Art-versus-anti-art, Monet and Duchamp.
Left: Claude Monet, “Waterloo Bridge”, oil on canvas, 1899.  Right: Marcel Duchamp, “In Advance of the Broken Arm”, snow shovel in gallery, 1914.

Art is intended to be looked at, anti-art isn’t. People are confused on this, and even I’m confused on it, which is why I’m trying to clarify my thoughts on it here. Riiiiiiight, you like them both. That would be most people who’ve studied art, but it’s a bit like saying that you believe in Darwinian evolution AND biblical creationism. They are supposed to be mutually exclusive.

[If you follow my blog then you may be getting impatient with my months’ long fixation with certain artists, whose names I hesitate to even mention again, and art practices. But these are artists and ideas that artists, art lovers (and art haters) need to contend with. In science, you can’t just not care about the theory of relativity, and in art you can’t ignore anti-art, though it is in no way on a par with Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics.]

Imagine that an author who happens to have written a few short stories has the inspiration one day to sign his name to the cover of a phone directory, and then call it literature. It has hundreds of pages of words, technically it could be read, but it was not written (or rather compiled) to be read. Let’s further say that this piece of literature is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century. We could appreciate it as a comment on literature, and that it makes us look at everyday words in a new light, but we probably wouldn’t bother to open the piece. This is the same with anti-art. It is not meant to be “read”, it’s intended as an impenetrable object that stands for an idea or argument outside of itself. Art speaks for itself, but anti-art, and a lot of conceptual art requires the artist to speak about it, and for it, using spoken or written language. This kind of art is more of a prop as part of a lecture, than it is an independent creation.

Marcel Duchamp is the celebrated champion of anti-art, and considered by many, including the famous art critic Clemente Greenberg, as the father of conceptual art. For others he is perhaps more of a second-rate philosopher whose ideas – once taken out of the realm of art and subjected to the crucible of philosophy, where theories can be rationally challenged and refuted – are fallacious. Duchamp had a vendetta against beauty, and what he termed the merely “retinal” in art, and his choice victims were the Impressionists. He argued that Impressionism and all recent painting was devoid of ideas.

Duchamp the Chess wiz. I think we like HIM, because we think he’s cool, kind of like William Burroughs, and in the same way we like Andrew Warhola because of his hair. We like the photo op, the legend, and the celebrity. But that’s not his art.

We get it wrong when we oversimplify that Duchamp was against beauty. He was against aesthetics in general, and visual language. He wasn’t just opposed to superficially pretty art, but also against the most complex and compelling aesthetic achievements. This is why it’s called “anti-art” and not just “anti-beauty”. Late in life, in a BBC interview, he stated that he wished to do away with art the same way many have done away with religion.

In order to attack art, Duchamp arranged to exhibit innocuous everyday objects as art. They were NOT meant to be appreciated as beautiful or interesting, good or bad in terms of design. In his own words,

“It’s very difficult to choose an object, because, at the end of fifteen days, you begin to like it or hate it. You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.”

Another misconception about Duchamp is that he tried to elevate the everyday object into art. This was not at all his intention, because he didn’t find the objects he selected aesthetically interesting. What he wanted to do was to bring art down to the level of the bland, mass-produced object, in which case we’d inhabit a wonderfully bland, utilitarian world it was impossible to transcend. When Duchamp submitted a urinal as sculpture to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, it was rejected. Painter, George Bellows, who was a board member, thought the work was indecent, and rightfully didn’t appreciate the juxtaposition of his own work with a piss pot. Duchamp’s intended message was that the works of his fellow artists weren’t any better than a urinal: something to be pissed on. He was doing the equivalent of a child kicking over other kids’ sand castles, and I imagine this was partly because of his anger that his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, was not accepted by Cubists.

Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Oil on canvas.
Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Oil on canvas. If only he’d stuck with it.

I actually like “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” better than most Cubism, so can appreciate his frustration. I think he did his absolute best, made a serious contender of a piece, and the Cubists wrongly rejected it because it didn’t fit within their paradigm. Duchamp had serious potential as an artist, but threw in the towel too soon. Who knows what works he might have conceived using visual language, instead of rebelling against it out of spite and a desire for instant notoriety. He could have started by learning a bit more about color from his reviled Impressionists, and gotten out of monotonous monochrome.

Duchamp submitted his infamous “Fountain” to the same exhibit in which artist, George Bellows was exhibiting his own painting. Bellows argued that Duchamp’s “Fountain” should not be exhibited because it was indecent. He may have been right after all to oppose the inclusion of the urinal, because it implied his own work was no better.

It is an art-historical irony of the highest order that people now worship Duchamp’s deliberately chosen bland and uninteresting objects as unique works of artistic genius. Again, in his own words:

When I discovered readymades, I thought to discourage aesthetics… I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their beauty.

Duchamp urinal
Folks, it was intended by the “artist” as a joke. It really is just a piss pot. He chose it because he didn’t think it was aesthetically interesting one way or the other. To admire it aesthetically is to completely miss the point, and to contradict the intent and beliefs of Duchamp. You all can take your noses out of the urinal now.

Probably the most common justification for Duchamp as a great artist is that he “changed the way we see everyday objects” or just “changed the way we see”. Not only is this ridiculous – as if our species couldn’t appreciate the beauty in everyday objects which are designed and engineered by people to deliberately achieve whatever level of beauty they contain, and bought and admired for the same reasons, until he showed us how – it’s the opposite of his intent. He wanted to kick the pedestal out from under high art, not to have everyday objects worshiped on even higher pedestals.

Anti-art is a refutation of visual language, and as such you don’t need to be an artist, or have any appreciation of art to make it, or to appreciated it. In fact, it’s better if you don’t truly like art, otherwise you might not really enjoy someone wanting to get rid of it, and saying it is no better than a toilet. You also won’t find any of the things you like about art in it. No beautiful colors, interesting juxtaposition of shapes, challenging compositions, rendering of figures, or content. Looking at a Duchamp ready-made as art is like listening to a car alarm as music, and thinking of Duchamp as an artist for those pieces is like thinking of someone who leans on their horn in traffic as a composer.

It’s actually kind of funny to try to exhibit a urinal as a sculpture. I would probably like Duchamp as a prankster and minor artist, if people hadn’t taken him seriously while missing the point, enshrined his urinal on a pedestal (sometimes encased in glass as well) and bought official signed replicas of it for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Duchamp largely succeeded in killing art, so that the most sought after art of the day is “conceptual art” which sidelines aesthetics, rendering, complex use of color or composition, and the use of visual language to communicate meaning. The art itself, like Duchamp’s readymades, is often empty or mute, but the idea behind it is thought to be profound. Oddly, and not surprisingly, it is very difficult for the average, intelligent, cultured and educated person, who hasn’t been thoroughly indoctrinated into contemporary art theories, to tell the difference between the brilliant conceptual work of the day, and a frivolous or even insulting joke.

comb 1916 by Marcel Duchamp
“Comb” 1916. by Marcel Duchamp [comb on pedestal in gallery]. Duchamp said that this piece had “. . . all the characteristics of a readymade: no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly aesthetic about it.”
All the bullshit aside, art that successfully uses visual language is much more interesting to me than art that doesn’t, in the same way that music interests me more than “sound sculptures” made up of sound and noise. An artist like Monet is both overrated by people who know next to nothing about art, because they can see it’s beautiful, and underrated by art snobs who erroneously believe that “conceptual” art is more intelligent, profound, or contains more ideas. Just because a Monet canvas is beautiful, doesn’t mean that it is ONLY beautiful. Hell, it’s much more interesting to me that some guy was outside with paints trying to capture the fleeting colors of light and shadow, and to do so in a richly sumptuous and sophisticated way that evoked the essence of nature, than it is that some other guy exhibited boring everyday objects to prove that art was dull and washed up.

A couple of Monet’s haystacks at different times of day. They don’t end with the retinal. They start there.

I think I GET Duchamp, but when it comes right down to it, I’ll take art over anti-art any day. Duchamp hardly refuted Monet. If he wanted to do that, why didn’t he make art using visual language that conveyed deeper meanings and a beauty that was less easily accessible? [Admittedly, one could say he attempted this in his unfinished large glass painting, but his intent undermines that reading.] Anti-art merely claims a one-upmanship, and through a rhetorical sleight of hand positions itself as superior to art, and this is why Duchamp’s decision to stop making art and devote himself to Chess is thought as a great feat of performance art. When you start thinking of someone’s refusal to make art as the height of artistic achievement, it’s time to go splash some water on your face, maybe give it a few slaps, and if that doesn’t work punch yourself in the nose.

On the bright side, if I somehow get a Duchamp in my possession (I mean a real one, not something identical that I pick up in a garage sale), I’ll trade it to you for a Monet!

“Bottle Rack, by Marcel Duchamp. 1921” by Erich Küns. You can get the same effect of looking at a Duchamp by looking at this pic I grabbed off the internet of some other ordinary bottle rack. In truth, I have a really hard time NOT seeing this as a profound work by Duchamp, because I’ve been taught to see it that way. It’s kind of like when Bush ran for president, and the bought-and-sold commentators kept saying that he “looked presidential” after Gore demolished him in every debate – when I then thought of what looked presidential, I imagined Bush.


~ Ends

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11 replies on “Art versus Anti-Art

  1. Pretty sobering stuff. And even sadder for the art world to embrace someone who pissed on art and the artists. You’ve done your homework, great quotes you found.

    I thought you should have mentioned that this post comes out of a long Google+ debate you’ve been having over there. Folks might want to join the conversation or be aware that one was/is going on.


  2. great analogy comparing duchamp:artist to elbow-on-the-car-horn:musician. really a very important topic, regardless if it’s duchamp or just this debate in general. thank you for this thought provoking and conversation igniting post.


    1. Thanks Carol. These days it seems like there’s too much blind adulation of contemporary art, and not enough serious criticism. Today’s critics are more like cheerleaders for the big art shows, and it’s extremely unfashionable to look at art or art theories critically. But this is partly because the new critics are people serving the art buyers themselves, who have no interest in undermining the greatness of their own art collections. But in this process we’ve lost thinking seriously about art, which also undercuts the power of art itself.


  3. I enjoyed this essay immensely. I’d like to use the phone book as literature analogy on an author friend of mine that complains that I don’t “get conceptual art”.. And in addition, I think your work is awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marty. Feel free to use any of my analogies and arguments in your discussions with others. If you like my work, I’ll be continuing to upload new pieces regularly, in fairly high resolution so people who like them can really enjoy them. Cheers.


  4. eric, i keep coming back to this post. thank you for writing it. i have just shared it on my fb page.


  5. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay about art and anti-art. Ive been looking at (and reading about) Bruegel’s work recently and am enthralled! Any comments about Bruegel?


    1. Bruegel is an amazing artist. His world is not one I’d necessarily want to live in (as in living in the world his paintings depicts, as opposed to his mind), but his vision represents its own reality, that woudln’t exist without him. His work is so good it’s daunting. On the other hand, because it’s so old, it’s a bit like listening to Bach. I CAN get into it, but it’s much easier to get into the music and art of our own time.Nevertheless I’d love to look at some Bruegel in person when I’m somewhere near an appropriate museum again.


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