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Marcel Duchamp and the Art You Hate | davelovell.net
Aug 202010

When I cover 20th Cen­tury Art in my courses, I can always count on hear­ing –“…OMG, you call that art?  It’s just a dang uri­nal…” at least twice. Maybe three times…


Foun­tain” and many other pieces from the avant-garde tend to bring this type of reac­tion.  As long as I’ve been teach­ing the class I have heard sim­i­lar reac­tions, and I’m pretty sure that I had sim­i­lar thoughts the first time I viewed the work.  But I thought I might spend a few lines wax­ing enig­matic on the value of those who push boundaries.

Mar­cel Duchamp, the French born epi­cen­ter of the NYC Dada Move­ment of the post WWI era, was not merely being sen­sa­tional.  He and the con­cur­rent pro­po­nents of Dada in Zurich were react­ing to what they con­sid­ered to be the “mass sui­cide” of the First World War.  To them, if logic and rea­son and the whole social evo­lu­tion­ary process of the West­ern World had only led to the car­nage of the Somme – then a com­plete break from that mind-set was needed.  Many of Duchamp’s crit­ics who focused on “Foun­tain” argued that he must not posses any actual artis­tic tal­ent, if that was the work he put out.

Au Con­traire

Nude Descend­ing Stairs

The first work of Duchamp’s to be shown in the US was “Nude Descend­ing a Stair­case” at the ground­break­ing Armory Show in NYC in 1913.  This was the first show­ing of much of the avant-garde work from Europe and it had a pro­found impact on young Amer­i­can artists and col­lec­tors.  The crit­ics panned the entire col­lec­tion, but they focused much of their vit­riol on Duchamp;  “…it looks like an explo­sion in a shin­gle fac­tory.”  The crit­ics of Foun­tain must have missed this piece – it is an extra­or­di­nary com­bi­na­tion of both Syn­thetic Cubism and Futur­ism, two of the dom­i­nant new paint­ing styles of the day.  Duchamp com­bined the faceted planes and muted hues of the Cubists with the sense of motion demanded by the Futur­ists to pro­duce some­thing for which the crit­ics were unprepared.

In Duchamp’s Dadaist works, he focused on what he called “found objects,” things of mass-production and com­mon­place; know in Art His­tory as “Ready­mades.”  He rec­ti­fied these objects, either mod­i­fy­ing them or adding other objects to them in jux­ta­po­si­tion.  To his crit­ics, he responded in true Dada fash­ion by stat­ing that any cri­tique based on con­cepts of good or bad taste were com­pletely hol­low, as they were based on the aes­thetic of the bank­rupt social order that had brought on the war.

“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the foun­tain or not has no impor­tance. He CHOSE it.  He took an ordi­nary arti­cle of life, placed it so that its use­ful sig­nif­i­cance dis­ap­peared under the new title and point of view – and cre­ated a new thought for that object.”

The “Art” is not in the aes­thetic of the uri­nal; it is in the artis­tic choice to use a uri­nal.  Feel free to insert your own pun here as to his desire to piss-off the crit­ics…  In truth, I don’t think that Foun­tain is one of the first pieces that I would want to dis­play in my home, but again, I don’t think that was the intent.  Duchamp and the Dadaists wanted only to wake us from our acqui­es­cence …to make a loud noise in our minds that might get us to really look at the world.  I like noise­mak­ers for I am too prone to nap, and the world is much too sneaky not to keep an eye on.

We should all take a good hard look around.

  4 Responses to “Marcel Duchamp and the Art You Hate”

  1. Hi
    I am going to ref­er­ence a sec­tion of this arti­cle for a uni assess­ment and was won­der­ing if you have the per­sons name that you have used the quote above. If it is your own then thats fine and thanks for the read!

    Thanks Ellen

  2. The quote is actu­ally attrib­uted to Louise Nor­ton who authored the Case of R. Mutt in The Blind Man, No. 2, not Duchamp. The use of the term Dada is pre­ma­ture as Dada had just started up in Zurich in late 1916 and schol­ar­ship has not affirmed how much Duchamp knew about Zurich in 1917 NYC.. Telegraphs existed but over­seas phone calls did not. More­over, Foun­tain is not really a ready made, at least in 1917, since it sur­vives as a pho­to­graphic mis-en-scene. Duchamp made sure the Stieglitz pho­to­graph sur­vived, not the uri­nal. Peo­ple sus­pect what is shown is not com­mer­cial uri­nal, but a pos­si­bly hand made ver­sion. Uri­nals were office/public objects not con­sumer fetishes of mid­dle class ascen­sion. More­over uri­nals were mass pro­duced, but not machine made. Duchamp’s notes only men­tion ready mades in rela­tion to a snap shot effect.

    • Oh i for­got, why is Hartley’s The War­riors propped behind the uri­nal? War ref­er­ence, homo­sex­ual tea room ref­er­ence, piss on paint­ing (but why insult Hart­ley who was a good 291 mem­ber?), hide the 291 gallery? Did Stieglitz choose it since he made the photo? Why is the uri­nal sit­u­ated off cen­ter on a way too small pedestal? The seri­al­iza­tion of the uri­nal as object came later, but it is not part of the case of R.Mutt.

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