[An unedited rant written in one go over a cup of coffee. This time I’m leaving in my typos and other shit. Yes, I know that “it’s” as a possessive doesn’t get an apostrophe, and I know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, and between “there” and “their” and “they’re”… But when I type, I type fast, and sometimes I type “right” for “write”. This is unedited, yo!]
The cruel irony had become a bludgeon to hit visual artists over the head with and numb anyone’s appreciation of visual art. You wanna’ learn about art. You wanna’ explore the ideas behind it. And for a century, or really the latter half, you get a urinal shoved in your face. If you don’t worship this thing as a brilliant logical move that checkmated all conventional ideas about art, you are a putz. In fact you are Potsie Weber from Happy Days, or, Gilligan and Beaver Cleaver visiting the art museum and scratching your head before the dandruff and deodorant commercials. To appreciate the urinal is to be philosophically astute, a brilliant mind and mind fucker, and to truly get art, having gone deep like Rene Descartes when he asked himself what was the one irreducible truth that could not be questioned away (um, that he was sitting there asking the question, hence conscious, hence existing). You have pondered the deep meaning and significance of art, and the urinal is your crucifixion, the icon of your irreligious idolatry. Neither visually nor philosophically worth it’s weight in Styrofoam, “The Fountain” was an anti-art prank which eliminated imagery and the visual imagination from visual art, and centered as the core of existence the inert object. To appreciate a handful of dust as not just an inextricable element of reality, but as the extent of reality, and as good as it gets, is perhaps radical (so is barbecuing your cat on a rotisserie and then wearing it around your neck to the office), but ultimately misses the point of art and existence.
To miss the point of (visual art) and existence can be a radical gesture, as there’s no real problem with the radical being the merely gratuitous. There are brilliant innovations (electricity) and then there are things which are just different, like popping all your pimples on a single hand held mirror (from age 13-18) and then exhibiting the result as a painting. The irreverent has become the reverent. We most admire in art that which eschews any deeper meaning, any meaning at all, any use of the imagination, and any image. Note that the word “image” is tucked into “imagination” and is or was the core of visual art until the inert, empty, contentless, emotionless, and even thoughtless object arrived on the seen. We celebrate that no longer is ART a peering through the window of the canvas into the imagination/mind/thought/life of another individual, but rather a plebeian object on a pedestal, or better yet on the floor. We endlessly admire the high polished chrome surface of Koons’ Balloon Dogs (and Koons has boldly declared there’s no hidden meanings in his art), the dot paintings of Hirst that are less visual interesting than wrapping paper, and the celebrity kitsch of Warhol. All of this is the legacy of Duchamp and his fountain. The banal thing (Koons had a show called “Banality”), kitsch, and reflecting back consumer culture on itself without commentary (Warhol) are interpreted as brilliant philosophical insights, even if the artists in question come off as not the sharpest knives in the school cafeteria plastic utensil reservoir. Koons sounds like a self-help guru for the bored housewives of the 1% who have already bought millions of dollars worth or worthless art and still feel empty after the shopping spree. Koons says it’s OK to be empty and to love kitsch. It’s also fucking boring. Hirst comes off as too angry that he has to defend his work at all, and a bit of a pugnacious bully. How do you argue art with someone with his level of success? All he has to do is say, “Look at me, look at what I’m worth, and then look at you”. Philosophical debate is over.
We’ve all heard about these super philosophical giant artists (usually the least articulate, both verbally and visually) and how they’ve revolutionized art. We understand that any and all revolution and radicality in art is good, and we forget how many millions of people (is 100 million enough?) died in the various radical revolutions of the 20th century. Was it 45,000,000 in China alone? [Note, I lived in China for 4.5 years and am very fond of the country and its people. I presently live in Cambodia, which had its own radical, revolutionary genocide.] We MIGHT have become suspicious of year zero brand revolutions that want to upturn everything and start fresh with themselves and their cadres as the new leaders of everyone, in the name of the people, of course.
The hopelessly antiquated and irrelevant progrock band, Genesis, long before they became a whopping commercial success after selling out and Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel as the singer – y’know, in the 80’s, when everything became really superficial – had a song with these lyrics, which have always stuck with me.
“Some of you are going to die, martyrs of course to the freedom that I shall provide”. That’s since High School. I’d elaborate, but if I understood it in HS, most readers can understand it without further commentary.
Now let’s deal with if the inert object or a mirror held up to the annoyingly frivolous is really the seat of reality. Nah. It’s not. The urinal is not a profound meditation on reality, or at least not a novel one. Does anyone really think nobody before Duchamp ever sat down and really looked at an object in the same way that everyone at sometimes realized their name is just a funny sounding word, or how some other word might suddenly stand out as arbitrary and peculiar? I think Buddhists figured this shit out thousands of years prior.
Let me give you a counter-argument. The seat of reality is consciousness (cheers Descartes for figuring this out), and it’s not inert, not merely a flat surface with nothing beneath it (as Warhol claimed of his audacious paintings), and not an object at all. We are exploring it now, wondrously, and it was never vanquished, as Duchamp so profoundly declared. He said he wanted to kill art as religion had been killed, which means to render irrelevant all that mental stuff outside of the mere fact of a utilitarian comb. His ideas are actually really easy to grasp, the hard part is attaching the requisite profundity to them, which, as it turns out, is much easier to do if you don’t know that much about art.
There’s an amazingly awkward and stupid incident which Adam Curtis inserted into one of his documentaries – Bitter Creek, and it was about the tragically failed attempts of the Soviets and Americans to revolutionize Syria in their own image, and its aftermath – in which a female art historian tries to explain the godforsaken Duchampian urinal to a bunch of Syrians. The joke is not so much the non-comprehension of the Syrians (the camera pans women with partial head-coverings scowling), but how utterly ridiculous the urinal seems once taken out of its protected, highly specialized, belief system. THIS is the greatest artwork of our culture of the last century! Behold. A men’s urinal. And now you too should sign on and climb aboard. You should abandon your ways and embrace ours because of the brilliantly revolutionary piss pot tilted on its side. I mean, c’mon ladies, it’s been TILTED on its side. Don’t you SEE it? It’s a SCULTPURE! It was kinda’ like when you tell a joke to a room full of people and nobody laughs.
Do the people who pride themselves on taking apart art and reinventing it really know that much about art from before Duchamp, and maybe the Impressionists (cause everyone knows THEM). Well, I’m a product of a radical 20th century art education, through an MFA. I went to UCLA and a few of my famous teachers included Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, and Cathy Opie (I think Opie’s alright). I got a $10K fellowship which was awarded to one artist for each grade level. I got it as a senior. I’ve had art history classes and contemporary art theory classes, and all the rest, and I can tell you that you can go through that whole system without delving much beyond getting just a glimpse of any art prior to 1900.
And that means they aren’t really challenging the notion of what is or is not art, but merely regurgitating what they are taught art is within the institution. Now, a lot of critics and gallery/museum people come out after they retire or quit their jobs, near the near the end of their career, and say the whole thing is bullshit, but I don’t really trust them since they milked the teat of what they are condemning greedily for generations, and only took a shit on it after they were done capitalizing on it. The retired whistle-blower is not as convincing at the mid-career one who sacrifices everything to tell the truth.
And this brings me to the question of going beyond painting. For a loose analogy let’s go with going beyond poetry. To go beyond poetry you might shatter iambic pentameter, embrace blank verse, and write with indelible marker on your ball sack. Never mind that you never wrote in iambic pentameter, and you aren’t really familiar with any poetry except maybe Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost. You don’t go beyond poetry. You don’t go beyond music. You don’t go beyond painting. You either do something original and substantive with it, or you do something else.
That is what Duchamp did. He knew, and said, that he had no ideas for painting. I’ve quoted him elsewhere on this (search my blog for “Duchamp”), and thus he did SOMETHING ELSE. It was, of course, again, anti-art. As I said it is anti-visual, anti-imagination, anti-image, anti-transcendent, anti-ecstatic, and reveling (some might say groveling) in utter mundanity. Now, this may be interesting, especially in the history of pranks and art pranks, and it may offer new ways of being creative, all of which I am for, but it is itself a boring-ass gesture. We can say it opened the door, but we open doors every day and usually it’s not a big deal, not a deal at all. This isn’t Aldous Huxley imbibing mescaline and opening “The Doors of Perception” (after which, of course, The Doors named themselves, which is why the first song on their initial album was called “Break on Through” to the other side). The Doors and Aldous Huxley and others might have broken on through to the other side, so to speak, but Duchamp opened the door onto a snow shovel, a comb, a bottle rack, and a urinal. If THAT sounds more profound and interesting to you, than you are in good company, the art world agrees.
But, by now I’ve realized, fully, m’er f’ers, that there’s only one way to transcend or go beyond painting (or image making using media of choice). Here we are talking about visual communication, which means you have to communicate something using visual language. Before I reveal the punchline let me do it by saying there’s only one way to go beyond music. Well, it’s within painting/image making, or in the case of music within music. You are not the best or most revolutionary (as if that really matters so much) musician if you choose to NOT make music. This is what we have in art. We have a guy who chose to NOT make visual art. To not even try, but to do something else. We may laud him for the other thing that he did, and that’s all fine and good, especially if you like banality and being bored shitless, but he gets zero credit for innovating within visual language and imagery (except for his early paintings and the glass one with the bachelors who couldn’t get it up for the bride or some cynical, sterile message). I do think the guy had talent and if he chose to might have added something to visual art, as Max Ernst did, perhaps, but by his own admission he ran out of ideas and so did something else.
There is a perfect musical corollary, and it’s John Cage’s piano sonata in which the pianist sat at the piano for 10 minutes or so and did nothing. You could HEAR things if you tried. Some squeaks, a click here or there, some coughing and other loosening of phlegm from the lungs or esophagus, and probably some stifled yawns and groans. To say that Duchamp’s “Fountain” is the greatest achievement of visual art is very tightly equivalent to saying Cage’s sitting and doing nothing sonata is the greatest achievement in music of the last century. In which case I have a challenge for you. In fact I have two.
The first is to sit down, perhaps with a glass of wine, dim the lights, and listen to the anomalous background noise of Cage’s sonata. Why not listen to it frequently? And the second is to get a cheap replica (virtually identical) to Duchamp’s urinal and put it on a pedestal in your own home.
The truth is nobody wants to listen to that shit and nobody wants to look at that shit, and those are very serious problems for music and visual art.
You might also ask yourself if you were stuck on a deserted island, would you rather have only the collected works of Yoko Ono or those of John Lennon. And don’t go all fucking politically correct on me. It has nothing to do with race or gender. I think Yoko might get old pretty quick. But John’s got all his work with the Beatles plus his solo stuff. Yes I know Yoko made some crazy music (I sorta’ like a few of her songs), but John also made some uninspired drawings.
So, if you want to blow painting (or visual imagery of choice) out of the water, you have to do it WITH visual imagery. Same goes for music and poetry. You don’t get to be the God of painting by NOT making painting. Fuck off.
But if we want to say that Duchamp is the father of certain alternative art forms, which have little to nothing to do with visual art (that’s why it’s called anti-art), that’s cool. That’s great. But he does not rebuke Van Gogh, nor make the tradition of using ones visual imagination to make imagery for the eyes and mind irrelevant or redundant. And as it turns out, the inert object did not make the immaterial consciousness moribund either.
All hail the vacuum cleaner as sculpture, and the sound of it as music. Sometimes the line between crystalline brilliance only the most choice and highly evolved intellects can fathom, and face planting in a shit-pile of blunt stupidity becomes rather seamless.