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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