March 21, 2023

The Last True Genius of Art: Marcel Duchamp. Food for Thought by Joan Hus

We, art curators, art critics, art historians, philosophers of art, art experts, art educators, art collectors, art lovers, and last not least artists themselves, in short, all those who in one way or another have a vested interest in the communication, perpetuation and development of the knowledge about and attitudes toward art, we all and always come back to Duchamp. Like the ingenious system of lamps and lenses of a lighthouse, Duchamp’s work assists our navigation in art’s troubled waters. Why?
Duchamp shed light on the hidden side of human history, the side of the here and now; where things are happening which normally stay out of focus. The way he did this was so brisk and vigorous that the whole history of art literally burst into sight, thereby turning art from a collectively sustained undefined social something into a clearly defined object of analysis.
Through his work, he made clear what it meant that the dream of art had come true, rather, he not only made clear what it meant for art that it had thrown off the yoke of traditionally transmitted meanings and eventually freed itself from the hardships of cultural vassalage, he actually ‘realized’ its ‘independence’. That is to say, he gave the independence of art material shape. With the result that this state of affairs became really, visibly, a point of no return. Which is precisely the reason why his work, in particular his “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917”(no doubt the most ingenious of all his works) is generally considered a landmark work, because it clearly indicates the beginning of art’s emancipated times.
The consequences of independence, which resulted from Duchamp removing the social burden and opening up the actual world, were several. To begin with, as art broke away from the inherited obviousness of common culture, the artist became an autonomous creator. Rephrasing this idea in less positive terms, the artist became an ‘outsider’ – artistically and socially. Another effect of art’s independence, which strongly affected the course of events and the nature of things ensuing, was the fact that as art became independent, it also became ‘transcendent’; something of a ‘higher nature’; unbound by the material and ideological limits of common culture. In this sense we may say that the “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917” is the first in a long series of ‘high art’ works; works, made by artists intoxicated by art’s independence.
A third effect of art’s independence was the fact that from then on art became topical; it had to be currently of interest; it had to be ‘contemporary’. Which in turn meant that it not only became universal, in the sense of ‘true of everything of which it is predicated’, but also became global in the sense of ‘all over the earth’, worldwide. From 1917 on, thanks to Marcel Duchamp, people all over the world could indeed create and enjoy art, whatever their cultural or political background, independent of the time, the place, and the circumstances of their life, and of the beliefs they held.

The “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917”- to stick to the clearest instance of ‘emancipated art’ – showed in a matter of fact way that art was not that respectable self-evident pleasant something which it had been until the mid nineteenth century. With regard to this, that is the oddness of art, the fountain repeated basically, albeit in a much more direct way, what had been prefigured by Édouard Manet in his 1863 wacko picnic painting, depicting two fully dressed men in the presence of a female nude and a scantily clad female bather in the open of the open air, namely, that art was no longer something that went “without saying”, something which the people in the midst of whom the artist works, could enjoy, happily, easily, untroubled so to speak. Henceforth, to enjoy art one needed words, utterances, comments, explanations, discourses, speeches.

In order to bring the “hidden side” to the attention of the public, Duchamp used the simplest possible, not to say childlike method there is, the method of pointing. Without much ado, in a pertinent way, his “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917” pointed to the actual position of art in the contemporary world, indicating that it was no longer part of the social fabric of civil life. Art and the givens of communal, that is of collectively sustained, shared existence, had moved apart. That there still is a connection is but an illusion, the perverse effect of a ‘conceptual sleight of hand’. Just as the head, severed from the body to which it belonged, never could resume its previous activity, could art, separated from the social organism of which it was part, resume its previous, collectively sustained activities. As Duchamp pointed out, art no longer gives any information whatsoever about norms, beliefs and values to members of any community. Information, which is needed for the organization of the social and psychological processes of their life. The “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917” made clear that art could inform nobody anymore. From a social point of view, art was only an undetermined empty something.

Despite its clarity and its relevance, Duchamp’s message was not fully understood. His fountain did not succeed in making the public realise what this autographed “objet trouvé” actually stood for, namely the departure of art from the socially given, and what this actually meant, namely the “departure of art” in the sense of “art’s death”, which implied that from now on, art could only live on as an empty concept to which one could ascribe meaning at will.
Instead of this, the fountain, eventually becoming “fountain”, gave the kick off of what, from an historical point of view, could be called “The Hall of Fame Age”; a time, when many museum directors, curators of exhibitions, organizers of biennials, founders of institutions for art education, art historians, art critics, art collectors, art dealers, gallery owners and artists were particularly successful. Completely unhinged, art exceeded all expectations. It could be anything, from surprising, shocking, stunning, fantastic, repulsive, ingenious, megalomaniac, seductive, enchanting, wild, to cool, sober, subdued, restrained, controlled, reasoned. It could be all this, and much more. Pure magic.

Today, several decades after Duchamp purchased his fountain to reveal the truth, art lives on as the alphabet of a dead language. And like an alphabet, considered in itself, it has no meaning at all. And like the alphabetized users of an alphabet, the users of this alphabet are educated, yes indeed, well-trained – a doctoral degree is not an uncommon thing.

However, the fact remains that Duchamp was right: art is completely, definitely, irrevocably, irreversibly dead. Once dead, always dead. There is nothing we can do about that. There is no alternative. We have to acknowledge this truth. The only thing we can and should do, is to summon the creative minds among us to humbly resume their place in society, to ask them to accept their share of responsibilities as social beings, members of the community to which they belong. From now on, they should lead a normal life; a life rooted in the social, political, cultural activity of a community, and create things not at the expense of this community. Never again, should creative minds plead “artistic immunity”. From now on, the public should have the right to assess their work by means of genuine social criteria. From now on, creators should be truly creative, that is to say, they should find their way without the support of public funding, without the support of any money-meaning-making machinery.

Turning back to the analogy with the lighthouse, we conclude that the “fountain signed R. Mutt 1917” not only assists our navigation in the domain of art (which necessarily is a journey into the past), but also assists us in finding our way to a new creative horizon. And it is precisely because of this, because of his dual, vectorial, light casting quality, that Duchamp can be said to be a genius, the last true genius of art.

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