Duchamp’s Dao – Making An Art of Himself

The Art Newspaper recently republished an interview with Marcel Duchamp by the Belgian director Jean Antoine done in 1966 (two years before Duchamp’s death), but the transcript was only available in English in 1993, when it was first published.  Duchamp here set some records straight. He denied ever deciding to stop painting (though much has been made of it over the years). He said he would paint if an idea came but it hadn’t. He did say this, however, about painting:

… It’s simply an activity which has been a little overestimated and is regarded as something of major importance … It’s one of those human activities that is not crucially important. That’s what I mean; especially now, when it has become completely esoteric and everyone paints, everyone buys it and everyone talks about it. I wonder if it counts for anything at all when it comes to expressing more profound thought. (My emphasis)

It is a revealing read. He went on to discuss his famous Urinal (1913) which was rejected by the hanging committee in the Independent Exhibition, of which he was a member; and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23); and the The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Green Box) (1934) in which Duchamp published his collection of 94 documents to explain some of his thinking and to show some of the preliminary works relating to The Large Glass. The notes were loose scraps really so readers would all see them in different orders depending on chance.

Ever the provocateur, he said, in regards to works preserved in museums:

I believe that the history of art is extremely random. I am convinced that the works on view in the museums and those we consider to be exceptional do not represent the finest achievements in the world … [some geniuses’] works have disappeared as a result, and there are many more interesting things that have been consigned to oblivion. In other words, this is my understanding of mediocrity. Basically, only the mediocre works created in the past have survived … (My emphasis)

On this, he was not alone—that public consensus bestows mediocrity. Anne Carson, the Greek classics scholar, poet and verse novelist, (and admitted randomizer) says thus of Homer, whose every word is considered, well, epic:

Homer’s epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption. There is a passion in it but what kind of passion? “Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code,” says Baudrillard.

And so in time, any good art becomes non–art, when acclaimed by code (i.e. branding) and habit, and repeated. Art requires originality plus individuality. So the only way forward for Duchamp was to make himself into a work of art…and thus not for sale or consumption:

Using painting, using art, to create a modus vivendi, a way of understanding life; … of trying to make my life into a work of art itself … I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak… this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do. (My emphasis)

For him art is a process that happens when the artist is creating it and when the viewer is re-creating it inside his own body/brain (what we call beholder’s share). The piece itself is of no importance: but of course that’s what fetches good prices. Here then is Lao Tse’s Dao:

Thirty spokes share a wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows into a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.  *

*   From translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, (First published 1972)

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