Thursday, March 14, 2013

Revisiting Duchamp, and pondering what is "Art"

“By now, art that is based on a concept or language proposition is older than most folks’ grandparents, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that so much 20th-century art leaves us scratching our heads and making a beeline for the crumpets at Starbucks.”—guest blogger Karen L. Mulder

In 1998, I saw Yasmina Reza’s hit play Art in L.A. It climaxes with a vicious argument between old friends caused by a ‘celebrity’ artwork purchased at what seems to the others to be a hugely inflated, even obscene price. Since the painting is entirely white and featureless, it stirs up unbridled ridicule from the buyer’s cronies. In response, he accuses them of cultural Philistinism. In Reza’s original version, the friends indulge in the fine French art of insult, and when they run out of invectives for each other, they move on to wives, lovers, accountants, and so on. Because the English version I saw had Alan Alda (Philistine No. 1) pitching lines to an audience of So. Cal. airheads, all of the adroit French insults became reduced to trifling Americanese patter. The drama of Reza’s proposition, showing how art almost dismantled cherished relationships, was tragically overridden by dutiful, laugh-track style chuckling. Alda’s character ended the Tony-winning play by drawing a skier on a slope in blue marker, with the owner’s blessing (‘cause he knew it wasn’t a permanent marker, y’see?).
Rene Magritte, 1928.
But the fact is, Russia’s Kasimir Malevich sprang the first all-white painting on the world between 1910 and 1917. An ‘empty’ painting was a concept that had to be tried; whether the concept could stand up to reproductions was another issue.
Admittedly, art that relies on a concept to turn the gears in our brains is fragile indeed— it relies on us viewers to make connections with mysterious, even half-tendered proposals rather than providing the traditional visual standbys of good form, technique, or material handling. These days, the ersatz rules of engagement even disallow the use of the word “good,” and if you presume to make an educated or informed response you can’t simply say “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.” (Stalin could, though, and he brutally shut down ‘bourgeois formalists’ like Malevich, who handily reverted to social realism so as to remain out of the Gulag.)
By now, art based on a concept or language proposition is older than most folks’ grandparents, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that so much 20th-century art leaves us scratching our heads and making a beeline for the crumpets at Starbucks.
In the '80s, Columbia U. philosopher emeritus and Nation critic Arthur Danto began playing around with the 20th-century notion of art as a concept constructed of “seen” language propositions rather than of paint, clay, marble, and whatnot. Danto candidly expressed his gratitude to Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), because Duchamp’s approach took him beyond the rudimentary quandary that we all occasionally grapple with—“Is it ART?” Duchamp’s one-off interrogations about art, Danto explained, led him to a more constructive line of questioning: Why is one thing a work of art when something exactly like it is not? Why, indeed, is Magritte’s pipe not a pipe, as his byline “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” insists. Because you can’t smoke it, right?
Initially, Danto’s philosophical inquiry was jumpstarted by pop art, the heir apparent of Dada and Surrealism. Warhol’s silk-screened duplicates of Brillo boxes caught Danto’s eye the instant he saw them in 1964.  They looked exactly like commercial-grade Brillo shipping cartons. But because they were exhibited in a museum or gallery, they were considered Art. By the 90s, the more conservative theory wizards of art criticism pointed out that concept art failed, because such art had to be exhibited in a museum or gallery context to be perceived as Art. Otherwise it would just look like something in the everyday landscape.
Testifying to his brand of genius, Duchamp anticipated this conundrum in the early 1900s by foisting the readymade on the art world. This artwork, presented rather than ‘made’ in the traditional sense, consisted wholly of mass-manufactured, barely altered items such as a bottle-drying rack or a urinal. Duchamp’s evocative titles suggested meaning without revealing it. What is one to make of the noiseless Ball of Twine (With Hidden Noise)? Or the clear glass orb titled 50cc of Paris Air? What about a hardware-grade snow shovel propped against the wall with a curatorial panel titled In Advance of a Broken Arm? And what of the iconic Fountain—an accurate nickname for a plumbing fixture, even though it never served its intended purpose as a pissoir or funneled a drop of running water? Duchamp then played with validating (and perhaps transfiguring) the urinal’s status as art by dating and signing it with the fictitious “R. Mutt”—another wordplay on the status of artists in 1917?
Fountain, a replica of Duchamp's 1917 submission.
We have to remember that western society in 1917 was caught up in the most brutal war to date—the mechanized, mustard-gassing, long-distance killing juggernaut of World War I. Who could care about some artist’s dalliance with aesthetic concepts at such a bloodied juncture?
Later on, Duchamp’s main patron and booster, the collector Walter Arensberg, effused about seeing a transcendent Buddha in the form, but Duchamp purportedly assigned no such meaning to his act. On its face, Duchamp’s Fountain was more essentially about the act of entering a urinal in a supposedly avant-garde exhibit in New York that had stridently broadcast its intention to break all the rules. But wait! Fountain was downright rejected. That refusal framed Duchamp’s rationale. Who decided what could be called a work of art? In this case, the avant-gardistes themselves in the cultural outpost of New York decided. They wanted to be taken seriously by the art world but also wanted to project a progressive front, and Duchamp duped them. (btw, Dear ol’ New York was not considered sophisticated on the international art scene until the New York School in the 1950s—ironically generated, in part, by transplanted Europeans like DeKooning and Mondrian.)
Marcel Duchamp ‘descending a staircase,’ Life, 1952 (a spoof on his iconic cubist piece Nude Descending a Staircase, below, of 1912).
Duchamp’s ‘acts’ of art constituted serious insults, as only the French can level, against the traditional pretensions that froze art to its role in prior centuries as a formal statement of technique or artifice. To his subsequent despair, his “readymades” were eventually treated with the same brand of critical preciousness.  In 1962, as he testily admitted, “I sought to discourage aesthetics.… I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”  In reality, art criticism subverted Duchamp himself, to his profound irritation. As artists and critics like Clement Greenberg trumpeted the visual anesthesia of abstraction or the self-involved torridness of postwar expressionism, the pundits of art relegated Duchamp’s cool rationality to the margins. For years, Duchamp himself preferred playing chess on the competitive level to making any form of art.
Duchamp’s resurrection began in the 60s; by the 80s philosophers like Danto and writers like Octavio Paz began issuing their considerations on the great, albeit forgotten impact that Duchamp had levied on modern art.  Is it any wonder that two language wizards, a scholar of aesthetics and a Nobel literature laureate, devoted entire books to Duchamp’s mysterious language propositions? Paz’s Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare grew out of an essay composed for the MoMA retrospective on Duchamp in 1973. This was not his first Duchamp piece; he had written about other assemblages in the late 1960s. He was particularly entranced by Duchamp’s Green Box, which included a color photo with ‘explanations’ and schematics for The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even)—a complicated, inscrutable piece that Duchamp decreed “finally unfinished” in 1923. Paz became drawn in by this work’s stubborn inexplicability. So in essence, Appearance is Paz’s attempt to disentangle Duchamp’s process as well as the artist’s firm reluctance to expose his process—which is part of what gives The Large Glass its significance and allure (sort of like Mona Lisa’s smile).
The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), original in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with shattered glass from shortly after Duchamp completed the piece in 1923.
Paz’s flowing exploration unfurls itself in a lucid translation that reads almost like a novel, in somewhat euphoric tones, without bogging down in theoretical Art jargon. And because Paz interviewed Duchamp directly, he can deliver his observations with the fresh gravity of a first-person account—not the leaden, sometimes self-important pronouncements of critics contemplating art over flagons of martinis.
I recommend reading Paz in tandem with The Duchamp Book. Clearly written by an art historian and scholar of Surrealism from the Courtauld, this illustrated monograph is part of the Tate’s “Essential Artists” series. It's a compact resource that supersedes the many other series books about Duchamp, and concludes with helpful bits about his timeline, exhibit history, and select commentary. So, while Paz brings the lyricism and poetry, Gavin Parkinson supplies the historical conversation about Duchamp, vastly aided by an encyclopedic quantity of color images. Taken together, these two titles provide engaging and freshly conceived bookends to the art of Duchamp’s insults.

Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder's favorite quote about art comes from Flaubert (and was, of course, purloined by Picasso): “Of all lies, art is the least untrue.” Put that in your croissant and smoke it!

Further reading: Figures and Figurations by Octavio & Marie Jose Paz (Bilingual Edition).


  1. Marcel Duchamp, it seems to me, was the artist of the 20th century. After proving that he could have succeeded at forging a traditional art career, he instead withdrew and spent his life questioning art and of course, playing chess. As this truly excellent blog today pointed out, Duchamp’s role was to mock the ludicrous financial and cultural value we tend to place upon art (“A Van Gogh sold for $80 million! Oh my goodness!” “But it is one of a kind, you know!”) The public was art-crazed in the early decades of the 20th century, and tended to gobble up every new “-ism” that came along, even while pretending to be scandalized by it. Duchamp ironically gave them what they wanted, but generally without breaking his back to do it, as in the case of his readymades. Of course, much like the works of his Dada cronies (Arp, Ernst, Schwitters, Man Ray) Duchamp’s anti-art can’t help looking beautiful sometimes. “The Bride Stripped Bare” is magnificent by any standard, and must be seen in person. Two hours north of Daedalus, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has---thanks to the Arensbergs---the best Duchamp collection in the world. In closing I must say that it fills me with something akin to patriotic pride that Duchamp (and for that matter, Vladimir Nabokov) chose to become an American citizen. By way of a trade, Frane is in possession of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt…

  2. Thanks so much for your informative addendum. I can't agree with you more about Duchamp's importance in the scheme of things to follow--possibly one of the forces working against him during his eclipse was the entire Western craze for 'originality.' One of the consequences of that obsession has been a reluctance for some artists to admit any whiff of derivative-ness in their works, as if they were born out of the head of Zeus and so on...but Duchamp's lineage is genetically incredible. And yes, the collection in Philly is RICH! A close second, the Yale Art Gallery.

  3. Ahh Rene Magritte, I love The Submissive Reader.

    1. Oh my! I had never seen that before. Thanks so much for turning us on to it.