp. They never needed him in order to appreciate the beauty of everyday objects. Nope. People choose their phones based on aesthetics. People fondle and kiss utilitarian, inanimate objects they are fond of.
Nevertheless, current art theory values Duchamp over Picasso, and it’s generally held that Picasso was wrong, not Duchamp. This is kind of odd to me because Duchamp ran out of steam quite quickly, and then turned to playing chess. Once he decided the idea is more important than the art, there wasn’t much left to do. How many pieces could he make to reassert the same point? And why make art at all if the idea is the most important element? It’s not like we don’t have a little thing called philosophy, which is all about ideas. Making art about abstract ideas is about as effectual as making a dictionary out of wet noodles. We humans have an extremely economic and precise tool for sharing ideas. It’s called language. Putting the idea above the art makes as much sense as putting the ideas above the boxing in the ring.
There are some other philosophical problems with Duchamp’s premises. He once famously declared that art could not compare to an airplane’s propeller. Some artists may have daytime jobs in which they design commonplace objects. Let’s say for convenience that you have an evening painter who designs toasters for money. If Duchamp were correct, the artist’s paintings could never complete with his own toaster designs, assuming those designs were completely utilitarian and devoid of any discernible content. The propeller designer couldn’t make something better with precise tools in the sculpture studio. In short, you can’t achieve something greater through more effort and deliberate intent. This is rather self-defeating.
One must understand that Duchamp did not think his “readymade” sculptures were aesthetically interesting at all, and thus his contribution was NOT really to elevate everyday objects into art, but to undercut art as being any better than everyday objects. In his own words, “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me by its beauty or its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it.” To like Duchamp’s readymades aesthetically is to miss the point. They are not art objects, but objects used in an argument against art, or at least against the beautiful in art. He claimed that the Impressionists were only about the “retinal” aspect of art, and he was reacting against them, the Fauvists, and others. Why people accept his word that the Impressionists were merely about surface beauty escapes me. Just because something has surface beauty doesn’t mean there isn’t more to it. Meanwhile, Duchamp eventually made numbered, singed editions of his readymades for sale. Apparently, while rejecting notions of intrinsic worth in art, he embraced the monetization of art objects, so long as they were his own. So, he was for people buying his own bottle rack as art, but against them buying the same one in the store and keeping it as art. So much for any notion of Duchamp and democratization of art, because he’d even made that which anyone could have easily attained into the exclusive property of the wealthy.
Duchamp’s greatest contribution to the current art world wasn’t exhibiting found objects as art, but signing them and selling limited editions for outrageous sums.
Above is a photo of some other bottle rack from the same time frame as Duchamp’s readymade. Without making any alteration to it, if it were authoritatively exhibited as a Duchamp, people would admire it as one of the great icons of 20th century art. They’d stare at it wide-eyed, circle it, rub their chins, take pictures, and otherwise bow down before the masterpiece. In other words, without the jargon surrounding his readymades, they are indistinguishable from any other generic, utilitarian object of the period. But this is not the case with a Picasso. Without theory to uphold it, it is still art, and unlike something you could find in a garage sale. The Picasso is an expertly crafted piece infused with meaning, whereas the bottle rack is no more art than the chair you’re sitting on. Duchamp’s readymades are to Picasso’s work what a stack of paper is to a novel by Faulkner. They have no content, and they’re not supposed to. They are bad jokes at the expense of authentic art, and in the service of mere mind games.
I think for most artists who look up to Duchamp it’s because he used unconventional materials, including fully formed objects, to make art with. Art became more loosely about creativity, and not bound to a certain skill set, and a limited range of materials. This is precisely the same thing as making music without using instruments. People have tried this sort of experimentation in music, but mostly it’s not been very successful, and I don’t personally know anyone who listens to it (besides me), including people who love Duchamp. I’ve done my own experiments with music using the computer, and I eventually gave it up because I didn’t have the training to be able to actually compose with notes in time signatures, so couldn’t do things deliberately to the degree I would need to in order to take my music to the next level. So, while using sounds other than instruments to make music opens a lot of doors, it closes the most choice possibility of deliberately composing with a full range of notes, chords, etc. It has the same problem as composing literature through using words, but no grammar. One would be freed of the tyranny of grammatical structure, but lose the ability to convey complex content with specificity.
If I already had the skills to compose music precisely and deliberately, and not just arrange sounds on the computer, I could have incorporated various sounds and instruments together. For an example of very successful music of this ilk, listen to Last Delicious Cigarette by Matmos. That is a furtile direction to explore, but it is NOT following Duchamp’s lead, because it’s trying to make an (aurally) aesthetically interesting and meaningful composition, which should be an impossibility and dead end, at least according to his line of thinking (no matter how many thousands of musicians have made profound “aural” music in the near hundred years since he implied to do so was useless).
Picasso and Duchamp are not at all compatible. Artists are either capable of creating new, interesting, substantive, and relevant art with fully flexible mediums, or they aren’t. Duchamp said it was impossible, made a handful of readymade pieces illustrating his point, then moved on to playing Chess. Chess, interestingly enough, employs very little need for originality. The rules are established. An interesting career move for an artist who was against the idea of originality.
Most Duchamp’s work is most readily understandable as a joke and cruel mockery of art, in which case it’s no surprise that so much of the contemporary art that issues from his tradition is a tightrope act between the ostensibly profound and the obviously ludicrous. Picasso, on the other hand, made hundreds of paintings and sculptures which stand to prove Duchamp wrong. If Duchamp was right that painting was dead and there was no originality, Picasso would have dematerialized. Reality has stubbornly refuted Duchamp’s theory.
Duchamp was like a bird that said flight was impossible, and flying was dead, so signed his name on a lead balloon. Picasso elaborated acrobatic feats in the air. One is a monumentally boring, cynical, self-defeating, and self-fulfilling prophecy of artistic impotence. The other is a triumphant exultation in artistic fertility.
My article was finished, but there’s been a lively debate on this on Google+, and a few issues came up that I’d like to add.
- Duchamp was not seen as influential when he was most active as an artist. People properly saw him as not really making art, but making wry commentary on it, and thus as only marginally interesting. Only when Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andrew Warhola claimed Duchamp as a major influence was he resurrected as a significant player in the art game. Thus, Duchamp luckily piggy-backed on the popularity of the chosen artists of the world’s superpower, which also used its enormous influence to establish itself as the cultural center of the world. The reputations of Warhola and the rest may have much more to do with international politics than one would like to think.
- One does not need to have any real appreciation or understanding of art in order to value the work of Duchamp, or his followers for that matter. I think this will be more obvious if I give a musical example. The compositions of Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, or Mahler are not easily accessible. One will need to work ones way up to their music, and will grow to appreciate it with more listening. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” can’t be ones first exposure to music. However, John Cage’s musical concerto for piano, in which the pianist just sits there, requires no appreciation of music. One merely needs to get the idea: to get the joke. It’s the same with Duchamp. You don’t need to have developed an eye for art. You don’t need to be able to interpret the work. Repeated viewing is unnecessary. It’s just a matter of getting the idea. This is why his work, and subsequent related work appeals to a lot of people who don’t have the passion or haven’t taken the trouble to develop a real understanding of art: it isn’t required.
- Duchamp’s argument that Impressionism was too retinal, or merely retinal, is bankrupt and signals his own inability to fathom the intelligence of the application of visual language by artists of the caliber of Monet. As if art, if it is beautiful, must necessarily be only beautiful. By such logic we could dismiss most of classical music, including the best works of Beethoven, as merely aural, and entirely devoid of thought or ideas. Duchamp said he wanted to put ideas into art, and then deliberately chose the least aesthetically interesting objects he could find to display AS aesthetic objects of beauty. The idea wasn’t to elevate commonplace objects or their creators, but to cut down artists, and to say that their work is no better than a urinal – something to be pissed on. If he wanted to put ideas into art, why didn’t he make work that did so? Instead he displayed mute objects. He mocked art, but offered very little in his career as an alternative, unless one prefers to look at objects which Duchamp himself thought were unworthy of looking at. Duchamp stated late in life that he thought art needed to be eradicated, like religion. His inability to fathom art, and his hatred of it, probably aren’t really the great contributions to the history of art they are cracked up to be. In fact, his antagonism towards art may stem from his inability to compete with his contemporaries at making successful art, which isn’t surprising since he was up against the likes of Picasso. This also suggests some of the appeal of the myth of Duchamp may be that we can all be better than the best artists of the past (and present) merely through a rhetorical sleight of hand that can make an ironic gesture more pertinent than the most serious and well wrought art of our species.
Who do you prefer?
(Psst. If you think an upturned urinal is the greatest work of art of the 20th century, the joke’s on you. Also I have a bottle rack you might be interested in.).
Also see this post about why the other “anti” movements, such as “anti-music” and “anti-literature” failed miserably.
These are pertinent and interesting articles about Duchamp, which I’ve read:
- Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art? An article in Philosophy Now, by Roy Turner.
- A CRITICAL HISTORY OF 20TH-CENTURY ART, Chapter 2, Part 3, Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade, by Donald Kuspit.
- Copy Cats, by Jed Perl.
- Far Planet, Duchamp. A Biography By Calvin Tomkins, discussed by Julian Stallabrass
- Duchamp: An Exchange: Essays by Francis M. Naumann and Donald Kuspit, an excellent debate.
- Duchamp & his legacy, by Hilton Kramer
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16 replies on “Duchamp Versus Picasso”
Picasso was a slave to own success
There’s probably a lot of truth in that. I think the same could be said of a lot of contemporary artists. I don’t think of Picasso when I think of my favorite artists, but he does prove that painting wasn’t dead in 1917. Incidentally, your paintings also prove that.
I can’t believe someone voted for Duchamp! I think Duchamp lovers really truly think they are being clever because everyone knows Picasso. People love a rebel, and yet, in this context, Picasso was a rebel in his own right too. I wonder if some folks love the idea of sounding intelligent more than trusting their own opinion.
Duchamp is the academic choice. He is considered incredibly important to today’s art, whereas Picasso is seen as irrelevant. It’s actually quite conservative to choose Duchamp. I’d expect most graduates of serious art schools to pick him.
Well, I’m not an art grad, and I’m glad if Duchamp is considered such a serious and fine choice. I know a dear friend who feels Duchamp is important, and she’s an artist, but I just think the whole urinal thing is the stuff jokes are made of. It’s like the art world has been punked.
Everyone thinks Duchamp is important. Without him we wouldn’t have Warhol and Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. It’s usually a case of a little knowledge is dangerous. We are taught that he is important. Nobody comes to that conclusion on their own, or likes his actual work without first being told why it is important by a person in a position of authority. Besides, who likes art because it is “important”? When you have to say that you like art or music because it is important, it’s basically admitting that it’s shit artistically.
I don’t need to say my favorite rock songs are important. I like them because they kick ass. Thinking of art as important or not buys into a linear model of art history, which is very Western and America-centric.
In short. people like Duchamp because they were told to, and they believe their masters. When one steps out on a limb and starts thinking for oneself about art, “important” becomes “irrelevant” and Duchamp becomes a boring artist who made a few pranks.
Both they were interested in other zone, while Picasso was looking for forms and processed it, Duchamp wanted to form destroy, was determined lay the matter from the beginning.
Duchamp is surely the greatest timewaster in art history. i think he would be proud of it though.
(Obviously, I came to this discussion rather late.) While I agree with many of your points (except for your snarkier comments, which frankly are condescending), and have nothing against Picasso or those who admire him, I stand firmly in the Duchamp camp. But I’m curious why in this discussion Duchamp’s entire legacy seems to be relegated to his readymades. Yes, his work tended toward the conceptual, and some works were simple amusements (though even his amusements often created controversy); but he was about so much more than the readymades. Surely “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” “With Hidden Noise,” “Three Standard Stoppages,” or “Etant Donnes” are not works of “anti-art” (the latter he was working on in secret the entire 20 years he had supposedly retired from art to play chess), which at least complicates your implication that MD was a one-trick pony mainly interested in destroying art as we know it. I think of him more as a catalyst of change, rather than as an agent destruction. So while he destroyed nothing, he changed everything.
BTW The best site I’ve seen for clarifying MD’s work (and especially for illuminating the Bride Stripped Bare, which is brilliantly put into motion) can be found here (I have no affiliation):
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Hello “rrosedalay”, and thanks for the intelligent and provocative comment. It’s great to engage with people who have a different perspective, and to have ones ideas challenge, even if they are from a while back. I’ve probably softened on my position on Duchamp since writing this post, and there’s a more recent one that goes into more detail with more backing evidence you might wanna’ check out if you’re in a mood to have a friendly debate on the topic for purposes of mutual enlightenment: https://artofericwayne.com/2015/01/28/the-big-bang-of-conceptual-art-why-people-hate-conceptual-art-part-4/
I think I wouldn’t mind Duchamp so much, in the same way I wouldn’t mind Justin Bieber so much (not that they are otherwise comparable) – he’s over-hyped, and above and beyond much better artists in my estimation. If you look at my other article I quote critics comparing him to daVinci, and claiming he “checkmated all conventional ideas about art”, or some such overextended bollocks. The reaction against Duchamp is essentially blowback against the ridiculous claims made for him, his oeuvre, and its presumed triumph over, and vanquishing of, both painting and visual language art in general. But let me attempt to address you specific input.
You say some of my comments are snarky and condescending. That may be true. I’m sometimes given to using hyperbole to counter hyperbole. Can one counter the insulting and trivializing claim that visual art, including the Post Impressionists, such as Van Gogh, was merely “retinal” and moribund, without backslapping such extraordinarily presumptuous, arrogant, and condescending vitriol with a dousing of its own medicine? When someone says you are completely irrelevant, is it condescending to say that such a claim is vacuous pomposity?
You wrote, that you “have nothing against Picasso or those who admire him, I stand firmly in the Duchamp camp”. That is rather telling. I’m actually not overly fond of Picasso myself, though he’s done much more interesting work than Duchamp if one favors visual art above conceptual art. You might find it interesting that in my college education, other than just one teacher at a community college, nobody mentioned Picasso, and Duchamp was crammed down my throat. If there were error on overemphasizing one side of the spectrum or the other, I got a lethal does of Duchamp. Had it been more balanced, I might not have felt compelled myself to attack the skewed versions of art history in which Duchamp is one of the very best artists of the 20th century.
You ask why I focus on his readymades. Mostly because that is what his legacy is based on, and while I had a book on “Etant Donnes”, it was never mentioned in my education through grad school. It is primarily “The Fountain” around which his legacy is hewn. It is considered the forefather of appropriation, somewhat retroactively, just as his reputation was elevated from an also-ran dusty artist of a few curious ideas to grand-master status when he could be linked with American artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol. Duchamp was resurrected as a symbolic precursor, and thus legitimizer of a tradition, when the CIA sought to artificially boost American art in order to move the cultural center from Paris to NY back in the day. Duchamp’s legacy is largely forged in the self-serving, self-aggrandizing, American rewriting of art history, with its current incarnation front and center, and anyone who can be linked to it retroactively enshrined. In order for Koons to be top balloon dog, Duchamp needs to be marvelous beyond compare. It’s all about legitimizing a given narrative.
For claims of anti-art, or wanting to destroy art, we can go directly to quotes by Duchamp himself. He claimed to be anti-art and want to destroy art, as religion had been destroyed. He claimed his readymades were visually innocuous, and he claimed he adored the boring in art.
Note that when you spend 20 years on one installation, you can also be for all extents and purposes retired from art.
You wrote, “I think of him more as a catalyst of change, rather than as an agent destruction”. Again, you can go to his own comments about that. I quote them quite a bit in that article I linked to. You say he is about change, and that is part of the problem and why there is so much blow-back against him and conceptual art in general. He didn’t change visual art, or cause anything to be irrelevant. He branched off into a hybrid kind of art-making. This is the problem with the rhetoric surrounding conceptual art. It doesn’t replace visual art in the way Einstein’s theory of relativity replaces a Newtonian conception of the universe. It is actually something else. It’s just a different genre. Let me say that again. There are different broad genres of art, including: dance, film, theater, painting, music, architecture, and then offshoots and hybrids like conceptual art and performance art. The grave mistake of conceptual art is to pose as evolving out of, and being superior to, visual art. It is merely another kind of creative enterprise, and if people look at it that way, than the animosity towards Duchamp or Yoko Ono or whomever will largely disappear. People don’t hate conceptual art, they hate that it is heralded as the best art, and as making all visual art moribund and irrelevant.
You wrote, “while he destroyed nothing, he changed everything”. He’d be very sorry to hear that he’d failed at his repeated life’s ambition. The idea that he “changed everything” is just the type, over-the-top, grandiose trail cloppy that infuriates people. He didn’t change shit. He coined a new, and within his own practice, minor form of mildly interesting, hybrid art. In other words, he added a little something, a branch to an already enormous tree.
Let me put it another way, saying that Duchamp changed everything is like saying that apples changed oranges. That rather pisses of the oranges. And if people didn’t say that crap, the oranges wouldn’t dislike the apples.
Look at the musical equivalent of Duchamp, which is John Cage. He doesn’t get the same sort of traction that Duchamp does, at least not for his most conceptual and un-listenable “music” (I’m rather a fan of his music for prepared pianos though, but that’s music proper). The reason is that when it comes to music, well, you have to sit down and listen to it, and nobody is going to bore the living crap out of themselves enduring the aural equivalent of a Duchamp readymade. I can like Cage’s performance where a pianist sat at a piano and didn’t hit a single key, in a way, as an idea, but, when you say that it trounces Beethoven’s late string quartets, or say the work of contemporary composers like Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, or Phillip Glass, you are going to piss people off.
Imagine if I say that Cage’s 4’33” changes everything in music, and, well, not only are those contemporary composers nothing compared to his unalloyed brilliance, but all of rock music is also automatically subordinate to it. That is the type of overarching claim you are making for Duchamp.
I’m already well familiar with Duchamp’s work, including all the pieces you’ve mentioned. Let me just give you one more example so you might better understand my position.
Take Piero Manzoni’s canned shit. Now, there’s a part of me that totally gets it, and thinks it’s pretty funny. For some reason I especially like the cans that are labeled in French, with, “Merde d’Artiste”. What is that work in proper perspective? Are cans of shit among the highest achievement of art? Or are they a funny prank? Generally, I think you know, because you seem to have a similar art background to me (mine was as radical as you can get, and my instructors included the likes of Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Cathy Opie…), the canned shit is considered much more “important” and “relevant” than, say, the entire oeuvre of someone like Edward Hopper.
It is not. It’s something else. If you judge visual art by the standards of conceptual art, or the other way around, one art form or the other is being done a very serious disservice. I rather like conceptual art by Chris Burden or Roxy Paine, for example, but that work simply belongs in a different category than visual art.
For me Duchamp is a crashing bore, in the same way I find Cage’s most conceptual pieces tedious comments on music, and much less enthralling than when composers or musicians embrace music to do the most they can with it.
Ask yourself this. Do you listen to conceptual music? Do you honestly prefer the music of John Cage to the Beatles. If the answer is “no”, than your take on Duchamp is hypocrisy, or you just have no interest in music. If I had to sit down and choose John Lennon or John Cage as the greater innovator in music, I’d give a nod to Cage, and I’d know that was technically the right answer, but I’d honestly choose Lennon, and with a little work I could probably back it.
Often the people who prefer conceptual art, and particularly the end of the spectrum that includes mental gambits like appropriation, are NOT big fans of visual art to begin with. None of my esteemed radial art teachers really seemed very interested in traditional visual art, unless it directly overlapped into their practice (say, a feminist photographer having some interest in female painters because of gender and politics, rather than the intrinsic style of the artist). Such people often see art history superficially as a sort of domino effect of isms, with one supplanting another, and the most recent acknowledged viable form triumphing over others. It’s really astoundingly arrogant, and practitioners like to think with a mere gesture, they can sweep away the entire careers of other artists as inferior. And they they cry and moan and call foul, call people condescending, when the tables are not so much turned, as merely loosened from their 180 degree position.
Once again, Duchamp doesn’t invalidate or change visual art (y’know, art that uses visual language, such as line, color, composition, lighting, shading, subject matter and so on), he just did another kind, or genre, of creative art-making.
And have a look at some of my conceptual art parodies, which are conceptual in themselves, and poke some holes in the supremacy of conceptual art: https://artofericwayne.com/2014/01/09/worst-than-hirst-a-review-of-my-work/#more-6668
Thanks again for your interesting comment.
Cheers, and best of luck
Thanks for engaging with my comment, and for the long response. I am actually not an artist nor an art critic/historian, just a fan, and as a fan I’d say that my taste in general runs more toward the visual and less to conceptual art in general (much of which I find boring, self-indulgent or elitist). I have little patience for John Cage beyond the theoretical, and would much prefer to listen to a recording of John Lennon humming to himself in the shower than almost anything composed by Cage. But I don’t think this makes me a hypocrite in my love for Duchamp. Duchamp’s works simply have resonance for me, and his entire oeuvre is like a symphony, with repeated notes and references that makes the whole much greater than the parts. I have literally stood for over an hour happily looking at (and through) “The Large Glass,” while any van Gogh (whose work I love) would test my patience after 10-15 minutes at most. That’s just me, and I’m not here to lay broad generalizations about any artist or his/her fans.
As for using Duchamp’s words to support an argument for or against him, I’d say that’s a tricky game. He was always elusive, self-contradicting and (most of all) provocative by nature, and almost everything he’s said (I’d argue) should be taken with a grain of salt. It was said of him that in chess he always preferred the beautiful move to the winning one, and I think that says a lot about the man and how to read both his work and his intent, if not his entire life.
Personally, I think he would be appalled by what much of his legacy has wrought. Or, if not appalled, then wryly bemused. I also think that he would probably laugh (quietly, and to himself) at many of those artists and critics who today take him and his work with such deadly seriousness. (I recently sold a novel that revolves around Duchamp and his legacy, and while the book itself is in some ways a panegyric to the man, the people who canonize him come off rather badly).
So, I’m not really up right now for arguing against your many points and opinions, some of which I agree with, most I don’t, all I respect (although in the moment I can’t restrain myself from briefly quibbling with the idea that spending 20 years on a single work is the equivalent of retiring from art—to me that’s the same as saying a writer who spends 10, 15, even 20 years on a novel has somehow stopped writing or being a writer). I just wanted to chime in with my own personal take on Duchamp and his works, and to offer that, in order for both the man and his works to be understood on their own terms, they ought to be separated from his legacy.
In some ways I’d say you probably have more in common with Duchamp than you might admit. In his day, he hated the notion that art’s value was determined by the tastemakers of the day, and so, yes, his readymades were just a big fuck you to the arbiters of taste at the time. In a similar way, it sounds as though you suffered through you own assault of arbitrated taste in art school (the tastemakers now valuing the conceptual over more traditional or representative art.) I think Duchamp would very much appreciate your desire to say ‘fuck you’ to all that.
I can’t fault you for enjoying “The Large Glass”, and, I probably don’t need to say this, but I’d prefer to live in a world with, rather than without, the work of Duchamp. I can think of people telling me the same thing for a Dali painting, and Rothko paintings. Personally, I don’t like standing and looking at images in museums, and have never spent more than 15-20 minutes with any given work of art displayed in a museum. But the point is I have no problem with people thoroughly enjoying the art they prefer.
I’m a little suspicious that you have so much invested in Duchamp that you therefore find his work far more visually interesting than it actually merits. I’d agree with you though that “The Large Glass” is one of his best works, and does have real visual interest. I especially like the circular forms on the bottom right of the panel. He’s got a pretty solid Surrealist canvas called “The Bride”, and “Nude Descending a Staircase” was also quite good. From my perspective, if those two paintings had been done by Picasso or Max Ernst they wouldn’t be standouts, but just additions to the repertoire. Guernica alone is more interesting to me than anything Duchamp has done visually speaking.
But you bring me back to my point about Manzoni and his canned shit (which I assume you know about). Same with Duchamp. I’d like it for it’s prank value (I love pranks) so long as it weren’t overhyped. Overhyped art is a bit like being overcharged for a cab ride, and in the case of the most celebrated contemporary, conceptual art, it can be overcharged by hundreds or thousands of times the cost. I could probably get into Duchamp’s various explorations, which I have nothing against, if I could take them on their own without the overarching, self-serving, version of art history that goes with it. In fact I didn’t have a problem with him, and even had a book on “Etant Donnes” before doing my undergrad work, let alone my graduate work. Note that as a grad I didn’t attempt any visual language art after the first term. Only conceptual, political work was considered relevant. No other art was taken seriously at all.
As for the 20 years spent on “Etant Donnes”, it’s not the same thing to work on something, on and off, and finally finish it 20 years later, as it is to steadfastly work on something for 20 years. And it’s one thing to spend over a decade on “Remembrance of Things Past”, and another to spend it on a short novella that could have been written in a couple months if one put ones mind to it (though length does not automatically equate work or substance). My guess is that in that 20 years there may have been whole years when Duchamp didn’t touch the work, or barely did.
Oddly, I disagree with you about Cage, and was really impressed with his pieces for prepared piano when I was still in High School. I’ll have to listen to them again.
Your preference for Duchamp over Van Gogh reminds me that artists like Van Gogh or Monet are so over-popularized that they are both overvalued and undervalued at the same time. They are overvalued merely because of popularity and familiarity – much like the work of any pop musician such as Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – but not genuinely appreciated for their real quality. I remember TS Eliot once filling a huge auditorium, and him quibbling that there aren’t a half dozen people in the world who understood his poetry. But everyone can like “the women come and go talking of Michelangelo” cause it’s so catchy and accessible.
I keep coming back to Van Gogh, and I still don’t fully understand his work. These are artist’s artists, as in, if one really gets into visual aesthetics, such as color, one can sometimes appreciate them even more. I would take one Van Gogh of my choice over the entire output of Duchamp. It’s good that there are such different tastes in the world.
Sure, sure, we can’t take Duchamp at face value. That’s a bit convenient though, especially if he consistently made the same pronouncements over debates. And the beautiful move over the most effective move, in Chess, is a nice justification for losing the game, especially when spouted by someone whose legacy is based on being anti-aesthetic. When isn’t the most intelligent and subtle move the most beautiful? Only when we invest emotion or some association with an inferior move. He may be a bit of a bullshitter.
But what I don’t see is a coherent, comprehensive statement about his own work. This is conspicuously lacking in those who are held up as the philosophical giants of contemporary art. If you’ve ever heard Jeff Koons talking about his work, it sounds liked syrupy platitudes nicked from new age self-help pamphlets. Hirst is similarly infuriatingly inarticulate. And so was Warhol. I mean, shit, shouldn’t they be more articulate than I am, an unknown who hasn’t made a hundred dollars off of my art in my lifetime?
If you disagree with a point, it’s not enough to merely state that. It’s a bit like, “well, my Kung-fu is much better than yours, but I can’t be bothered right now to show you, as it’s not even worth my effort”.
Back to why I accused you of hypocrisy in not considering John Cage as having changed everything for music. You boldly stated that Marcel Duchamp “changed everything”. This commonplace view, which I was force-fed in art school, principally places his grand achievement on his readymades – the revolution of being able to see a non-art object AS art. This was his enormous breakthrough. The ability to see the beauty of a role of tape, and the ability to say, “art is what I say it is”. Cage attempted essentially the same thing in music. Do you not see the parallels? His most famous piece is composition 4’33” of 1952, where the pianist just sat there. And while Cage dealt in full-on conceptual work that couldn’t be listened to, his music for prepared pianos is aesthetically appealing, but unusual, much like “The Large Glass”. My general point is that lovers of conceptual art are quite often haters of conceptual music, whereas I tend to hold conceptual art and conceptual music about the same in relation to each other and their more overtly aesthetically appealing counterparts.
Your view on Duchamp is appreciated, and I will try to separate the man from the legacy. However, in doing so, I am likely to simply see him as I would have without the legacy, as a mild curiosity, worth an afternoon or two of study, a few chuckles, and a few wows.
I do have some things in common with Duchamp, such as a love of pranks and a finger to the establishment art world. But I probably have more in common with Van Gogh, such as a love of visual images. One artist makes wry comments on the commonplace, and the other transcends it. My favorite 20th century artist is possibly Francis Bacon. I’m interested in the ability of an image to capture and create reality, or an alternate reality, to realize a vision, and of course the sheer quality of visual language itself. I’ve noticed that critics who love Duchamp, hate Bacon (ex., Jerry Shalz, who banned me ion Instagram for commenting “Go Business as Usual” in response to his “Go Hillary” post). We may look for opposite things in art.
Did you bother to look at the links I shared in my last comment. I’ve done a couple parodies of Duchamp you might find of some interest. There are some serious artworld jokes in there, including art pieces which were only ever realized in Photoshop.
Lastly, I’m more open-minded than I perhaps even want to be, because I definitely haven’t close the book on Marcel, and look forward to reassessing him again (and perhaps again, and again) when opportunities arise. And if I find my then former positions was wrong, I will happily renounce it, because you are only wrong until you admit you are wrong, in which case you were wrong but are no longer. The goal is to move forward, while there’s time, and not to insist ones former attestations were granite.
Have a good one, and thanks again for the dialouge.
Well written article, but I disagree with the analogy of creationism and evolution. It may be better to think of the two as different species of the evolutionary tree, like reptiles and birds. I think it’s easier to believe in both this way.
Believing in anti-art and art at the same time is like believing the Earth is flat and spherical at the same time. What we can do is disengage anti-art objects from the pernicious and bogus pseudo-philosophical underpinnings, and regard it therefore as a kind of art. A bit boring for my tastes, with very little to look at. But part of art history none the less. But, no, you can’t believe the rhetoric of anti-art and believe in painting at the same time.