Marshall McLuhan pointed out that by the 1960s, art was anything you could get away with. While that sounds exciting it raised concerns – political science says your culture is your future. The conundrum of 2022 is what happens if your future is anything that others can get away with?
The evidence we have on Duchamp shows a deeply conflicted artist who did not fully understand what he was doing, as he himself admits, who was driven to make art in an attempt to destroy it, in loyalty to a DADA ideology he never fully understood and which eventually destroyed his ability to make art. Duchamp despised the pictorial, but even in literature, art is the mastery of non-verbal language.
Eyebrows rose, heads turned, the public paid attention. Some questioned Duchamp’s urinal and how he got away with saying art is to piss on; an n astute observer would recognize a destabilizing strategy later adopted by conservative politics. Preposterous? Bear with me. Such talk at first sounds extreme and then it doesn’t, especially if your culture is your future.
Richard Dorment wrote “Tate Modern’s 2008 Duchamp exhibition demonstrates that he was not quite the isolated genius most of us had imagined. In placing his work beside that of his two friends, the Spaniard, Francis Picabia and the American, Man Ray, the show demonstrates that all three were operating on the same wavelength and pursuing similar goals”.(0) The Duchamp we know is a construct, one ignoring a backstory that paints a different picture; Duchamp is not whom we thought he was. Surprisingly, Duchamp was a gifted artist but he did not possess the brilliant grasp of art theory we believed he did and that he marketed as his brand.
We connect the dots on Duchamp, following his iconoclasm that rejected aesthetics and taste… without realizing he was also rejecting the non-verbal vocabulary of art. The science wasn’t there in his time. As a Dadaist Duchamp sought to shock the bourgeoisie by saying that he found art unnecessary; he wanted to get rid of art the way people did away with religion. On this point Duchamp was mistaken; ancient history and contemporary psychology describe art as obligatory for complex ideation and advanced culture. That’s a reality check. It questions Duchamp’s misreading the nature of art, which cost him dearly. After rejecting individual taste and sensory aesthetics he found he couldn’t make art anymore. He told John Jasper Johns“It was like a broken leg, you didn’t mean to do it.”
This rejection of the senses in favor of an intellectual art essentially derailed him as an artist. Why the art world then lionized Duchamp is a question we should ask Peggy Guggenheim, but he wasn’t well known until the 1950s, when CIA money promoting post-war American culture likely touched him too. It also happened that Duchamp’s desire for an intellectual art gained prominence at a time when the art world embedded itself in the university. Still, the science of linguistics points out that except for writing, art mainly consists of non-verbal languages; the body language found in dance, an acoustic language we call music, and visual language that is worth a thousand words. When art is primarily intellectual it turns into literature or propaganda. More to the point; was Duchamp’s urinal a logical failure that normalized the Trump paradigm of cultural delusions? Did postmodernism authorize the post-truth era? Does it promote a misstep of the body politic, a sacrificium intellectus of our collective consciousness?
The reader should be warned this account is not for the faint hearted; there’s a cognitive dissonance when uncovering relevant facts redacted from art history. . Our cultural heritage is therefore a pie chart from which scholars only publish those slices that fit the status quo, else they risk their own status quo. The Duchamp we know is a projection that differs with each person, while the real Duchamp’s trajectory is obvious to anyone who bothers to connect the dots. Unfortunately that was discouraged; no one in the academic curatorial network would admit that over the last six decades our brightest minds were misled by fake news. Yet new (and old) documents have come to light to suggest that very thing; a scandal brewing in the cauldron of art history. Let’s dig in…
Will Gompertz, previously Director of Tate Media, was BBC’s arts editor before moving in 2021 to a position as Director of Arts and Learning at the Barbican Centre. In a 2012 article in the Guardian he described how, in 1917, Duchamp found the urinal called Fountain.
” Meanwhile, in New York City, three well-dressed, youngish men had emerged from a smart duplex apartment at 33 West 67th Street and were heading out into the city… Art was about to change for ever…
… the three made their way south until they reached 118 Fifth Avenue, the retail premises of JL Mott Iron Works, a plumbing specialist. Inside, Arensberg and Stella chatted, while their friend ferreted around among the bathrooms and doorhandles that were on display. After a few minutes he called the store assistant over and pointed to an unexceptional, flat-backed, white porcelain urinal. A Bedfordshire, the young lad said. The Frenchman nodded, Stella raised an eyebrow, and Arensberg, with an exuberant slap on the assistant’s back, said he’d buy it…
…Duchamp took the urinal back to his studio, laid it down on its back and rotated it 180 degrees. He then signed and dated it in black paint on the left-hand side of its outer rim, using the pseudonym R Mutt 1917. His work was nearly done. There was only one job remaining: he needed to give his urinal a name. He chose Fountain. …
…At least it was in Duchamp’s mind. He believed he had invented a new form of sculpture: one where an artist could select any pre-existing mass-produced object with no obvious aesthetic merit, and by freeing it from its functional purpose – in other words making it useless – and by giving it a name and changing its context, turn it into a de facto artwork. He called this new form of art a readymade: a sculpture that was already made.“(1)
Sure enough this is fiction, the fantasy of a schoolboy’s imagination, along with Gompertz’s Freudian slip that art is useless. Three years later Sir Alistair MacFarlane published Gompertz’s fable in a game of broken telephone. This freedom with facts reminds us of Joseph Beuys’ artist statements; Beuys’ excuse was that Germans needed myths, while Gompertz kindly expects us to forgive his hyperbole as part of his charm. But Duchamp would never say found objects were art, or a new art form, nor would he allow others to speak of found objects as art. They were part of his quest to get rid of art and replace it with a counter-aesthetic, anti-art, “non art” or “not art”. This we learn from interviews and Duchamp’s letters. Even worse for Gompertz’s tale, a letter by Duchamp to his sister describes the urinal as sent in by someone else.(2)
“April II  My dear Suzanne- impossible d’écrire. (in the Parisian French of 1917, this meant ‘nothing much to write about’, re Dr. Glynn Thompson.) – Perhaps, I could have a show of your work here in the month of October or November. – Forward this detail to the family: the Independents have opened here with immense success. One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; it was not at all indecent – no reason for refusing it…”
God, 1917,Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Morton Livingston Schamberg
That letter was published by Duchamp’s biographer and confidant Francis Naumann, and the female friend was most likely Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had done another plumbing work called God that same year and had exhibited her work in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery “Art of this Century”. Her first found object was a curtain ring she called “Enduring Ornament” that she used as a wedding ring in1913,(2b) the same year as Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, raising questions as to who was first on found objects. He could have copied her; she could have copied him. It is plausible Duchamp appropriated the urinal in 1951 when he started showing readymades as “non art”, 24 years after Elsa’s suicide. Scholars currently argue for and against this provenance.
photo/design: Reed Enger, “Enduring Ornament,” in Obelisk Art History, Published August 03, 2017
In either case the urinal was only one of Duchamp’s public strategies to dismantle art. Dismantle art? Objections fly against negative readings of Duchamp’s intentions, sailing under the false flag that Duchamp was “a great joker”. There are also recurring arguments that when Duchamp said something he meant something else, which is disingenuous when facts are readily available. At a 1998 panel discussion entitled Vision and Visuality sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Krauss mentioned that (except for Mondrian and Seurat) Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work. .(3). He also wanted to cancel painting, “for which there is no reason to exists anymore… in an (intellectual) period like ours… you cannot continue to do oil painting… .(4). We’d be surprised if Shakespeare despised consonants and diphthongs, if Leonard Cohen scorned guitar strings, or Karen Kain spurned the pirouette and grand jeté.
Duchamp’s found-objects seemingly made skill irrelevant, allowing unimaginable ways of making art, but this contradicts Duchamp’s intention to get rid of art. By Duchamp’s definition, those postmodern works made following his influence are not art, contrary to common belief; they are iconoclastic “non-art”. But that was too much even for his biographer Francis Naumann; we could only conceive of Duchamp’s work within a traditional art paradigm, he was an artist and that’s what artists did; they made art, so what Duchamp made was art. There is a radical difference between these two paths; Marcel’s attempts to discredit art wer misinterpreted as the wave of the future.
|“The modern artist must understand group force; he cannot advance without it in a democracy”. Jane Heap, in a review of the Independents’ show, The Little Review, Winter 1922.
Duchamp called the readymade one of his most important ideas but an idea he said he never fully understood. In retrospect we can see that the readymades reformed art by rejecting its values, levelling the playing field so all could participate. Found objects were instantly popular; they require neither skill nor ability. It was a liberating moment, and a major breakthrough whose importance cannot be underestimated, because those lacking skill and ability still wanted to play. Or as Joseph Beuys said, “everyone an artist”.
Unfortunately that won’t end well; the etymology of art is specifically value-descriptive. The word art describes an impressive quality of spiritual expression, achieved through an outstanding mastery of skills by extraordinary people. Such standards!
Marcel Duchamp was ambitious, he was also an honest man, he didn’t lack for integrity. and he had massive visual talent, as seen in Nude Descending A Staircase, The Large Class, and the 1935 spinning optical experiments. He believed in himself. In his quiet way he was committed to discovering something better than art, and Duchamp’s white lab coat persona made him an academic poster child. His idea of deconstructing art came to fruition in the 1960s, those days of freedom when artists could trash the rules.
IAIN BAXTER& is the conceptual artist whose work was on the cover of Art In America’s 1969 issue introducing Conceptual Art to the American public. He recalls Duchamp as a rebel, an inspiration to his generation. He inspired freedom from tradition; you could go your own way. Duchamp sparked a massive wave of creativity among his peers but he himself walked under a cloud. Artists like BAXTER& will do amazing work as usual, but the others… not so much. “To say that most art today is mediocre is merely to state a historical fact – most art of any period is mediocre. History will sort things out.” Regan Upshaw.
And now history whispers that Plato reproached Pericles because he did not “make the citizen better” and because the Athenians were even worse at the end of his career than before. (Gorgias 515) Robert Storr, then at MOMA and later Dean of Fine Arts at Yale, said that in the 1960s the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. This is problematic because art is always action, while the academy likes to watch and seminars feast on discussion. There’s a real risk of putting Descartes before the horse.
Academics loved that Duchamp said readymades were not for show in a gallery but were meant for discussion. Duchamp’s intellectual approach seemed the apogee of an artistic deconstruction, that began around the Impressionists and arched towards a schematic classification of art through intellectual understanding. However we must question why our highest intellectual trajectory ends in a urinal. Fountain was voted the most influential art work of the 20th century. Does anyone other than your psychiatrist see a problem with scatology as our most influential achievement?
Now an inquiry prompted by Duchamp’s own words is gaining importance and needs consideration. Duchamp always said the readymades were not art. Does this mean those working with found objects are not artists? Have they wasted their lives?
When asked about readymades Duchamp replied “Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it … when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool … it was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason … or any intention of showing it, or describing anything. The word ‘readymade’ thrusts itself on me then. It seemed perfect for these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies.” (5) Duchamp’s refusal to have readymades treated as works of art led him to claim in 1961 that “for a period of thirty years nobody talked about them and neither did I”.
Twenty years later art historian and critic Barbara Rose wrote “I was angry he convinced so many that painting was dead, since above all, I loved painting. I got over this moment of pique because I was intrigued by his imagination and inventiveness. 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.” (6)
There is a dramatic difference between having an idea and making a work of art. Everyone has ideas; few can make art. It takes motivated effort to acquire skills that expand one’s vocabulary to the breadth of one’s vision. Look at the art of painting or the art of poetry. They’re better than adequate painting or text, which are good but not that good. Garden gnomes and church angels are sculpture but they’re not the art of sculpture. Found objects in a gallery are questionable, Duchamp said they’re not art. Everyone has ideas. Skills, not so much.
One can play an instrument, do installation, paint pictures yet never be an artist. Not if the work isn’t good enough. Many of us have inspirations we lack the skill to realize, a problem serious enough to merit its own paragraph in the dictionary. What if you didn’t need the skill, just the inspiration? Duchamp wanted ideas to dominate visual art, but ideas belong to literature. Ideas are things we write down because our intellectual adventures are best described in words.
Painting is different; it uses an optical vocabulary, a visual language that locates complex meaning in quanta of sensations and feelings. Ideas are secondary; in visual art they’re structures on which to wrap semiotic values. Non-verbal languages such as images, dance or music still carry subtleties we cannot readily put in words, which is why if you remove semiotic values from vision you have a sight no longer sensible. A picture would then be worth nothing, which explains why Duchamp stopped painting.
That stopping aligns with his declaration that taste was the enemy of art; “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.”(7) To unpack that we question taste; sweet and sour, bitter and salt, our taste comes in many flavours, colours, shapes, in style and song; taste is an instinctive judgment expressing our identity through personal choice. Without taste we have no choice, without choice we have no art. Taste is who you are; taste is all you got.
Of course there are inconsistencies in Duchamp’s thoughts. For example, if taste is the enemy of art, and Duchamp wanted to discredit art, should he or shouldn’t he follow his own taste, which consisted of contradicting his taste, in order to avoid it? This is likely the Gordian knot that snared Duchamp. His repudiation of art looks like a Dada tactic didactic but it was a marketing strategy that turned around and bit the biter, since Duchamp stopped painting.
Duchamp boldly claimed individuality was the enemy of art compared to his factory-produced machine-made found objects. He was mistaken and paid the price, like a saber-tooth tiger stepping into the La Brea tar pits. Marcel was French, the French own logic, so if taste was the enemy of art then Duchamp had to contradict his own taste and discard the artist. Following that step he lost his motivation, he couldn’t make art anymore; ditching the artist had crossed a line, closed a door. It may have been the Dada talking. Duchamp sold himself as someone who knew better, but he didn’t. He said he doesn’t know why he wants to undermine art or why he says it’s discredited, which suggests a degree of irresponsibility considering that passion with which he wants to get rid of art. If he knew better he’d know why and say so. His ideas were untested assumptions. He had committed to a Dada iconoclasm, a breaking of icons, a break with the past that broke him instead.
In a 1968 BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, the year he died, Duchamp said that “he had tried to discredit art, yes, on purpose; there’s an unnecessary adoration of art today that he cannot understand, he finds it unnecessary, he wanted to get rid of art the way some people had done away with religion… and he doesn’t understand why he thinks that, but people often do things they don’t understand.” (8) It does sound Dada. Picabia in the Dada Manifesto writes that art was a pharmaceutical product for idiots.(9)
The art of anything means being good at it, yet Duchamp said there’s an unnecessary adoration of being good at things, an unnecessary attention given to spiritual expression. Now if you dismiss being good at things, and if there’s no soul to the work, you get failure; being bad at things.
After long insisting that art was discredited Duchamp eventually believed it himself. He disparaged art until he lost faith in it and couldn’t go on; he had said art was unnecessary. Having lost his incentive for this “unnecessary adoration”, then from for lack of interest he stopped doing, in consequence of which he lost his creativity, at which point he theatrically quit art to play chess. He still poked and prodded at Étant donné for twenty long years, but obviously the muse was gone and like any spurned lover she wasn’t coming back. In the Cabane interviews he told Jas[er Johns about that stopping; “it was like a broken leg, you didn’t mean to do it”.
Oh! Wait… What?
Like dust from the plaster cast of broken legs or dust from broken idols, embarrassing facts get swept under the rug when they degrade our myths. We made gods out of flawed humanity like Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, and many others. We looked to them for spiritual guidance but they were compromised. Notice how Walter Benjamin’s “Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” pairs with Marcel Duchamp’s machine-made readymades. Benjamin writes that all one can expect of art is to reproduce reality; creativity is an out-dated illusion; the only true art is made by a committee of the working class. Benjamin’s social realism, bound by Marxist obligations, is a broomstick in Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel.
By the turn of the 21st century our sacrificium intellectus went so deep that if art is a cultural radar as McLuhan said, then everything suggests humanity is on a downward trajectory. The urinal says if scatology is the most influential art of the 20th century there’s no question humanity is on a downward trajectory. What to do, what to do?
And as our field of knowledge expands, a word of caution. R.A. Fischer was a statistics theorist who built the foundations of modern statistical science. He was also an astute observer of human nature. In 1947 he was invited to give a series of talks on BBC radio on the nature of science and scientific investigation, which applies as much to the arts of today.
“A scientific career is peculiar in some ways. Its reason d’être is the increase in natural knowledge and on occasion an increase in natural knowledge does occur. But this is tactless and feelings are hurt.
For in some small degree it is inevitable that views previously expounded are shown to be either obsolete or false. Most people, I think, can recognize this and take it in good part if what they have been teaching for ten years or so needs a little revision but some will undoubtedly take it hard, as a blow to their amour propre, or even an invasion of the territory they have come to think of as exclusively their own, and they react with the same ferocity as any animal whose territory is invaded.
I do not think anything can be done about it… but a young scientist may be warned and even advised that when one has a jewel to offer for the enrichment of mankind some people will clearly wish to tear that person to shreds.” (10)
The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. Or more precisely: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Please share this article to your students.
It was a science experiment; Marcel played the devil’s apprentice and the devil tore a piece out of him. He spent his remaining years playing chess. Considering there’s little creativity in chess, and imagining the 20 year monotony of Étant donné, we must conclude Duchamp lost his creativity. We know Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning. Both were victims of their own experiments. And how do we know all this?
Pontius Pilate washed his hands but there are criteria by which we can know the truth; the first being verification. Then there’s an intuition based on life experience; by age two children know lies, truth, fiction. Our notion of truth being limited by experience, science gives us peer review as a backup. But when even our peers are delusional, the final arbiter of truth is consequence. A glissade of integrity in architecture, for instance, gives us collapsing new buildings. Einstürzende Neubauten.
In 2008 following decades of financial misconduct called sub-prime loans, we learned that bankers, accountants, and professional economists crashed the global banking system. If economist can be that wrong so can the global arts community, especially when artists love to wear the emperor’s new clothes. I think that actually happened; I think the art world derailed in the 1960s.
By 1884 science had already established the concept of anti-matter. In 1935 Schrodinger published his quantum cat in the box thought experiment. The science in his day strongly suggested the concept of anti-art that recurs in Duchamp ‘s thoughts; he was searching for something non-art that was not art else was counter-art, to replace the art we inherited since the dawn of time. The culturati then said “yes I understand that what I see is not art; it is not-art. It could be great art or not art that I’m seeing or not seeing, as I can be persuaded to think that this non-art that I cannot see is important”. With the readymades Duchamp had sold the emperor’s new clothes.
Duchamp and Trump
The concept of found objects contradicts moral and ethical strategies formulated over tens of thousands of years as the most efficient way of doing business. If you put effort into production you reap the rewards. But found objects glorified the opposite, claimed that art required neither work or effort, had no standards or values, promoting Duchamp’s very clearly stated desire to discredit art, get rid of art. How such an idea gained traction among artists is truly fascinating!
Considering the huge budgets invested in art, a lack of standards meant one’s credentials depend on marketing skills. Today that’s the hallmark of the American right wing and the conservative Evangelical movement who believe Donald Trump was sent by God to cleanse American politics of evil. It’s a political myth, but the art world did it first. The urinal severed art from its roots, cancelling any logical understanding of the practice, which allowed charlatans to dictate the field. Rob Storr said he doesn’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. When the content loses flavour then politics take over.
Blake Gopnik’s 2016 blog says “We cherish everything in American art that is difficult, conceptual, anti-aesthetic, tough, and unsparing. Those were the neo-Dada values that began to win out in the early 1960s”. Now we obviously have every reason to question those values. The art world’s embrace of such flawed vales may have stunned the public at large, who saw Duchamp come down from the mountain with a urinal they made into their golden calf.
|Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (p. 7). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.
Thomas Paine wrote that he who dares not offend cannot be honest. Oscar Wilde added that if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they will kill you. And so it came to be that if we have not seen as far as others, it was because giants were standing on our shoulders, or we were standing on the shoulders of very short giants. When no one knows what art is anymore, shouldn’t we try to find out? We could ask questions and stuff. That’s the art of inquiry.
Miklos Legrady intends the following arguments as part of a book currently in progress.
0-Richard Dorment, Marcel Duchamp: Art changed for ever, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671455/Marcel-Duchamp-Art-changed-for-ever.html
1-Will Gompertz, Putting modern art on the map, The Guardian, reprinted in dadart.com https://www.dadart.com/dadaism/dada/035a-duchamp-cage.html
2- Christie Lutz, “Richard Mutt”, Rutgers University https://sinclairnj.blogs.rutgers.edu/tag/pottery/
2b- Reed Enger, “Enduring Ornament,” in Obelisk Art History, Published August 03, 2017; last modified August 29, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/elsa-von-freytag-loringhoven/enduring-ornament/
3- Rosalin Kraus, The Impulse To See, Vision and Visuality, 1988 Dia art foundation https://monoskop.org/images/3/39/Foster_Hal_ed_Vision_and_Visuality.pdf
4-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, Da Capo Press. p36
5- Marcel Duchamp Talking about Readymades” (Interview by Phillipe Collin, 21 June 1967),Museum Jean Tinguely, Basel (ed.), Marcel Duchamp, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002 [exh. cat.]: pp. 37-40..
6- Barbara Rose, Rethinking Duchamp, The Brooklyn Rail, 2014.https://brooklynrail.org/2014/12/art/rethinking-duchamp
7- Irving Sandler, The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 164
8-Joan Bakewell, Interview with Marcel Duchamp, 1968, BBC. https://youtu.be/Zo3qoyVk0GU
9- Francis Picabia – Dada Manifesto (1920) – 391.orghttps://391.org/manifestos/1920-dada-manifesto-francis-picabia/
10-Hald, Anders (1998). A History of Mathematical Statistics. New York: Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-17912-2.
Efron, Bradley (1998), “R. A. Fisher in the 21st century”, Statistical Science, 1988
David Salsburg, p51, The Lady Tasting Tea – How Statistics Revolutionized Science. Holt, N.Y. 2001
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021