Destabilizing Marcel Duchamp
The hero as a cautionary tale.
Duchamp is not the man we know, that persona is a cultural construct. Duchamp’s ideas could not be based on a deep philosophical understanding of art because the science was missing in his time, a science asserting today a biological necessity to the sensual art he rejected. Surprisingly enough, it looks like Duchamp proved that art is not anything you can get away with. Studies of the archives tells us that while we made him a hero, Duchamp was actually a cautionary tale – his beliefs destroyed his ability to make art.
He may also have been chromatically anomalous or insensitive. It is surprising that such a gifted painter as he was, Duchamp didn’t enjoy painting, and almost all his work suffers such restricted chromatic range. Perhaps he was colour insensitive or unreactive, even when he used colour in his spiral optical experiments. Of course Picasso and Braque and other Cubists at this time were also restricted to earth tones, possibly post-war economy. His use of colours in “Landscape Study for Paradise”, 1911, or the painting of his father, plus the other few colour works of his such as “Tu ‘m” where colours are used straight out of the tube, these all hint at chromatic restriction. That an artist would be so technically brilliant a painter yet not enjoy his work suggests a neurological disconnect between the visual cortex and the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. Neuroscientists call the nucleus accumbens the brain’s pleasure centre; when an activity is desirable, the brain releases a surge of dopamine in this area. Duchamp never displayed much emotion or sensual response.
Duchamp was a child of his time and his Dadaism included a queering of norms, with an antipathy to work itself; “I did as few things as possible, which isn’t like the current attitude of making as much as you can, in order to make as much money as possible.”(34) But Robert Motherwell suggests Duchamp found an ethic beyond ‘the aesthetic’ for his ultimate choices; “I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist. He’s a man like any other… those who make things on a canvas, with a frame, they’re called artists. Formerly they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer.” (35) How wrong he was, and how strange that no one ever said so!
Aesthetic choices have a complexity we never imagined; archaeology tells that since the dawn of time aesthetics was a biological imperative that overrode any contingency of location or culture. Without creativity, life would be like chess, predictable by computation. The 1996 match of IBM’s Deep Blue against Garry Kasparov, the Soviet grandmaster, proved that chess had a numeric consistency of pattern recognition, inimical to the chaos that play such a big role in creativity.(36)
Duchamp said “To get away from the physical aspect of painting, I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products… I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind”(37), but he was unaware that visual language was already at the service of the mind. For an overview of the psychology of art there’s Dennis Dutton’s youtube Ted Talk, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty. (38) Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “emphasized (that) every perceptual experience we have is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration–an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, according to the circumstances–which is stored in the brain for future reference. Each new object we encounter is automatically compared to those stored cognitive and emotional memories of past experience, providing an instantaneous evaluation based on past knowledge and experience… art is not mere “cheesecake” for the mind. It is instead a cultural adaptation of great significance.” (39) Dismissing sensuality and creativity would degrade painting.
Motherwell says that “Duchamp was the great saboteur, the relentless enemy of painterly painting… His disdain for sensual painting was… intense.”(40) Imagine someone saying the same about singing, cuisine, or medical surgery, and we see this praise of nihilism as a mental illness. When Cabane asked where his anti-retinal attitude comes from, Duchamp replied “from too great importance given to the retina. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error… still interested in painting in the retinal sense. Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral… It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.” (Cabane’s footnote; Duchamp uses the word “retinal” in the way many people use “painterly”. In other words, Duchamp objects to the sensuous appeal of painting)… “in a period like ours, when you cannot continue to do oil painting, which after four or five hundred years of existence, has no reason to go on eternally… The painting is no longer a decoration to be hung in the dining room or living room. Art is taking on more the form of a sign, if you wish; it’s no longer reduced to a decoration…” On Cabane asking if easel painting is dead Duchamp replies “it’s dead for the moment, and for a good hundred and fifty years. Unless it comes back; one doesn’t know why, but there’s no good reason for it…(41) The Coffee Grinder. It was there I began to think I could avoid all contact with traditional pictorial painting. I was able to get rid of tradition by this linear method.” (42)
As we read the science, the archaeology and psychology of art, we learn that visual art including painting is not simply a “decoration for the dining room”; it is an expression of our highest evolutionary potential. Instead of painting taking on the form of a sign we discover that painting is a symbol that cannot be reduced to a sign, which is calligraphy, used in writing. The aesthetic traditions Duchamp denied are a crucial part of evolution and mental health. Since visual language expresses itself differently than intellectual concepts it expands their meaning. One cannot forsake aesthetics and the senses in order to promote ideas as a base for painting. On the contrary such reduction weakens the idea by discarding its terminology; the more pragmatic skills the artist has, the greater one’s visual vocabulary, and the more complex the idea that can be expressed.
But the science came late for Duchamp and did not reach some influential voices. Sir Alistair MacFarlane, former Vice-President of the British Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor writes that “before Marcel Duchamp, a work of art was an artifact, a physical object. After Duchamp it was an idea, a concept… Duchamp had two strategic objectives. First, to destroy the hegemony exerted by an establishment which claimed the right to decide what was, and what was not, to be deemed a work of art. Second, to puncture the pretentious claims of those who called themselves artists and in doing so assumed that they possessed extraordinary skills and unique gifts of discrimination and taste.” (43)
With all respect to Duchamp and Sir MacFarlane those claims to extraordinary skills were not pretentious; they were proven fact. Michelangelo (and Duchamp) and others including myself do possess exceptional ability in painting, discrimination and taste; that’s what it means to be a professional artist compared to an accountant or scientist with their own skill set. Deconstructing MacFarlane’s language we know that ideas and concepts cannot be “a work of art”(sic), because work means work. Therefore art is a product while an idea has to be tested and valued. The art of conversation, of cuisine, “the art of anything” is the best in that field; ideas or concepts cannot be qualified without a reality check.
What about found objects? As noted in part 1, André Breton wrote of the Readymade in the Surrealist Dictionary; “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”.(44) It is signed MD but André Gervais nevertheless asserts that André Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry. Duchamp himself said that he was interested in objects that were not art, that could never be mistaken for art, and the term found objects came to him. The academic-curatorial complex ignored that and so we have today’s conundrum.
Today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice has consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art. A pile of trash at the Tate remained trash for weeks no matter how often the artist came by to elevate it to the dignity of a work of art. Huffed. Puffed. No art. No dignity. A stack of wet broken sticks in Venice presented as art remain wet broken sticks; in spite of all attempts to believe in magic, no art appears. Even if King Canute returned telling those sticks to be art, remember that Canute’s waves failed to recede. It’s now an established principle that art is created not by the artist’s choice but their vision and effort, and only when that vision is transcendent and their effort is successful. Art is a valuation, excellence is its calling card. What’s an artist if not someone who achieves that best?
Sol Lewitt was just as wrong; ideas cannot be art since ideas belong to science. Now consider that creative minds experiment with ideas, some turn out to be brilliant mistakes while others are destructive, as when Dada insists that mistakes are successes. It’s possible Duchamp’s value lies in tracing the red line where thinking turns toxic and destroys creativity, when ideas fail their reality check. But we need to connect the dots we’ve ignored for so long; Duchamp’s ideas failed and they hurt him. Ideas are only valuable if they make sense, else they’re harmful.
In an interview with Katherine Kuh, Duchamp said “I consider taste – bad or good – the greatest enemy of art. (45) In other interviews he said “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.(46) [My intention was to] completely eliminate the existence of taste, bad or good or indifferent.” (47)
Lyotard and a postmodern belief in contingency stand on those comments. Walter Benjamin’s denial of the individual is also noted as ideas that were floating around in Duchamp’s time. It is said that if we have not seen further than others it is because we’re standing on the shoulders of shorter giants, or else giants are standing on our shoulders.
Taste cannot be the enemy of art – it is the expression of each unique individual and what defines you as a person; taste is all you got. When Duchamp “contradicted himself to avoid conforming to his own taste” he was wrecking havoc with the fine-tuning of sensitive mechanisms within us, the antennas by which we attune to finer things, the calibrated controls by which we apprehend the most complex understanding. No wonder ideas stopped coming and losing interest in art Duchamp took to chess. We could see a lesson here of committing oneself to toxic ideas; what else is nihilism but self-destruction? Duchamp wanted to destroy art and he did; that’s Dada, “a pharmaceutical product for idiots”, as Picabia put it.
Nor is painting five hundred years old as Duchamp believed. Art is ruled by an ancestral instinct promoting genetic survival; painting is Paleolithic. We have evidence of 100,000 years of mineral pigments including crayons associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens. (48) Painting is far more than mere decoration, but to experience that one needs an appreciation of the retinal spectrum where intellect fails. We need other languages. Hannah Arendt wrote “if men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.” (49)
Consider the consequence of denying sensation in order to focus on idea; those who sever their roots will surely reap the whirlwind, like a man who builds his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27 Duchamp stopped making art, though he still poked and prodded at Étant donnés as if trying to revive a lost relationship.
Now considers Edward Fry’s statement, published in 1972, that Hans Haacke “may be even more subversive than Duchamp, since he handles his Readymades in such a way that they remain systems that represent themselves and thus do not let themselves assimilate with art.” (50) Instead of admiring this subversion it may be better to question the self-loathing that wants to subvert, deny, and reject art. How trendy! How rebellion! Greener grass next door? Being subversive and counter-aesthetic is past expiration date, been there, done that.
It can be argued that Duchamp defined art as scientists destroy objects to measure their limits; in seeking to destroy art he’d found the edges. Art is no longer anything you can get away with; beyond a certain point on the intellectual/sensory spectrum it’s no longer art, ergo you stop being an artist. That point is obvious at the loss of motivation, the loss of desire to make art. Sabotaging the system means it grinds to a halt. Duchamp wanted painting to be about ideas, but ideas are what we write down, they are the subject of literature, they belong to text; vision is for seeing, colors and shapes are the vocabulary of retinal art, the subject of vision. Ideas express conscious thoughts but psychologists tell us there are other forms of thinking than intellect such as feeling and intuition, both of which encode complex messages. Visual art and dance are unmistakably sensory non-verbal communication.
Albert Mehrabian (born 1939 to an Armenian family in Iran), currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, is known for his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes have been misquoted and misinterpreted throughout human communication seminars worldwide, and have also become known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking. (51) This gives an idea of the relative importance of visual language, a precursor to written language and at least equal to it in complexity of expression, for a picture’s worth a thousand words.
Kevin Zeng Hu, a Ph.D researcher at the MIT Media Lab, writes of images that “we all know how unwieldy texting can be and how much context can be lost, especially emotional context. Once you make it visual, you have a higher bandwidth to convey nuance.” (52) Painting was already “at the service of the mind” and it was specifically the parts Duchamp sought to eliminate, the visual and subliminal, that were the most essential aspects.
John Cage brought Duchamp’s ideas to music in his piece 4’33, which was entirely silent, the musicians did not play a note. I myself designed a conceptual painting performance in “homage to Marcel Duchamp”, where the public wears sleep masks while guides bring them to a large painting covered with a dark cloth in a dim-lit room. On reaching the painting the guide tells them it’s a good painting, then leads them out of the room. At the exit they are handed a business card that says, “an indiscriminate practice is the realm of Thanatos, daemon of non-violent death. His touch is gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep)”.
“Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, and in recent years a fierce critic of l’art contemporain, was a major interpreter through the 1970s of the work of Marcel Duchamp. He organized the great Duchamp retrospective in 1975 – the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou – and he wrote a catalogue raisonné of Duchamp’s work… Recently he has come to hold Duchamp in large measure responsible for what he regards as the deplorable condition of contemporary art.” (53) Art historian and critic Barbara Rose, reviewing the recent exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at Centre Pompidou, commented in her post script: “What Duchamp himself had done was always interesting and provocative. What was done in his name, on the other hand, was responsible for some of the silliest, most inane, most vulgar non-art still being produced by ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops with the idea of putting a found object in a museum.” (54)
Older critiques exist. On toutfait.com, the online Duchamp archive, (55) Thomas Girst writes “in 1957, Barnett Newman voiced his displeasure with the Whitney Museum of American Art, particularly with Robert Motherwell’s contribution to a catalogue for the memorial exhibition of Bradley Walker Tomlin. In a letter to John I. H. Baur, the Whitney’s director, Newman accused Motherwell of “smear and slander,” stating that he wanted to “make clear that if Motherwell wishes to make Marcel Duchamp a father, Duchamp is his father and not mine nor that of any American painter that I respect.” (56) Four years earlier, in a similar rebuke at the Museum of Modern Art, he spotlighted that Duchamp’s works in that institution merely added to its “popularizing role of entertainment,” and asserted “that the American public… seeks more from art than just gadgets.”(57) In 1952, he confirmed that the “gadgets” of his scorn were indeed the readymades: “Marcel Duchamp tried to destroy art by pointing to the fountain, and we now have museums that show screwdrivers and automobiles and paintings. [The museums] have accepted this aesthetic position that there’s no way of knowing what is what.”(58) Renounced was the responsibility of defining standards, when ironically Duchamp had proved that art actually does have limits and said the Readymades are not art. (Duchamp part 1)
The I CHING or Book of Changes is one of the Five Classics of Confucianism; under limitations we read that unlimited possibilities are not suited for us; if they existed, our life would dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, one’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted.(59) In a further note on the importance of parameters such as personal taste, compared to Duchamp’s attempt to discard these, the composer Igor Stravinsky writes “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles… and the arbitrariness of the constraint serve only to obtain precision of execution.”(60) The difference between Stravinsky and Duchamp is that your ear bring you Stravinsky’s song but your eyes fail to perceive Duchamp’s thoughts. You must be told the context before you can “like” the urinal. That’s no longer visual art but illustrated instruction; the dominant media here is writing.
Over the last few years we’ve read hundreds of articles on Duchamp and Dada, but most are oblivious to the debasement of art that Duchamp’s critics accuse him of. In light of Barbara Rose’s statement of “artists whose thinking stops at putting found object in a museum,” we may yet find that Duchamp is innocent. Much that we know about Duchamp consists of flawed academic accretions that won’t stand the light of scholarly research and documented history. Of the Readymade Duchamp told us he didn’t consider them art, others chose to see them as such. Why did late 1950s culture decide found objects were art?
An enormous investment of time and effort is required to acquire the skills to paint, sculpt, write, sing or dance, the traditional arts. Acquiring these skills also changes the artist, whose ever-subtler works then inform the cultural dialogue, which is how art shapes culture. The 1960s resurgence and reinterpretation of Duchamp created a conceptual methodology severed from history; the canonical interpretation of Duchamp allows us to make art without quality or taste, art based on intellect, but when Duchamp did it he destroyed his desire and ability to make art. Perhaps the awkward and talentless can express themselves without excellence, the unskilled and unimaginative can appropriate and mine art history, the clown can look wise, the academic look intelligent, while a top tier artist is defined as a superb networker and salesperson. When we read that Duchamp’s ideas sabotaged his ability, shouldn’t we ask how such ideas function, what will they do, what are those ideas doing to us?
Duchamp’s cautionary tale says art is more than concept and idea. Ideas instead are precursors to art production, where senses, instincts, and non-verbal languages guide the making as much as conscious thoughts do. Art is not an idea but a production with effort and struggle, aimed at the invaluable instead of the insignificant.
34-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, I live the life of a waiter, p95, Da Capo Press.
35-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Eight Years of Swimming Lessons, p16, Da Capo Press.
36-Marina Koren, When Computers Started Beating Chess Champions
37-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p11, Da Capo Press.
38-Dennis Dutton’s A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube
39-Michelle Marder Kamhi, Why Discarding the Concept of “Fine Art” Has Been a Grave Error
40-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p12, Da Capo Press.
41-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p43, Da Capo Press.
43- Sir Alistair MacFarlane, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) Philosophy Now – June-July 2015
44- André Breton , Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme– [Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism] 1938,
45-Katherine Kuh , The Artist’s Voice, p92, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1960
46- Duchamp quoted by Harriet & Sidney Janis in ‘Marchel Duchamp: Anti-Artist’ in View magazine 3/21/45; reprinted in Robert Motherwell, Dada Painters and Poets (1951)
47- The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 164
48-Prehistoric Colour Palette, visual-arts-cork.com
49-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The Disclosure Of The Agent In Speech And In Action p175
50-Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p278, Reaktion Books.
51- Albert Mehrabian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Mehrabian
52- Lorraine Boissoneault, A Brief History of the GIF, Smithsonian.com,
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-gif-early-internet-innovation-ubiquitous-relic-180963543/ – W2SG7W2VZcchjom7.99
53- Arthur C. Danto, Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste: *A Defense of Contemporary Art
54- Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture – March 10, 2015
55- Thomas Girst, Using Marcel Duchamp: The Concept of the Readymade in Post-War and Contemporary American Art, toutfait.com
56- Newman, in John P. O’Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990: p. 208.
57- Newman, in O’Neill 1990: p. 39.
58- Newman, in O’Neill 1990: p, 247.
59- Wilhelm/Baynes, I CHING, Limitations, p231, Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press
60-Matthew McDonald, Jeux de Nombres, Automated Rhythm in The Rites of Spring. Journal of the American Musicology Society, Vol. 63, No.3, Fall 2000, p499.
Miklos Legrady, Toronto Editor.
Volume 32 no. 2 November/December 2017 pp 18-21