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what if Duchamp was wrong?


What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit


What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Let us not praise famous mistakes;
this critique is a game-changer and the game it changes
1s everything we know of art and art history.
We’ll never see them the same way again.

OMG, I have to read a lot, and write a lot, to be an artist?
Miklos Legrady, 29" x 54" - 73.66cm x 137.16cm, acrylic on cardboard, Sept. 29, 2020.

Marshall McLuhan pointed out that in the 1960s art was anything you could get away with, which is rather frightening when political theory says your culture is your future. The public saw Duchamp’s urinal as another golden calf but the art world got away with it. If it works for art why not for politics? Did postmodernism enable the post truth era, did the 1960s pave the way for Donald Trump?

Such statements sound extreme until they don't. Think of Duchamp’s life as a cherry pie from which scholars only publish slices that fit the status quo, else they risk their own status quo. For no one in the academic curatorial network would want to believe we fell for myths created by vested interests, and yet new documents have come to light that suggest that very thing; a scandal brewing in the halls of art history.

Will Gompertz, previously Director of Tate Media, was BBC's arts editor before moving in 2021 to a position as the Barbican Centre’s Director of Arts and Learning. In a 2012 article in the Guardian he described how Duchamp discovered 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)

Gompertz’s tale is full of coy drama but it is almost certainly an imaginary event in a schoolboy’s fantasy. The idea of Duchamp calling found objects art or a new art form is contradicted in statements and letters by Duchamp himself. Even worse for Gompertz's tale is a letter by Duchamp to his sister where he writes the urinal was sent in by a someone else.((2)

“April II [1917] My dear Suzanne- impossible d'écrire (According to Dr. Glynn Thompson, in the Parisian French of 1917 this meant "nothing much to write about".) - I heard from Crotti that you were working hard. Tell me what you are making and if it’s not too difficult to send. Perhaps, I could have a show of your work in the month of October or November-next-here. But tell me what you are making- Tell 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...”

Sculpture God by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
God, 1917,Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Morton Livingston Schamberg

That friend was most likely Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had done a plumbing work called God that same year. It's believable that Duchamp appropriated the urinal after Elsa’s suicide in a mental asylum, although scholars argue for and against this provenance. In either case the urinal was only one of Duchamp’s public strategies to discredit art.

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. We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, that Mozart loathed musical notes, or that Baryshnikov spurned the grand jeté; these are things to respect, not to despise.

Before Duchamp, art took decades to master, with readymades Duchamp made mastery irrelevant. Still, an inquiry prompted by Duchamp’s own words is gaining importance and needs consideration. Duchamp always said the readymades were not art.

"When asked how he came to choose the readymade, 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.” (3) Duchamp’s refusal to have readymades treated as works of art led him to claim that “for a period of thirty years nobody talked about them and neither did I.” In a 1959 Audio Art interview Duchamp did consider their possible status as art, but even then he chose his words carefully to avoid that.

There is a dramatic difference between having an idea and making a work of art. Everyone has ideas; few can make art. It takes effort to acquire the skills that mature one’s vision. As an example there's the art of painting, the art of dance. They’re better than adequate painting or dance, which are good but not that good. Garden gnomes and church angels are sculpture but they are 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.

Duchamp wanted ideas to dominate visual art, but it's easier to write them down, ideas belong to literature since they’re best described in words. Painting uses a different configuration, which is the non-verbal optical vocabulary of visual language. While literature depends on intellect, non-verbal languages bring us closer to the instincts that motivate our lives. Remove sensations and their semiotic values from vision and you have a sight no longer sensible. Duchamp stopped painting.

He also said that taste is the enemy of art. To unpack that we have to question taste; sweet and sour, bitter and salt. Our taste in colour, shape, style, and song, they all work the same way, they determine our choice. Without taste we have no choice, without choice we have no art. Combining this with the concept of ready-mades, Duchamp is saying that individual choice is the enemy of art, compared to the machine-made found objects he prefers. Was Duchamp mistaken when he said such thing, or was it the Dada talking? Was it an intentional effort to get rid of art?

This shows how our accounts of Duchamp lack context; we were never told of his consistent rejection and denial of art, which he wanted to replace with a non-art he sought but never found. This was likely a didacticDada tactic, a marketing strategy that turned around and bit the biter. In a 1968 BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, the year before he died, Duchamp said that he wanted to discredit art, yes, on purpose, there's an unnecessary obsession with art today that he cannot understand, he wanted to get rid of art the way some had gotten rid of religion.(4)

After long insisting that art was discredited, Duchamp eventually convinced himself. He lost interest in making art, he couldn’t do it anymore. He kept at Étant donnés for two decades, but the muse was gone and like any spurned lover she wasn't coming back. It was like a broken leg he told John Cage, you didn't mean to do it.

Embarassing fact get swept under the rugt when they contradict our myths. We have made Gods of Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Sol Lewitt, and others. We looked to them for wisdom in areas where they were compromised. By the turn of the 21st century we were so confused, if art is a cultural precursor then every indication suggests that humanity is on a downhill trajectory.

If it's postmodern, should I misunderstand it?
24" x 48" - 60.96cm x 121.92cm, acrylic on canvas, Sept. 19, 2020.

There has been such a corrosion of logic in the last 40 years that we need to dust off the history books, to understand that our myths of art and artists, which we thought were historical facts, turn out to be children’s fables. This is the story of talented artists whose genius in their field brought them such fame, status, and credibility, that whatever they said was praised without question or comprehension. For example Benjamin’s dictum that all we can expect of art is to reproduce reality and the only genuine art is made by a committee of the working class to instruct the masses.

Such statements fall apart under basic logic... yet these embarrassing facts are ignored out of convenience if they shade our homemade gods; typical cognitive dissonance. Here we’ll recover those scandals left out of history books yet crucial for the back-story. And so our field of knowledge expands, and on that note, a word of caution.

R.A. Fischer was a preeminent statistics theorist who built the foundations of modern statistical science 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 bits.” (5)

And yet… on finding some errata in the archives I was drawn into a fifteen year study of Duchamp, which grew to include Walter Benjamin, Sol Lewitt, and numerous others whose talent made them world renowned and yet whose ideas, theories, writing, were sadly but fatally mistaken.

This critique was therefore years in making, of caution at challenging the status quo, even as facts insisted we publish the shades of nonsense that are academia’s Achilles’ heel. There's evidence that in the early 1960s the academic-curatorial complex (the art students, professors, curators, writers, and other culturati) decided to forsake logic and common sense in favor of an iffy social construct. It’s quite a story.

Oppeortunity knocks; make big money writing poems
24" x 48" - 60.96cm x 121.92cm, acrylic on canvas, Sept. 19, 2020.

I am not a paparazzi, I did not research history with the aim of looking for scandals; the scandals found me. My original quest was for patterns in art history that describe a psychology of art; I was as surprised as anyone to find our philosophy based on flawed ideas, fabulous myths, untested assumptions that should have failed peer-review, all published in the best academic language. I wrote this critique from a certitude that we need this truth. That in our time mass delusions and the structures that maintain them are a serious danger, but we can correct our trajectory and repair our mistakes if we question our assumptions and face the facts.

Duchamp said he wanted to get rid of art yet the art world gave him a free pass, the urinal says that art is to piss on, what's not to love? But why would an artist deny their vocation? Marcel played the devil's apprentice and the devil turned on him. He stopped making art, spent his remaining years playing chess. Considering that there's little creativity in chess, and the 20 year monotony of Étant donnés, we must conclude Duchamp lost his creativity.

In ancient times Pilate washed his hands of it but there are criteria by which we can know the truth, the first being verification. Then there's an intuition based on instinct and life experience; by age two children play with lies, truth, and fiction. Our notion of truth being limited by experience, science gives us peer review as a backup. But when even our peers turn delusional, the final arbiter of truth is consequence. A glissade of integrity in architecture, for instance, gives us collapsing new buildings. Einstürzende Neubauten.

Art - This ain't no kiddy show
24" x 48" - 60.96cm x 121.92cm, acrylic on canvas, Sept. 19, 2020.

Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds

Nietzsche wrote that insanity is rare in individuals but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. It does look like he art world in the 1960s invented our “alternative facts”, when art became “anything you can get away with”. This philosophy found consent in academia, gained cultural influence and shaped today’s social landscape; the numerous parallels between contemporary art paradigms and contemporary Republican thought suggests postmodernism may own the post truth era and Donald Trump. How many of us believe that art is to piss on?

Iin 2008 following decades of financial misconduct called sub-prime loans, bankers, accountants, and professional economists crashed the global banking system. If economist can be that wrong so can the 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. That’s what today is all about.

Derrida's method of deconstruction was to look past the irony and ambiguity to the layer that genuinely threatens to collapse that system. The layers threatening to collapse today’s system took shape in the 1960s when the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the Seminar Room, the foundations of art shifted from studio practice to classroom discussion, from doing to thinking.

Standards often fall to vested interests. Recently an article in Arts And Letters Daily told us that for Walter Benjamin art was mystical, an awe-inspiring an immortal mystery. Marxist Benjamin’s writing said the opposite; (basso profondo) “the art of the working class… the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power… brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.”

Walter Benjamin was a brilliant writer, a literary genius, but his social science fails peer review. His “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” follows flawed Marxists theory and toes the party line. For Bolsheviks lying is a political strategy and “Mechanical Reproduction” was distorted on the procrustean bed of working class mythology. Fabulist policy normally does not age well, yet this paper of Benjamin’s is still revered by generations whose adulation lacks both scholarship and common sense.

no one knows what art is anymore, yet every other profession knows what they are doing
22" x 33" -55.88cm x 83.82cm, acrylic on cardboard, Nov. 15, 2020

Another highly respected theorist was Sol Lewitt, a brilliant visual artist. Unfortunately his Sentences on Conceptual Art, and Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, deny both logic and Sol Lewitt’s own experience; his practice consistently contradicted his theories. Lewitt refutes these charges by saying a conceptual artist is a mystic who overleaps logic, but he fails to explain how such miracles happen. When read without adulation and hero worship, his writing makes little sense but has poetic and mythical appeal. It’s an ill omen that no one noticed the obvious, or thought this through… respect for authority is the enemy of inquiry.

And so it came to be that if we have not seen as far as others, it was because we were standing on the shoulders of very short giants, or else giants were standing on our shoulders. But we certainly ned to wake up and smell the coffee.


1- Will Gompertz, Putting modern art on the map, The Guardian, 2012, reprinted in -> back to top

2- Christie Lutz, "Richard Mutt", Rutgers University - -> back to top

3- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press. 4-Joan Bakewell, BBC. - -> back to top

5 - Hald, Anders (1998). A History of Mathematical Statistics. New York: Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-17912-2.- -> back to top

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 - -> back to top


What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit


Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp’s past tells a different tale than the one in the seminar room. But rest assured that the good Duchamp has done did not get interred with his bones, since the darkness of a person’s shadow comes from the brightness of the light they walk in. And as we acknowledge Duchamp’s shadow, we seek to understand what he did and what he wanted, why and how, we will unravel it.

This article differs from typical Duchamp studies in having no commitment to the belief that he made great art, in fact Duchamp sought the opposite. He tried to get rid of art and looked for ways to make images that were not based on visual language but on intellectual thought; he also tried to discredit art and replace it with an alternative of his own making. Today’s documentation remaps his place in history and sweeps away myths built up over time. Sorry for shaking that tree. I’m not here to say bad things about Marcel but to share the unavoidable conclusions drawn from the available evidence; the 18th century American Thomas Payne said that he who dares not offend cannot be honest.

Duchamp did have humanfailings, his father paid his bills so he never had to work, he loved the spotlight, he enjoyed rebellion, and the theatrical shock of Dada. He said painting was dead and he wanted to discredit art, he said art, which he said was over rated. Essentially a Dada role-play, this concept turned around and consumed him. After years of denying art Duchamp could no longer paint. In spite of his misfortune in losing interest in art, Duchamp made a major contribution to the epistemology of painting. He located the boundaries of visual art, the point at which one stops making art. Rejecting visual language in favor of an intellectual approach killed his motivation and creativity, he told John Cage it was like a brokenleg.

When Duchamp made painting intellectual, he didn’t know that intellect and vision use separate languages that cannot replace one another, theF science was mising in his time. The intellect’s neural networks use a vocal language of reason and logic, whereas painting uses a sensory mode defined as a visual language with an optical vocabulary, the non-verbal language of visual art. Discard it and it's goodbye art, hello chess. Duchamp wasn't aware of that, consequence, we ourselves only see it in retrospect. Rejecting art seemed a good shock machine, a competitive career strategy, an extreme yet logical move in his desire to Dada. If you shock the bourgeoisie they will pay attention.

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”.(1) The competition was intense, Donald Kuspit wrote of Matisse out-performing him(2) even though Duchamp was obviously a talented painter, far above the average, in fact exceptionally gifted.

In the Cabane interviews we sense Duchamp’s disappointment at being virtually unknown in France … even if a disdain for status was part of his brand. Perhaps he was making a virtue of necessity when “a prophet has no honor in his own country.” (John ch4 v44)There are people who are born unlucky and who simply never ‘make it’. They’re not talked about. That was the case with me (till the 1960s).”(3) Duchamp was twenty-eight years old in 1915 when he arrived in New York.

Walter Pach introduced him to his principal American patron, Walter C. Arensberg. Duchamp stayed a month at Arensberg’s; their friendship would last their lifetime.(4) At Arensberg’s Duchamp met “everybody who was anybody in New York”(5), and while Duchamp lived in relative obscurity until the 1960s, Arensberg and others purchased enough work to get by.(6) Duchamp’s resurgent fame came in the late 1960s through Motherwell, John Cage, and Jasper Johns; George Segal remarked that “Marcel Duchamp had a revived life through John Cage.”(7)

Questioning the readymade

Duchamp is best known for the readymade, a found object equivalent to years of experience and months of creative work. Art before Duchamp took decades to master, Duchamp made mastery irrelevant. Still, an inquiry prompted by Duchamp’s own words is gaining importance and needs consideration. Duchamp always said the readymades were not art. Rarely did he speak of them as such, generally in a context of why not defining art.

"The curious thing about the readymade is that I've never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me."(8). When asked how he came to choose the readymade, 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.(9) The word ‘readymade’ thrusts itself on me then. It seemed perfect forthese things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies.(10) Duchamp’s refusal to have readymades treated as works of art led him to claim that “for a period of thirty years nobody talked about them and neither did I.”(11) In a 1959 Audio Art interview Duchamp did consider their possible status as art, but even then he chose his words carefully as noted above. As his friend and confidant will tell us near the end of this critique, Duchamp said the found objects were “not-art, non-art”.

A definition of "readymade" published under the name of Marcel Duchamp is found in Breton and Eluard's Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme: "an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist." While published under his his initials, "MD", André Gervais nevertheless asserts that André Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry.(12) Today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art. At the Tate Gallery a pile of trash remained trash for weeks no matter how often the artist came by to elevate it to the dignity of a work of art. Huffed. Puffed. No art. No dignity.

In Gamboni’s ‘The Destruction of Art’, Duchamp at the end of his life explained to Otto Hahn “that his readymades had aimed at drawing ‘the attention of the people to the fact that art is a mirage even if ‘a solid one’, and concluded from the vagaries of taste that history was to be doubted.”(13)In line with Duchamp’s desire to o discredit art, it’s the readymades that are the solid mirage… but art isn’t an illusion just because readymades are, especially since readymades are not-art. Meanwhile it’s the vagaries of changing tastes that create art history rather than raising doubt about it, since history is the record of such changes. Today’s science says aesthetics were a crucial aspect of evolutionary development, psychology observed that art is vital to mental health, so obviously art is not a mirage but a tangible process and product. We need to revise our history to include that and to remember that Duchamp said the readymades are not art, "no term of art applies".

In any case the science on art, the archaeology, sociology, and psychology tell us that art is specific; it’s not an arbitrary construct even if it so appears at first glance. If art was limitless it could not exist - without limitations we dissolve in the boundless. Art is not an accident nor is it a found object – art is always an intention, an effort, and definitely an achievement. We now question why the art world said found objects were art when Duchamp said they were not. One answer is that Duchamp was trying for something that was not art but the art world couldn’t wrap its head around that, based on the premise that since Duchamp was an artist whatever he did must be art. There may be other reasons why Duchamp denied art status to found objects.

The Fountain

Perhaps because it was someone else’s idea. Dr. Glyn Thompson, Professor Emeritus, Art History at Leeds University in England, in 2015 presented sufficient arguments that the urinal was by Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.(14) A 2018 article by Rutgers’ Stephanie Crawford titled Richard Mutt(15) reviews Dr. Thompsons’ convincing evidence, including a letter written by Duchamp on April, 11, 1917 to his sister Suzanne, that “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.” Dr. Thompson also found that the urinal would have been made and purchased in Trenton, New Jersey, where the factory was. These protocols can be found in the company’s trade catalogs…. Mott didn’t make a urinal similar enough to the 1917 image of the urinal.(16)

It is important to take a moment to reflect on the moral implications of what Duchamp wrote; “since there was nothing indecent about it…” But there was, the idea that art is to piss on is indecent. Chick Korea is a great Jazz musician, but when he performed on stage no one ever went up and pissed on him, because of respect for his accomplishment. To disrespect accomplishment is indecent. The postmodern deprecation of art starts here and slowly corrupts the academy without anyone realizing it; Duchamp’s effort to discredit art (16b) achieved a degree of success inacademia.

We have a different description of Duchamp and the urinal published in 2015 by Sir Alistair MacFarlane, who wrote “On 17 April, 1917 Duchamp discovered an ideal exhibit when strolling along Fifth Avenue in the company of Walter Arensberg, his patron, a collector, and Joseph Stella, a fellow artist. When they passed the retail outlet of J.L. Mott, Duchamp was fascinated by a display of sanitary ware. He had found what he had been diligently seeking; and persuaded Arensberg to purchase a standard, flat-backed white porcelain urinal. Taking it to his studio, he placed it on its back, signed it with the pseudonym ‘R. Mutt’, and gave it the name Fountain”. (17)

MacFarlan dates his version a week after Duchamp’s letter to his sister, there’s no mention of Elsa, and the narrative around the plumbing store J.L. Mott was debunked by Dr. Glynn Thompson. I wrote Sir Alistair asking for clarification. His editor replied that Sir Alistair’s health is not good, I may not hear from him. It is certainly possible that the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, being perennially broke, may not have sent Duchamp the urinal itself but a letter asking him to buy a urinal in her name for the Independent show, and sign it for her. This doesn't validate Elsa being washed out of history by MacFarlane.

There’s also an account by Will Gompertz (BBC's arts editor and previously director of Tate Media) published three years earlier in 2012 in the Guardian, which may have been MacFarlane’s source. Gompertz’s imaginary account is a coy schoolboy fantasy that includes the discretionary J.L. Mott Iron Works in New Jersey, that conveniently "materialized" at 118 Fifth Ave in Manhattan.(18)

“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 door handles 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.

They left the store. Arensberg and Stella called a taxi while the quiet, philosophical Frenchman remained on the sidewalk holding the heavy urinal. He was amused by the plan he had hatched for this porcelain pissotière, which he intended to use as a prank to upset the stuffy American art crowd. Looking down at its shiny white surface, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) smiled to himself: he thought it might cause a bit of a stir.

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. What had been, just a few hours before, a nondescript, ubiquitous urinal was now, by dint of Duchamp's actions, a work of art.

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.

His intention was to enter Fountain into the 1917 Independents Exhibition, the largest show of modern art that had ever been mounted in the US.”

Of course this entire narrative is discredited by Duchamp’s letter to his sister; “April II [1917] My dear Suzanne- Impossible to write- I heard from Crotti that you were working hard. Tell me what you are making and if it’s not too difficult to send. Perhaps, I could have a show of your work in the month of October or November-next-here. But tell me what you are making- Tell 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. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing. I have handed in my resignation.”

Meanwhile the JL Mott Ironworks Company did not manufacture the model in Stieglitz’s photograph, so that story is inaccurate. In 1935 André Breton attributed the urinal to Duchamp, but it wasn’t until 1950, long after the baroness had died in an insane asylum and four years after Stieglitz’s death, that Duchamp began to take credit for the piece and authorise replicas.(19)

There is another account of Duchamp discovering the urinal. Alex Ling’s ironically misnamed 2016 paper “Parrhesia”, deeply probes Duchamp’s mindset in that decisive moment of choosing the urinal. Ling says “there exists a paradoxical relation of continuity between the ‘event’ and the ‘everyday’… a site x proves itself paradoxical in its being a reflexive multiple, meaning it is an element of itself, ‘auto-belongs” (that is, x ∈ x)”. If that isn’t crystal clear and the most precise explanation then do take it up with Ling, who also wrote “at an ontological level (i.e. at the level of its being), all art is necessarily readymade. Or again, there is no art that is not, in some essential way, always-already readymade.”

Doesn’t the same apply to health? When surgeons operate, didn’t the operation always-already happen in some essential way? With food isn’t the meal always-already made? Logic and common sense answer these obfuscations, here presented as an example of scholarly abuse. It’s not that we’re against deep philosophy on the quest for being, but that’s not happening when Ling is describe what never happened. When top tier art writers like Gompertz and Ling are so clueless they’re like Pillow Guy Mike Lindell’s proofs that Trump won the 2020 election; they have all gone down the rabbit hole. Art history is looking more like a fabrication of vested interests, where academics cherry pick facts to create false narratives in a publish or perish environment.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Still, everyone ignores the elephant in the room, that woman of a man named Richard Mutt, the closest match for whom is the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Elsa had shown found objects as art before Duchamp and possibly inspired his 1913 Bicycle Wheel. She also had another plumbing sculpture titled “God” made around the same time as Fountain. British author John Higgs has done some extensive research on Elsa.

God, by The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
God, by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

“In March 1917 the Philadelphia-based modernist painter George Biddle hired a forty-two-year-old German woman as a model. She visited him in his studio, and Biddle told her that he wished to see her naked. The model threw open her scarlet raincoat. Underneath, she was nude apart from a bra made from two tomato cans and green string, and a small birdcage housing a sorry-looking canary, which hung around her neck. Her only other items of clothing were a large number of curtain rings, recently stolen from Wanamaker's department store, which covered one arm, and a hat which was decorated with carrots, beets and other vegetables.

Poor George Biddle. There he was, thinking that he was the artist and that the woman in front of him, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, was his model. With one quick reveal the baroness announced that she was the artist, and he simply her audience. Then a well-known figure on the New York avant garde art scene, Baroness Elsa was a performance artist, poet and sculptor. She wore cakes as hats, spoons as earrings, black lipstick and postage stamps as makeup, literally the “found objects” Duchamp would later immortalize. She lived in abject poverty surrounded by her pet dogs and the mice and rats in her apartment, which she fed and encouraged. She was regularly arrested and incarcerated for offences such as petty theft or public nudity. At a time when societal restrictions on female appearance were only starting to soften, she would shave her head, or dye her hair vermilion. Her work was championed by Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound; she was an associate of artists including Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and those who met her did not forget her quickly.

Yet the baroness remains invisible in most accounts of the early twentieth-century art world. You see glimpses of her in letters and journals from the time, which portray her as difficult, cold or outright insane, with frequent references to her body odour. Much of what we know about her early life is based on a draft of her memoirs she wrote in a psychiatric asylum in Berlin in 1925, two years before her death.

In the eyes of most of the people she met, the way she lived and the art she produced made no sense at all. She was, perhaps, too far ahead of her time. The baroness is now recognized as the first American Dada artist, but it might be equally true to say she was the first New York punk, sixty years too early. It took until the early twenty-first century for her feminist Dada to gain recognition. This reassessment of her work has raised an intriguing possibility: could Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven be responsible for what is often regarded as the most significant work of art in the twentieth century?

Baroness Elsa was born Else Hildegarde Plotz in 1874 in the Prussian town of Swinemunde, now Swinoujscie in Poland, on the Baltic Sea. When she was nineteen, following the death of her mother to cancer and a physical attack by her violent father, she left home and went to Berlin, where she found work as a model and chorus girl. A heady period of sexual experimentation followed, which left her hospitalized with syphilis, before she befriended the cross-dressing graphic artist Melchior Lechter and began moving in avant garde art circles.

The distinction between her life and her art, from this point on, became increasingly irrelevant. As her poetry testifies, she did not respect the safe boundaries between the sexual and the intellectual which existed in the European art world. Increasingly androgynous, Elsa embarked on a number of marriages and affairs, often with homosexual or impotent men. She helped one husband fake his own suicide, a saga which brought her first to Canada and then to the United States. A further marriage to Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven gave her a title, although the Baron was penniless and worked as a busboy. Shortly after their marriage the First World War broke out, and he went back to Europe to fight. He took what money Elsa had with him, and committed suicide shortly afterwards.

Around this time the baroness met, and became somewhat obsessed with the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp. One of her spontaneous pieces of performance art saw her taking an article about Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase and rubbing it over every inch of her body, connecting the famous image of a nude with her own naked self. She then recited a poem that climaxed with the declaration 'Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel.' Duchamp politely declined her sexual advances. He was not a tactile man, and did not like to be touched. But he did recognize the importance and originality of her art. As he once said, '[The Baroness] is not a futurist. She is the future.'

If the Fountain is Baroness Elsa's work, the pseudonym it used proves to be a pun. America had just entered the First World War, and Elsa was angry about both the rise in anti-German sentiment and the paucity of the New York art world's response to the conflict. The urinal was signed 'R. Mutt 1917', and to a German eye 'R. Mutt' suggests Armut, meaning poverty or, in the context of the exhibition, intellectual poverty.

Baroness Elsa had been finding objects in the street and declaring them to be works of art long before Duchamp hit upon the idea of readymades. The earliest that we can date with any certainty was Enduring Ornament, a rusted metal ring just over four inches across, which she found on her way to her wedding to Baron Leopold on19 November 1913.”(20)

While Duchamp made boxed sets of his archives, Elsa did not document her work; what photographs and paper trail we have are almost an accident. As a result of Elsa’s lack of documentation, the found objects became Duchamp’s brand, they embodied his anti-aesthetic Dada of discrediting art. But let’s examine Elsa in the manner recommended by John Higgs. Imagine you’re a curator at a major museum and you meet Elsa, the head curator, a woman whose body odor is so pungent it reeks into your nostrils. Her syphilis is so advanced she has trouble talking and her skirt is ripped showing more than we need to see. Just as you’re about to discuss the next major show, the police come in and arrest her for stealing from the local hardware store. Is this the woman you want representing you to the museum-going public? Is this really this is the woman of tomorrow as Higgs tells us, or even of today?

But there’s a strong cultural clue here in knowing that Elsa was the one who invented found objects and Elsa was possibly schizophrenic, certainly she was mentally ill. Mental illness often manifests itself with a disregard for others or for logical thought, like a child who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. A dollar store ring is as valuable as a real diamond for the child is insensitive to the complexity. For Elsa a brass ring was a gold ring, and we may well assume that had Elsa a gold ring she would have lost it just as easily as the brass.

What of an artist who does not achieves their best but their worst?

Hospitalized with syphilis... embarked on a number of marriages and affairs, often with homosexual or impotent men... regularly arrested and incarcerated for offences such as petty theft or public nudity... glimpses of her in letters and journals from the time, which portray her as difficult, cold or outright insane, with frequent references to her body odor... Died in an insane asylum.

At the same time her work was championed by Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound; she was an associate of artists including Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp (who wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole), , and those who met her did not forget her quickly. As Duchamp once said, “[The Baroness] is not a futurist. She is the future.”

We do not believe Elsa is a brilliant thinker, a great mind, , she didn’t write books nor sing or dance so that she would be remembered down the ages, Elsa lacked the sensitivity, the complexity, the drive and the skill to create art, her highest form of expression was an anti-social melodrama. If pissing on art is the most significant work in the twentieth century then the twentieth century should be ashamed of itself. Is scatology really our highest achievement?


According to the science, art evolved as an instinctive urge towards the use of symbols, symmetry, and complexity, leading to a development of culture and intelligence. Archaeological evidence of artistic awareness and art-like activities by ancestors of modern Homo sapiens appear in the Middle Stone Age. Cosmetic body art seems the earliest form of creative ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago in Africa. The evidence for this comes in the form of utilized red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons of ochre mixed with fat, associated with the emergence of Homo Sapiens.(21)The Blombos cave in South Africa where the ochre mix was found also contained snail shell jewelry and engraved stones dating from 75,000 years ago. There’s evidence art was vital for evolutionary development and in our time psychology says it also functions as therapy.(22)This means the counter-aesthetic has harmful consequences including mental illness. In Duchamp’s time, Walter Benjamin wrote that authorship and aesthetics were outmoded concept.(23)Some years after rejecting the foundations of his own creative legitimacy, Benjamin suffered a catastrophic failure of morale and killed himself at a critical moment.(24)


Assumptions must stand the test of time. When Duchamp as Elsa’s heir says the readymade is not art, we must accept that found objects remain the everyday items they were before the artist supposedly raised them to the dignity of art. Museum s may claim a pile of broken sticks as art, yet they remain in fact a sorry pile of curatorial pretensions. To assume they are more and call them art is a metacognitive insensitivity that’s blind to the complex iteration of the creative unconscious. These broken sticks perhaps symbolize no more than the institution’s failure to understand the nature and function of art, the curators being sadly misinformed.

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.(25) We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, that Mozart loathed musical notes, or that Baryshnikov spurned the grand jeté; these are things to respect, not to despise, unless you’re trying to discredit art

In a 1986 BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see, that he made it intellectual.(26) Duchamp then stopped painting, he made no paintings anymore after discarding the retinal. In that BBC interview with Joan Bakewell Duchamp said “I don’t care about the work of art because it’s been so, you know, discredited”, and when Ms. Bakewell said that he, Duchamp, was partly responsible for that he said yes, intentionally; he wanted to do away with art the way some people today have done away with religion.He also wanted to get rid of painting “for which there is no reason to exists anymore”.(27)

Duchamp lacked the science documenting the non-verbal languages that drive images, music, and dance. This is when the penny drops and we realize most of Duchamp’s work aimed to discredit art, under the assumption that he knew better. He didn’t, as we’re about to learn Developed in reaction to World War I, the Dada movement consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works.

Picabia said that art was "a pharmaceutical product for idiots". Not to be outdone Duchamp said that painting was dead, that he wanted to discredit art and get rid of it, and replace it with something of his own invention, an art based on intellect instead of the traditional non-verbal languages of music, painting, and dance. What if Duchamp was not a genius but a Dadaist who simply happened to fit academia’s need for a semi-intellectual artist? What if the Bicycle Wheel is not a work of art? What if art is not a pharmaceutical product for idiots? We're hardly conscious of how much revolves around this crucial question.

Jasper Johns wrote that Duchamp tried to rid art of its visual non-verbal language and replace it with an intellectual practice. As a result he was paralyzed, unable to paint without the tools for visual expression. Then there’s the psychology; once you persuade yourself of the worthlessness of what you do you lose the motivation to go on. Johns went on to say Duchamp tolerated, even encouraged the mythology around that ‘stopping’, "but it was not like that … He spoke of breaking a leg. ‘You didn’t mean to do it’ he said". (28)

Rejecting one’s senses is literally senseless; we need sensory information and feedback. Duchamp also said taste is the enemy of art and taste is triggered by the senses. Everyone has their own taste, unique and specific to that person, based on their life experience; without taste we have no choice, without choice we have no art. The more educated and sophisticated one’s taste, so goes their art. We must judge for ourselves if it’s desirable for artists to deny taste and discredit art, is it recommended for artists to destroy their motivation to make art?

Rejecting the artist in favor of the concept

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) Art was our highest expression until Duchamp suggested iconoclasm as a higher expression Since then geopolitical forces brought a resurgence of revolutionary fervour, a rebellion professing to overthrow the status quo. Kristin Lee Dufour's school assignment at Oxford validates Duchamp’s philosophy; “The pertinence of the artist is erased in favor of the pertinence of the concept. In Duchamp’s readymades, the involvement of the artist as a generative source is minimal ... Thus, the value of the artist as a craftsman mastering a particular media is annihilated, as are values attached to any of these media.(29)

Rejecting humanist values will certainly bring about a golden age of the simple mind but Kristin obviously fails. She’s unable to explain how concepts come about once there’s no artist to think of them. Let’s not forget that found object were at first a unique model crated by a designer, then copied by mechanical reproduction. To claim that such copies are art and justifying that by denying art raises a red flag about the academic thinking that glosses over such contradictions.

Peter Bürger goes even further than Kristin Lee Dufour, referencing Walter Benjamin: “the central distinction between the art of ‘bourgeois autonomy’ and the avant-garde is that whereas bourgeois production is ‘the act of an individual genius,’ the avant-garde responds with the radical negation of the category of individual creation ... all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked ... it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art.(30) Bürger radically questions bourgeois society... signalling piety and horror when an individual is considered the creator of a work of art. Bürger fails to explain what these horrors of individuality are, or from what wisdom he speaks, other than the fury of an armchair revolutionary.Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347, 8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guardians?”

Puchamp's marriages

Duchamp dreaded marriage, children, bourgeois servitude to social expectations; “It wasn’t necessary to encumber one’s life with too much weight, with too many things to do, with what is called a wife and children, a country house, an automobile. And I understood this, fortunately, rather early. This allowed me to live for a long time as a bachelor.

His first marriage in 1927, lasted six months; “because I saw that marriage was as boring as anything, I was really much more of a bachelor than I thought. So, after six months, my wife very kindly agreed to a divorce … That’s it. The family that forces you to abandon your real ideas, to swap them for the things family believes in, society and all that paraphernalia.(32) ” He spoke of “a negation of woman in the social sense of the word, of the woman-wife, the mother, the children, etc.I carefully avoided all that, until I was sixty-seven. Then (1954) I married a woman (Alexina Teeny Sattler) who, because of her age, couldn’t have children.” Both were avid chess players.(33) There’s an interesting power dynamic suggested between famous Duchamp and his bride, tiny Teeny. Nomen est omen?

The tale of Duchamp’s first marriage tells that in 1927 Marcel Duchamp married a young heiress called Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor. The honeymoon did not go well; the artist’s close friend Man Ray recalls that “Duchamp spent the one week they lived together studying chess problems and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.” They were divorced a few months later.(34)Duchamp’s disinterest in visual sensation reflects his miscarriage of relationship, although evidence suggests one long affair in his life. His relationship with Sarazin-Lavassor on the other hand shows the coldness of an intellectual in accord with gossip of Duchamp’s physical reserve.

Duchamp was obviously open minded about sexuality in his response to Frank Lloyd Wright’s question, posed to him at the Western Round Table on Modern Art in 1949. Wright; “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly in debt to homosexualism [sic]?” Duchamp replied: “I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest for modern art than the heterosexual public.”(35) A curious answer, with a wink to Arensberg?

Duchamp may or may not have been asexual or ambisexual but he queered the arts creatively and personally. Alex Robertson Textor attests that Duchamp “posed for Man Ray in drag, displaying exaggerated feminine mannerisms, though not passing particularly well as a woman”.(36) Considered from a range of feminist perspectives, Duchamp’s tendency to see Rose Sélavy as his ‘muse’ represents an assimilation of an abstract ‘feminine’ as a territory for the critically transgressive. But since he was openly disdainful of feminism, this move is clearly problematic.”(37)

Duchamp proves that art is not anything we can get away with.

Next we turn toMotherwell and Duchamp’s aim to tilt at the establishment and at the title of ‘artist’ at one and the same time. Marcel Duchamp made an effort to redefine art not in his own image, but redefine art according to his thoughts… it was heroic though mmisguided. Still, Duchamp is not the man we knew. That persona by which we know him is a cultural construct that diverges from the truth, leaving us baffled.

The first shock is that Duchamp did not originate found objects or the urinal known as Fountain,. The second shock is that Duchamp’s ideas are deeply flawed; were not and could not be based on a deep philosophical understanding since the science on art was missing in his time. That science today confirms that, contrary to Duchamp’s view, there is a biological necessity for the visual sensory non-verballanguage he rejected.

The he third shock is that Duchamp tried to discredit art not from a higher ethic or a deep philosophical wisdom but as a Dada marketing stunt, that eventually backfired and crippled him. Ironically, it looks like Duchamp proved that art is not anything you can get away with. We made him a hero when he was really a cautionary tale; his obviously stated goal, ignored by a worshipful art world, was to destroy one’s ability to make art and to lower the quality of the art we still manage to make, to discredit art in order to replace it with his own invention, though he never came up with an art alternative.


Marcel may also have been chromatically anomalous or insensitive. It is surprising that Duchamp didn’t enjoy painting when he was literally a genius at the field. Interesting that almost all his work suffers a restricted chromatic range that perhaps he was colour insensitive or unreactive. Even when he used colour in his spiral optical experiments there was small love there, a minimalism. Of course for a while Picasso and Braque and other Cubists at this time were also restricted to earth tones, possibly a post-war economy. But Duchamp’s use of colors in Landscape Study for Paradise, 1911, or the painting of his father, plus the other few color works of his like Tu ‘mwhere the colors seem straight out of the tube, all hint at chromatic restriction. That an artist would be so technically brilliant yet not enjoy his work suggests a neurological disconnect between the visual cortex and the nucleus accumbens. Neuroscientists call the nucleus accumbens the brain's pleasure center. When an activity is desirable, a surge of dopamine is released in this area. It is telling that Duchamp never displayed much emotion or sensual response..


Duchamp was a child of his time and his Dada included a queering of norms, with an antipathy to work itself; “I did as few things as possible, which isn’t like the current attitude of making as much as you can, in order to make as much money as possible.”(38) Pablo Casal was asked why he still practiced every day at the age of 90, he replied that he thought he was improving. By doing as much as possible, artists develop their knowledge and reach levels of sophistication and complexity that cannot be achieved by untutored minds; Duchamp lived a distance from the mainstream. His father’s support meant he didn’t have our common experience of a job, did not face the financial anxieties most of us experience. .(39)Basically I’ve never worked for a living … Also I haven’t known the pain of producing, painting not having been an outlet for me, or having a pressing need to express myself. I’ve never had that kind of need – to draw morning, noon, and night.”(40) Which explains Kuspit on Matisse out-performing him.

Doing as little as possible was a strategic mistake. The brain itself changes, brain folds develop and additional neural patterns grow just as muscles grow from exercise. If you played Pokémon video games extensively as a kid, there's a good chance that a specific region of your brain gets fired up when you see the characters now. In a 2019 study, researchers from Stanford University showed test subjects hundreds of Pokémon characters. As you might expect, the brains of longtime Pokémon fans responded more than those unfamiliar with the game. But what's more surprising is that a specific brain fold responded, an area just behind the ears, called the occipitotemporal sulcus. We know that Einstein played the violin, and like others who learn music as children acquire an omega-shaped fold in the lower right at the back of the brain. Neuroscientist Karl Friston developed an imaging technique that was used in a famous study to show that the rear side of the hippocampus of London taxi drivers grew in volume as they memorized maps when applying for a taxi license. It would be fascinating to compare the visual cortex of an experienced artist with the population at large. It is not that phrenology is making a comeback, but rather that data confirms knowledge resides in neural networks.


Any suggestion that art is more idea and less about making is overruled by the fact hat knowledge and skill are acquired through practice; the etymology of art speaks of a quality requiring a high degree in skill, such as the art of conversation or medicine. Conbsidering McLuhan’s medium is the message we see how the medium transforms, alters, and shapes the idea that is expressed. To express complex ideas requires complex skills.. The 10,000 hours of Malcolm Gladwell makes us wonder what Duchamp could have achieved had he worked instead of doing as little as possible. Some works of art that cannot be forgotten. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Munch’s The Scream.

Robert Motherwell suggests Duchamp found an ethic beyond ‘the aesthetic’ for his ultimate choices; “I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist. He’s a man like any other… those who make things on a canvas, with a frame, they’re called artists. Formerly they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer.”(41)Motherwell suggests an ethic beyond vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, because that’s what aesthetics are; building blocks, the forms of non verbal languages. To do as little as possible while seeking to discredit art do not suggest the highest ethical standards. Duchamp was strongly influenced by a Dada-based nihilist ethic, which is questionable.

Defining art

In the 1959 interview with Audio Art mentioned at the start, Duchamp was asked “Is there any way in which we can think of a readymade as a work of art?” To which he replied “hat is a very difficult point, because art first has to be defined. Can we try to define art? We have tried. Everybody has tried. In every century there is a new definition of art, meaning that there is no one essential that is good for all centuries. So if we accept the idea of trying not to define art, which is a very legitimate conception, then the readymade comes in as a sort of irony, because it says, “Here is a thing that I call art, but I didn’t even make it myself.” As we know, "art," etymologically speaking means “to hand make.” And there it is ready-made. So it was a form of denying the possibility of defining art, because you don’t define electricity. You see the results of electricity, but you don’t define it.”(42)

Today we know that artist who cannot define art either have not taken the trouble to try or they don't know what they are doing, are vulnerable to misinformation, and fail to meet professional standards.

The science of beauty

Scientists Steven Mithen, Denis Duton, Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake, among numerous others, established a link between beauty and the highest evolutionary thinking of early hominids.(43) Mathematician and number theorist C.H. Hardy believed that a mathematical equation was more likely to be true if it was beautiful, and almost certain to be untrue if it was ugly.(44) Physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.(45) Most physicists believe you don’t need to chose between the two, that beauty is a powerful guiding force towards truth. It is worth asking if the science behind beauty also applies to visual art.

Duchamp said “To get away from the physical aspect of painting, I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind(46). Duchamp was unaware that visual language was already at the service of the unconscious depths of the mind. A review of language as the formative structure of thinking present the intellect as one of many linguistic functions in the brain; feelings and sensory valuations are obviously part of the equation. Duchamp’s process of discarding aesthetics and making art intellectual does not enhance but reduces the work’s complexity. This calls for a reassessment of the conceptual paradigm. An intellectual art is dysfunctional without aesthetics, according to the science now available.

Linguistic theory finds that language begins in biology, since there has to be a communicative language guiding cell function, a feedback mechanism for the brain to think with. This proto-language and similar codifications of momentary experience are an evolutionary inheritance, a complex abstraction built on an almost infinite range of sensations and reactions since the dawn of time.

Denis Dutton’s youtube Ted Talk, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty (47)shows human evolution aided and abetted by the ever growing complexity and sensitivity of an aesthetic art practice. Aesthetics consist of a system of value judgments, of comparisons and evaluations that provide statistical data by which we organize sensations pouring in from without, and reactions emerging from within. Aesthetics plays a meaningful role in this linguistic theory of intelligence, because as a set of judgments it covers the entire spectrum from attraction to repulsion, from dark to light, and similar sensory dualities. These aesthetic judgments born of experience form each person’s unique individual taste. Our taste is a personal vocabulary, lacking which we have no choice and without choice we can’t make art. Taste is the foundation of art, not its enemy.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on non-verbal languages “emphasized (that) every perceptual experience we have is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration–an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, according to the circumstances–which is stored in the brain for future reference. Each new object we encounter is automatically compared to those stored cognitive and emotional memories of past experience, providing an instantaneous evaluation based on past knowledge and experience… art is not mere “cheesecake” for the mind. It is instead a cultural adaptation of great significance.”(48)

A dislike of painting

Motherwell says that “Duchamp was the great saboteur, the relentless enemy of painterly painting… His disdain for sensual painting was… intense.”(49) When Cabane asked where his anti-retinal attitude comes from, Duchamp replied “from too great importance given to the retina. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error… still interested in painting in the retinal sense. Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral… It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.” (Cabane’s footnote; Duchamp uses the word “retinal” in the way many people use “painterly”, i.e. the visual language of painting).

In other words, Duchamp objects to the sensuous appeal of painting… “in a period like ours, when you cannot continue to do oil painting, which after four or five hundred years of existence, has no reason to go on eternally… The painting is no longer a decoration to be hung in the dining room or living room. Art is taking on more the form of a sign, if you wish; it’s no longer reduced to a decoration…”.(50) On Cabane asking if easel painting is dead Duchamp replies “it’s dead for the moment, and for a good hundred and fifty years. Unless it comes back; one doesn’t know why, but there’s no good reason for it…(51) The Coffee Grinder. It was there I began to think I could avoid all contact with traditional pictorial painting. I was able to get rid of tradition by this linear method.(52) What Duchamp is saying here is that he succeeded in degrading painting to an illustration of an idea. While Duchamp had no concept of the non-verbal languages that raise illustration to the complexity of art, eliminating what which cannot be put in words did fit with his goal of degrading art. We also recall that as a painter Matisse out-performed him, therefore Duchamp had to produce an ideology that deprecated both effort and painting.

To understand how Duchamp misread the art hypothesis, we should know there are modes of perception and expression that are non-vernal, not intellectual. There’s body language and its formal expression as dance; acoustic language with its formal expression as music; there’s visual language where a picture is worth sa word or two, then there are the language of feelings; the language of sensations. Only one mode is verbal, literature, the art of writing, and only here does intellect rule in art. Even in literature the intellect of ideas has to consider poetic sensation, tone, inspiration, and intuition. Making art conceptual is then reductive, deprecating the non-verbal languages art depends on, which give intellectual thought its depth. These different linguistic modalities, these different languages are crucial for best practice, we suffer without them. Unfortunately intellectual knowledge has as blind spot in that we generally assume our knowledge is adequate, whereas we all see through a glass darkly.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote “That figure is most praiseworthy which, by its actions, expresses the passions of the soul.” Body language is real. Historian Sherwin B. Nuland writes of Leonardo's The Last Supper, that "each of the men at the table reveals himself in an instantaneous psychological portrait that seems to betray his thoughts and even their thoughts that will come later”.(53) Visual language speaks much further than anatomical descriptions. Abstract Expressionists studied the language of large colour and of thin brush strokes, Jackson Pollock’s work contains the body language of his thrown paint, Van Gogh's brushstrokes are also body language as any brushstrokes contain the unconscious message of the painter's hand that is uniquely hers or his. There are non-verbal languages of infinite complexity running alongside and informing the intellect.

Instead of Duchamp’s wish that painting take on the form of a sign, we discover that a painted image is a symbol that cannot be reduced to a sign. A sign is calligraphy, used in writing. The aesthetic traditions Duchamp denied are a crucial part of evolution and mental health. One cannot forsake aesthetics to promote ideas as such reduction weakens the idea by discarding its terminology; the more pragmatic skills the artist has, the greater one’s visual vocabulary, and the more complex the idea that can be expressed.

But the science came late for Duchamp and did not reach some influential voices.

Former Vice-President of the British Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor, Sir Alistair MacFarlane writes “before Marcel Duchamp, a work of art was an artifact, a physical object. After Duchamp it was an idea, a concept… Duchamp had two strategic objectives. First, to destroy the hegemony exerted by an establishment that claimed the right to decide what was, and what was not, to be deemed a work of art. Second, to puncture the pretentious claims of those who called themselves artists and in doing so assumed that they possessed extraordinary skills and unique gifts of discrimination and taste. William Coopley’s obituary of Duchamp read “he entered immortality at the time he left the easel and took art with him into creative life.”(54)

Duchamp left art to play chess, a game where creativity has no place, the rules instead requiring conscious intellectual calculations. Duchamp left art behind and did not take it with him; he entered immortality for six decades only to be suspectd on the seventh. Duchamp did not destroy the foundations of art, he destroyed his own creative ability. Meanwhile those artists’ claims to extraordinary skills were not pretentions but proven fact. Michelangelo, Duchamp himself, and others really do possess exceptional ability discrimination and taste in visual art; that’s expected of professional artists just as accountants and acrobats have their own skillset.


Ideas should make sense, else they’re harmful. In an interview with Katherine 4, Duchamp said “I consider taste- bad or good - the greatest enemy of art(56) In another interview “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.(57) [My intention was to] completely eliminate the existence of taste, bad or good or indifferent.”(58)In eliminating his own taste, Duchamp compromised himself by negating his life experience; taste is who we are, it’s all we got. Eliminating one’s own taste means someone else’s taste will dictate the narrative, at which point one is not a protagonist. Our bias is the result of our experience and contributes to our unique perception, psychologists say no one lacks bias, which defines our uniqueness.

Taste cannot be the enemy of art - it is the expression of each unique individual and what defines you as unique. Lacking taste, one cannot chose, lacking choice one cannot make art.. When Duchamp “contradicted himself to avoid conforming to his own taste” he was wrecking havoc with the fine-tuning of sensitive mechanisms of perception and decision, the antennas by which we attune to finer things, the calibrated controls by which we apprehend the most complex understanding. No wonder ideas stopped coming. We could see a lesson here of committing oneself to toxic ideas, nihilism and self-destruction. Duchamp wanted to destroy art and he did; that's Dada, which considers art “a pharmaceutical product for idiots”, as Picabia put it.

Another history of art

Nor is painting five hundred years old as Duchamp wrote. Art is ruled by an ancestral instinct promoting genetic survival; sculpture and painting reach back to the Middle Palaeolithic.(59) The oldest known cave painting is a red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave, Cáceres, Spain. It has been dated using the uranium-thorium method to be older than 64,000 years and was made by a Neanderthal. Experts estimate the oldest of the Sulawesi paintings is at least 40,000 years old, but they note that this is a minimum age and the painting could be much older. A 2018 study claimed an age of 64,000 years for the oldest examples of non-figurative cave art in the Iberian Peninsula. Represented by three red non-figurative symbols found in the caves of Maltravieso, Ardales and La Pasiega, Spain, these predate the arrival of modern humans to Europe by at least 20,000 years and thus must have been made by Neanderthals rather than modern humans.

In November 2018, scientists reported the discovery of the then-oldest known figurative art painting, over 40,000 (perhaps as old as 52,000) years old, of an unknown animal, in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh on the Indonesian island of Borneo. Since pigments fade, sculpture is even older: the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings (60,000 B.C.E.), Blombos Cave Engravings (70,000 B.C.E.) Venus of Tan-Tan (200,000–500,000 B.C.E.) Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan Cupules (290–700,000 B.C.E.)

Art red lined

Painting is more than superficial… but to experience that, one needs an appreciation of the sensory spectrum and it’s vocabulary. We also need an appreciation of the creative unconscious mind which cannot be reached through the intellect. And where intellect fails we need the non-verbal languages. . Hannah Arendt wrote, “if men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.” (60)

Consider the consequences of denying sensation in order to focus on idea. Those who sever their roots will surely reap the whirlwind, like a man who builds his house on the sand.And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27 Duchamp stopped making art.

Now considers Edward Fry’s statement, published in 1972, that Hans Haacke “may be even more subversive than Duchamp, since he handles his Readymades in such a way that they remain systems that represent themselves and thus do not let themselves assimilate with art.” (61)What’s the point of this subversion? We question the self-loathing that rejects one’s profession. Beyond a red line the work is no longer art, ergo you stop being an artist. That becomes obvious in the loss of motivation, the loss of desire, sabotaging one’s creative process, it grinds to a halt. We need to consider the non-verbal that Duchamp rejecte.

Non verbal

Albert Mehrabian (born 1939 to an Armenian family in Iran), currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, is known for his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on subliminal messages have become known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking.(62) This gives an idea of the importance of visual language, a precursor to written language and at least equal to it in complexity of expression, for a picture’s worth 666 words after inflation..

Kevin Zeng Hu, a Ph.D researcher at the MIT Media Lab, writes of images “we all know how unwieldy texting can be and how much context can be lost, especially emotional context. Once you make it visual, you have a higher bandwidth to convey nuance.” (63) Painting was already “at the service of the mind” and it was specifically the parts Duchamp sought to eliminate, the visual or retinal, that were the most essential aspects. An indiscriminate practice is the realm of Thanatos, daemon of non-violent death. His touch is gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep).


“Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, and in recent years a fierce critic of l'art contemporain, was a major interpreter through the 1970s of the work of Marcel Duchamp. He organized the great Duchamp retrospective in 1975 - the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou - and he wrote a catalogue raisonné of Duchamp's work… Recently he has come to hold Duchamp in large measure responsible for what he regards as the deplorable condition of contemporary art.” (64)

Art historian and critic Barbara Rose, reviewing that exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at Centre Pompidou, commented in her post script: “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.” (65)

Older critiques exist documenting conflicts in the 1950s. Thomas Girst writes “in 1957, Barnett Newman voiced his displeasure with the Whitney Museum of American Art, particularly with Robert Motherwell’s contribution to a catalogue for the memorial exhibition of Bradley Walker Tomlin(66). In a letter to John I. H. Baur, the Whitney’s director, Newman accused Motherwell of “smear and slander,” stating that he wanted to “make clear that if Motherwell wishes to make Marcel Duchamp a father, Duchamp is his father and not mine nor that of any American painter that I respect.” (67)

Four years earlier, in a similar rebuke at the Museum of Modern Art, he spotlighted that Duchamp’s works in that institution merely added to its “popularizing role of entertainment,” and asserted “that the American public… seeks more from art than just gadgets.”(68) In 1952, he confirmed that the “gadgets” of his scorn were indeed the readymades: “Marcel Duchamp tried to destroy art by pointing to the fountain, and we now have museums that show screwdrivers and automobiles and paintings. [The museums] have accepted this aesthetic position that there’s no way of knowing what is what.”(69)

Thierry de Duve

Thierry de Duve’s Kant after Duchamp opens with a quote Robert Musil that “art is what we find under this name, something which simply is, and doesn’t need to conform to any laws in order to exist.”(70) And all this time I thought it was science that didn’t answer to any laws in order to exist! Empirical beings answers to laws that define their nature; this is a bad start for de Duve’s book and predicts what is to come. Thierry de Duve wrote 484 pages of arguments for withholding judgment. Because one believes this, another believes that, how can we tell, how can we know, who is to judge? By what authority do we question them?

In nature prey and raptor evolve in step, so if we raise our standards then artists might meet the challenge. There’s an issue with de Duve’s strategy of introducing irrelevant distractions until the reader is exhausted. This fatigue resembles the gravitas of intelligent thought but is no substitute. de Duve’s thick book is nothing more than a paean to Duchamp’s erroneous dictate that we should not define art, but now we know that fails every reality check. If artists and curators cannot define art they become prey to predators in a competitive world.

Then an influential curator wrote that no one knows what art is anymore. How responsible is that? This can only chastise the art world; every other profession knows what they are doing. When no one knows what art is anymore then then professors should stop professing, asno one knows what to say. This is both inexcusable and unacceptable. If scientists can do subatomic particles then surely the art world can try define art.

John Cage

Kyle Gann wrote of John Cage’s 4’33” of silence that “it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments led. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music”( One story about Cage recounts his sitting in a restaurant with the painter Willem de Kooning, who, for the sake of argument, placed his fingers in such a way as to frame some bread crumbs on the table and said, “if I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art”‚ Cage argued that it indeed was art. Certainly, through the conventional and well-understood acts of placing the title of a composition on a program and arranging the audience in chairs facing a pianist, Cage was framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived. One of the most common effects of 4’33”, possibly the most important and widespread effect, was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art. Perhaps even more, its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between Art and Non-art is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions.(71)

When de Kooning framed toast and John Cage called it art, did anyone ask is it good art? Is it great art, fascinating, instructive, transcendent, transgender? What kind of art is it and how is that framed toast compared to regular toast? What intention went into seeing that small square of toast, and how does it expand our consciousness and brighten our understanding? Observation, seeing or hearing something, is not art. When Cage declares that this ambient sound is revealed by silence as music, that ambient sound is art, he has not proved those assumption. If ambient sound was music every sound we heard would be music, but that is not the case. Music is an intention. There is always an audience for music but little audience for ambient noise. Andy Warhol said about his films that they were more interesting to talk about than to watch. Cage created amazing works, but this one is more interesting to talk about.


It’s time for logic in defining art. We communicate through commonly agreed definitions that evolved in pearly times; one of these definitions says that art is a judgment of quality. The art of conversation, the art of influencing people, these connote a quality higher than professionalism, an excellence. Ideally art is born of skill and vision, of thought, feelings and sensations, and the emergence of contents from the creative unconscious. Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Kubla Khan spotlights this convergence of ideas and aural rhythm, and the resulting numinosity. Coleridge one evening was struck by an inspiration of wondrous words; “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree, where Alph, the scared river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea”.

Coleridge recounted how this inspiration was then interrupted by a knock, a visitor at the door, after which the vision was gone and he completed the poem from fading memories, and this completion is professional but feeble. The few lines of the original vision possess the numinosity of art, as much as poems by e.e.cummings, or of Edgar Allan Poe, whose raven ever flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. At best art is our best, at worst it’s passionless and decorative.


The I CHING or Book of Changes is one of the Five Classics of Confucianism; under limitations we read that unlimited possibilities are not suited for us; if they existed, our life would dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, one’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted.(72)Composer Igor Stravinsky writes “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles… and the arbitrariness of the constraint serve only to obtain precision of execution.(73)The difference between Stravinsky and Duchamp is that we heard Stravinsky’s music but not Cage’s 4’33”. When we must be told what to hear and what to see and how to think before we can “like” the urinal, that's no longer visual art but illustrated marketing.

In Global Brain, author Howard Bloom tells us reality is a shared agreement.

It was 1956 when Solomon Asch published a classic series of experiments in which he and his colleagues showed cards with lines of different lengths to clusters of their students. Two lines were exactly the same size and two were clearly not; the dissimilar lines stuck out like a pair of basketball players at a Munchkins brunch. During a typical experimental run, the researchers asked nine volunteers to claim that two badly mismatched lines were actually the same and that the real twin was a misfit.

Now came the nefarious part. The researchers ushered a naive student into a room filled with the collaborators and gave him the impression that the crowd already there knew just as little as he did about what was going on. Then a white-coated psychologist passed the cards around. One by one he asked the predrilled students to announce out loud which lines were alike. Each dutifully declared that two terribly unlike lines were duplicates. By the time the scientist prodded the unsuspecting newcomer to pronounce judgment, he usually went along with the bogus consensus of the crowd. In fact, a full 75 percent of the clueless experimental subjects bleated in chorus with the herd. Asch ran the experiment over and over again. When he quizzed his victims of peer pressure after their ordeal was over, it turned out that many had done far more than simply give in to get along. They had actually seen the mismatched lines as equal. Their senses had been swayed more by the views of the multitude than by the actuality.

To make matters worse, many of those whose vision hadn't been deceived had still become inadvertent collaborators in the praise of the emperor's new clothes. Some did it out of self-doubt. They were convinced that the facts their eyes reported were wrong, the herd was right, and that an optical illusion had tricked them into seeing things. Still others realized with total clarity which lines were identical, but lacked the nerve to utter an unpopular opinion. Conformity enforcers had tyrannized everything from visual processing to honest speech, revealing some of the mechanisms which wrap and seal a crowd into a false belief.

Another series of experiments indicate just how deeply social suggestion can penetrate the neural mesh through which we think we see a hard-and-iast reality. Students with normal color vision were shown blue slides. But one or two stooges in the room declared the slides were green. In a typical use of this procedure, only 32 percent of the students ended up going along with the vocal but totally phony proponents of green vision. Later, however, the subjects were taken aside, shown bluegreen slides, and asked to rate them for blueness or greenness. Even the students who had refused to see green where there was none a few minutes earlier showed that the insistent greenies in the room had colored their perceptions. They rated the new slides more green than pre-tests indicated they would have otherwise.

More to the point, when asked to describe the color of the afterimage they saw, the subjects often reported it was red-purple—the hue of an afterimage left by the color green. Afterimages arc not voluntary. They are manufactured by the visual system. The words of just one determined speaker had penetrated the most intimate sanctums of the eye and brain. When it comes to herd perception, this is just the iceberg's tip. Social experience literally shapes critical details of brain physiology, sculpting an infant's brain to fit the culture into which the child is born.

We add that humans are pack creatures, our expectations have a continuity reaching back to our stone age ancestors, our creative activity may be a social construct but they rest on age old habitus. Unfortunately these can fall to vested interests or self-deception, while a culture occasionally needs a house cleaning in our quest for truth. In the 1960s,Marshal McLuhan, in an observation often misattributed to Warhol, said that art is anything you can get away with. The art world had embraced alternative facts. When art is anything you can get away with, postmodernism owns the post truth era and the political turmoil of our time. Considering Barbara Rose’s statement of Duchamp’s name is used as an excuse for the most inane and vulgar found object in a museum, much of our Duchamp myth consists of flawed accretions that won’t stand the light of logic or scholarly research

There’s a huge investment of time and effort needed to acquire skills for traditional arts. Duchamp’s resurgence came with the proliferation of art schools in the 1950s-1960s, schools that accepted tuition fees in return for certificates testifying the graduate was an artist. When art became intellectual instead of sensory, it became clever instead of numinous. The awkward and talentless could now express themselves without excellence, the unskilled and unimaginative could copy art history, the dull could look wise, the academic insist art is only a social construct, all of them graduating with high marks, while in a rare judgment an article in the Atlantic by William Deresiewicz, titled “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”, described the best artist as a good salespeople and fanatic networker who attends all the right opening night events. (74)

When we read that Duchamp’s ideas sabotaged his ability, we ask how those ideas function, what they do, what are they’ doing to us? We look back at a 60 years of academics, writers and artists denying art, rejecting individual value, and demeaning personal taste. Is there something terrible about art which they know and we don’t? Why the self-loathing of those who deny our highest cultural values? In 2004 hundreds of the Britain’s top art experts agreed that Fountain was the most influential work of 20th century art. It’s unsettling to learn that scatology is the most influential attraction of our time; it means this culture is in serious trouble. Those who think art is to piss on should now leave the field to others with higher values.

Collapsing Monuments

Canonical Duchamp scholar Francis Naumann is a was also his friend, wrote extensively on Duchamp over decades. I emailed asking him why we should accept the Bicycle Wheel as a work of art? He replied that Duchamp said so and hundreds of experts agreed. For more convincing darguments he sent me a pdf of chapter 112 of his book, The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp. He points to the part where Duchamp retroactively declared the Bicycle Wheel and the Bottle Rack as works of art.(75)

It was at some point in 1913—around the time when he made his bicycle wheel assembly - that Duchamp asked himself … Peut on faire des oeuvres qui ne soient pas “d’art”? [Can one make works which are not works of “art?”]. He scrawled this question down on a sheet of paper, and wrote on the verso: 1913.[author’s note. We remember that Duchamp described readymades as “these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies..”] (10)

In mid-January 1916, Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister Suzanne telling her all about readymades and how he intended – retroactively - to include in this same category of objects the two works he had left behind in is studio (the bicycle wheel and the bottle rack).

Naumann concludes this paragraph with "It was probably while admiring its aesthetic qualities that he wondered, to paraphrase his words, if one could make a work of art out of materials that were not customarily associated with art”.

I emailed Mr. Naumann that no, that's Duchamp did not say that! He rejected aesthetics so would not admire them, and his words are specific: can one make work which are not works of art and would never be mistaken for art? Francis Naumann never replied.

Duchamp resisted certain interpretations of his readymades, particularly from those who claimed they contained aesthetic features comparable to those of traditional sculpture. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge,” he told Hans Richter in 1962, “and now they [the Neo-Dadaists] admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” In June of 1968, however, in the last televised interview before his death, Duchamp came to accept the fact that a viewer acquires a natural taste for objects seen over a prolonged period. “After twenty years, or forty years of looking at it,” he said of his Bottle Rack, “you begin to like it… That’s the fate of everything, you see?”

There’s no such thing as a product lacking aesthetics. In a peer-reviewed article titled Duchamp and The Science of Art I pointed out how we are our bias, our choice is ruled by personal and social aesthetic. “Aesthetics is a system of value judgments, of comparisons and evaluations that provide statistical data by which we organize sensations pouring in from without, and reactions emerging from within. Aesthetics plays a meaningful role in this linguistic theory of intelligence, because as a set of judgments it covers the entire spectrum from attraction to repulsion, from dark to light, and similar sensory dualities. Art and aesthetics are not simply cheesecake for the mind nor are they simply decorative. They are an evolutionary adaptation of the highest order in creating and processing subtleties of knowledge and complexities of thought.(76)

Glynn Thompson, who first published that Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven owned the urinal, has accused Francis Naumann if biased interpretation that ignores the facts. Francis Nauman said that Duchamp was deliberately ceceiving his sister and that Duchamp submitted the urinal. Glynn Thompson adds "Unfortunately for Mr. Naumann, the wording of Duchamp’s letter makes it quite clear that the sole individual alive in 1917 completely disqualified from having submitted this urinal was none other than himself: for in publishing the contents of the letter, in Affectuesuement, Marcel (Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1982), Mr. Naumann, offering no evidence whatsoever to substantiate his interpretation, declared Duchamp guilty of a deliberate deception, citing Duchamp’s statement verbatim, in translation."(76b) My experience with Mr. Naumann’s interpretive skills incline me to side with Dr. Glynn Thompson.

The take-away

Karen Kedney’s opinion piece for, 100 Years On, Why Dada Still Matters. “Dada was a reactionary movement. It emerged when a group of Zurich-based artists and poets—including Ball, Tzara, Jean Arp, and Marcel Janco—declared an all-out artistic assault on a modern society degraded by nationalist politics, repressive social values, conformity, and an overemphasis on reason and logic. They held this society responsible for the brutal war wreaking havoc across the continent.((77) Dada was also a rejection of logic, common sense, and similar bourgeois limitations, a return to the freedom of a child’s mind in an adult’s body.

Not enough research exists to determine if the post-modern nihilist, ethic currently the dominant academic mode, is instrumental in degrading western civilization, or if the breakdown of that civilization is mirrored and presaged in the art currently produced. McLuhan, Marshall suggested that “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.(78)


1- Richard Dorment, Marcel Duchamp: Art changed for ever, - -> back to top

2- Francis M. Naumann and Donald Kuspit, Duchamp: An Exchange, Artnet. - -> back to top

3- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, I like Breathing Better Than Working, p86, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

4-Ibid, p60. - -> back to top

5-Ibid, p45. - -> back to top

6-Ibid, p57 - -> back to top

7- Segal, cited in Wouter Kotte, Marcel Duchamp als Zeitmaschine/Marcel Duchamp als Tijdmachine, Köln, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 1987: p. 86, n. 236. Cited in Sylvère Lotringer, Becoming Duchamp, The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, - -> back to top

8-Calvin Tomkins: Duchamp: A Biography, page 159. Holt Paperbacks - -> back to top

9- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

10-Ibid. - -> back to top

11- Marcel Duchamp Talking about readymades, Interview by Phillipe Collins. p.40, Hatje Cantz. - -> back to top

12- Pierre Breton and Paul Eluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, p23, 1938. - -> back to top

13- Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture - March 10, 2015 - -> back to top

14- Dr. Glyn Thompson, Duchamp’s Urinal? The Facts Behind the Façade Wild Pansy Press, 2015 - -> back to top

15-- Stephanie Crawford Richard Mutt, What Exit, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University - -> back to top

16- Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa, Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—A Cultural Biography MIT Press, ISBN: 9780262572156 - -> back to top

16b-Joan Bakewell interview with Marcel Duchamp, BBC 1968. - -> back to top

17- Sir Alistair MacFarlane, Marcel Duchamp )1887-1968), Brief Lives, Philosophy Now, 2015 - -> back to top

18- Will Gompertz, Putting modern art on the map, The Guardian, 2012 - -> back to top

19- Siri Hustvedt, A woman in the men's room: when will the art world recognise the real artist behind Duchamp's Fountain? The Guardian. - -> back to top

20- John Higgs, 'Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century', Weidenfeld & Nicolson - -> back to top

21- History of cosmetics. - -> back to top

22- Dennis Dutton, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube - -> back to top .

23-Walter Benjamin, preface, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. - -> back to top

24-DADA Companion, - -> back to top

25- Rosalind Kraus, The Impulse To See, Vision and Visuality, 1988 Dia art foundation - -> back to top

26- Joan Bakewell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp, 1968 BBC ARTS. - -> back to top

27- Why Beauty Matters. Roger Scruton. Joan Bakewell - Marcel Duchamp at 7min54s. - -> back to top

28- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, An appreciation, p110, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

29- Kristin Lee Dufour. The Influence of Marcel Duchamp upon The Aesthetics of Modern Art, - -> back to top

30-Marjorie Perloff, Peter Bürger Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980, trans. 1984) - -> back to top

31- this entry was removed - Danielle S. McLaughlin, Resist those who put a price on academic and artistic freedom, Huffington Post, 2016 - -> back to top

32- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p76, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

33-Ibid, p76. - -> back to top

34-The Oxford Dictionary of art, ed. Ian Chilvers, Marcel Duchamp, p221, - -> back to top
Oxford University Press

35-Douglas MacAgy, ed., "The Western Round Table on Modern Art" - -> back to top
in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt’s Modern Artists in America

36-Alex Robertson Textor, Encyclopaedia of Gay Histories and Cultures, p262, Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000 - -> back to top

37- Alex Robertson Textor, Encyclopaedia of Gay Histories and Cultures, p262, Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000 - -> back to top

38- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p33, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

39-Ibid, p15 - -> back to top

40-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, I live the life of a waiter, p95, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

41-Ibid. - -> back to top

42-A 1959 Interview with Marcel Duchamp: The Fallacy of Art History and the Death of Art. Audio Arts Sound Archives. - -> back to top

43- Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, 24, Colin and Campbell 1982. - -> back to top

44 ditto, p.24 - -> back to top

45- Paul Dirac, The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Nature, Scientific America, May 1963 - -> back to top

46-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Intriduction, Robert Motherwell, p11, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

47-Dennis Dutton's A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube - -> back to top

48-Michelle Marder Kamhi, Why Discarding the Concept of "Fine Art" Has Been a Grave Error - -> back to top

49-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p12, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

50-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p43, Da Capo Press. - -> back to top

51-Ibid. p35 - -> back to top

52-Ibid. p36 - -> back to top

53- Sherwin B. Nuland, p47, Leonardo Da Vinci, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, U.K.2000 - -> back to top

54-Sir Alistair MacFarlane, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) Philosophy Now - June-July 2015 - -> back to top

55- André Breton , Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme– [Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism] 1938, - -> back to top

56-Katherine Kuh , The Artist’s Voice, p92, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1960 - -> back to top

57-Duchamp quoted by Harriet & Sidney Janis in 'Marchel Duchamp: Anti-Artist' in View magazine 3/21/45; reprinted in Robert Motherwell, Dada Painters and Poets (1951) - -> back to top

58- The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 164

59- Prehistoric Colour Palette, - -> back to top

60-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The Disclosure Of The Agent In Speech And In Action p175 - -> back to top

61- Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p278, Reaktion Books. - -> back to top

62- Albert Mehrabian - -> back to top

63- Lorraine Boissoneault, A Brief History of the GIF,, - -> back to top - W2SG7W2VZcchjom7.99

64- Arthur C. Danto, Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste: *A Defense of Contemporary Art - -> back to top

65- Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture - March 10, 2015 - -> back to top

66- Thomas Girst, Using Marcel Duchamp: The Concept of the Readymade in Post-War and Contemporary American Art, - -> back to top

67- Newman, in John P. O’Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990: p. 208. - -> back to top

68- Newman, in O’Neill 1990: p. 39. - -> back to top

69- Newman, in O’Neill 1990: p, 247. Newman went on to suggest that MoMA should “put on an exhibition of machine guns.” It bears notice that in September 1999, when the New York gallery owner Mary Boone presented Tom Sach’s “Haute Bricolage,” in which firearm paraphernalia were displayed and 9-millimeter bullets were placed in a bowl for visitors to take home, she was briefly arrested by the police for the illegal distribution of live ammunition. - -> back to top

70 – Thierry de Duve, Kant After Ducamp, MIT Press1999 - -> back to top

71- Kyle Ghan, From No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” Yale University Press, 2010 - -> back to top

72- Wilhelm/Baynes, I CHING, Limitations, p231, Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press - -> back to top

73-Matthew McDonald, Jeux de Nombres, Automated Rhythm in The Rites of Spring.Journal of the American Musicology Society, Vol. 63, No.3, Fall 2000, p499. - -> back to top

74- William Deresiewicz, titled “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”, The Atlantic, 2015, - -> back to top

75- Francis Naumann, Chapter 112, The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp, Readymade Press, 2012. - -> back to top

76-Miklos Legrady, Duchamp and the Science of Art, Contemporary Aesthetics, 2019 (partially supported by the Rhode Island School of Design and the Department of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo, SUNY) - -> back to top

76b-Glyn Thompson, The Magic Chef Mansion Urinal and Marcel Duchamp, Part Two. St. Louis.
- -> back to top

77-Karen Kedmey, 100 Years On, Why Dada still matters,, 2016 - -> back to top

78- McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (p. 7). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition


What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit


Destabilizing Walter Benjamin.

Paul Valéry's introduction to Mechanical Reproduction on

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931,
Le conquête de l’ubiquité.

I’m going to hurt your feelings and it’s going to upset you, but Walter Benjamin did not say what you think he said, nor what they said about him, nor what we learned in school. It is hard to believe that we were so delusional for decades, but medieval monks used to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; the human mind has obviously not evolved much. Our beliefs are in fact expectations that need correction with every passing moment.

Benjamin was a poetic writer admired for his literature, his use of language and the beauty of his words. But when great talent earn an audience’s admiration, our hero-worshipping public will then accept and believe everything their prophet says without raising an eyebrow. This paper does not condemn Walter Benjamin as a writer, it praises him; however it does condemn his Marxist propaganda in The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Marxist thought can be a valuable tool in social sciences such as political analyses and psychology, but it has suffered severe reality checks in practice and is no longer seen as a panacea or as the humanitarian bible it was once believed to be.

As an aside, Joseph Henry uses the title “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducability”. He writes “the title of the essay in the original German is “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” and its now the canonical translation following the work of Benjamin scholars like Michael Jennings. If you can read German, you’ll know the suffixes “-bar” and “-barkeit” indicate ability, as in “greifbar,” meaning graspable or available. The direct word for “reproduction” in Benjamin’s title would be “Reproduzierung.”(1)

The paradox is that a direct translation may not convey the writer’s intention. An immediate objection to Jenning’s canonical translation is that it is unpalatable, the language both awkward and inaccurate in conveying the intended meaning; Benjamin was a poetic writer for whom linguistic resonance was important; the “age of technological reproducability” is distasteful compared to “the age of mechanical reproduction”, and if anything Benjamin prized good writing. Jenning’ and Henry’s proposal reads like scholarly vanity. It was that kind of submission to canonical authority that doomed Benjamin’s vision, turned social science into science fiction.

Benjamin’s Marxist assumption of art is that of a process ritualized by priests to control a gullible populace. Benjamin then says that in the nineteenth century “the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever… the very invention of photography had… transformed the entire nature of art”.

Walter Benjamin has been praised as an early Marshall McLuhan, a social scientist able to discern the cultural effects of media. But where we thought The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was research similar to today's academic scholarship, it is in fact Marxist propaganda. As a communist intellectual Benjamin was versed in the classical Marxist tradition, Marx, Engels, their contemporaries, and then Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. History reminds us that Communists saw truth and accuracy as useful when convenient; here we find a political message that strays from the truth and then ignores it. We cannot read Benjamin innocently when the work has such political antecedents.

Benjamin writes that all we can ask of art is to reproduce reality, that creativity is an outmoded concept; his political agenda is unreliable. The reductions, contradictions, and leaps of faith are obvious.

In one of his last works, Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin seemingly doubted Karl Marx's claims to scientific objectivity, appeared to reject the past as a continuum of progress, even implied historical materialism is a quasi-religious fraud. But that comes later; Mechanical Reproduction is grounded in dialectic materialism, social realism and political propaganda. In contrast to the Hegelian dialectic which emphasized human experience as dependent on the mind's perceptions, Marxist dialectic emphasizes materialistic conditions like class, labor, socio-economic forces, denies individuals in favor of the collective.

Since then science shows Hegel hit closer to the mark; among the mind's perceptions, aesthetics and its complex differentiations are crucial for mental health. In the 1970s Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake analyzed links between beauty, information processing, and information theory. Physicist Paul Dirac said that if one works at getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has a really sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.

Benjamin was no beauty, he was an awkward man. Hannah Arendt writes of him that “with a precision suggesting a sleepwalker his clumsiness invariably guided him to the very centre of a misfortune” (2) For example, to escape the bombing of Paris he so feared, he had moved to the outlying districts of the city and unwittingly ended up in a small village that was one of the first to be destroyed. Benjamin had not realised this apparently insignificant place was at the centre of an important rail network, and therefore liable to be targeted. Arendt also referenced Benjamin with the same remarks made by Jacques Rivière about Proust: “He died of the same inexperience that permitted him to write his works. He died of ignorance of the world, because he did not know how to make a fire or open a window.”

In Mechanical Reproduction we see Benjamin as social scientist stumbling from one bad idea to the next. But here his misfortune comes from what seemed, at the time, the one ideology to correctly predict the future and bring about the true Bortherhood of Man (though women had already gotten the vote, the language remained sexist). He explained art as if Marx’s prognosis of capitalism and socialism was accurate, when it was not. For that, like dominoes faced with a reality check, both thesis and conclusions fall flat. The essay starts with flawed dogma, compounds the inaccuracy with layers of expectation based on assumptions until eventually we see the “prognostic” narrative as a fantasy, a tall tale.

“The criterion we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements is the criterion of verifiability”, Oxford’s A.J. Ayers writes in Language, Truth, and Logic. “We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person if, and only if, they know how to verify the proposition it purports to express” (3) Georgy Pyatakov, who was twice expelled from the Communist Party and eventually shot, wrote that a true Bolshevik is “ready to believe [not just assert] that black was white and white was black, if the Party required it.” In Orwell’s book 1984, O’Brien proclaims this very doctrine - two plus two is really five if the Party says it is - which he calls “collective solipsism.” (4)

On Bolshevik intellectuals during the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipe wrote that their criterion of truth was not taken from life. They created their own reality, or rather, surreality, subject to verification only with reference to opinions of which they approved. Contradictory evidence was ignored: anyone inclined to heed such evidence was ruthlessly destroyed. (5) In Mechanical Reproduction we find such beliefs, they are incredible without a Marxist indoctrination.

Another Communist writer who left the party disillusioned was Arthur Koestler. InThe God That FailedandThe Invisible Writinghe described the logical contradictions and resultingsacrificium intellectusthat Communist writers suffered. The unavoidable emotional damage may well explain Benjamin's catastrophic failure of morale and his resulting suicide, always a risk for Communists when they are left alone with themselves for too long. “With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker his clumsiness invariably guided him to the very centre of a misfortune”.

Arthur Koestler wrote of Benjamin's death in France during the 1940s inThe Invisible Writing.“Just before we left, I ran into an old friend, the German writer Walter Benjamin. He was making preparations for his own escape to England. He has thirty tablets of a morphia-compound, which he intended to swallow if caught: he said they were enough to kill a horse, and gave me half the tablets, just in case. The day after the final refusal of my visa, I learned that Walter Benjamin, having managed to cross the Pyrenees, had been arrested on the Spanish side, and threatened with being sent back to France the next morning. The next morning the Spanish gendarmes had changed their mind, but by that time Benjamin had swallowed his remaining half of the pills and was dead.”(6)

Benjamin’s literary talent shines best in Passagenwerk or Arcades Project, an unfinished work written between 1927 and 1940. An enormous collection of writings on the city life of Parisin the 19th century, many scholars consider Arcades might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, but was never completed due to his suicide. This extract is from his notes on Marseilles;
“the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth. When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink. This comes from the tartar baking hard on the massive jaws : newspaper kiosks, lavatories, and oyster stalls. The harbour people are a bacillus culture, the porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings. But the palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discoloured women of rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.”(7)
Benjamin’s literary talent and virtuosity sparkle with a genius, but in Mechanical Reproduction that genius was tortured on the procrustean bed of Marxist doctrine.

He spoke of the role of art in prehistoric times as a religious opiate, invented by priest questing for control. We know that to an illiterate mind, religion, politics, and personal life were entwined in mysticism, magic and gods experienced everywhere; a crash of lighting accompanied by horrendous thunder was quite demonstrative of any god’s anger. Art was not restricted to sacred objects, there was an aesthetic process in daily objects that gave them a beauty quite unnecessary to their utilitarian practice. The separation of the sacred from the profane in Western civilization did not occur till the Renaissance.

In clothing, jewellery, body decoration and tool making began the practice of an art whose etymology can best be understood when we speak of the art of cuisine or the art of conversation. We instinctively create aesthetic orderly patterns, expressions of an algorithm born in the depths of the unconscious mind. Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, who, in The Art Instinct, suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined, that things, aspects of people and landscapes that are considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human's genes.” Duton argues, with forceful logic and hard evidence, that art criticism needs to be premised on an understanding of evolution, not political theory.

We also notice music awakening aesthetic sensibility. In preliterate England songs were everywhere; the maid milking or the farmer driving his cows to pasture had their song, the soldiers had their own. The effect of music on the soul was there in primitive hunter-gatherer culture. It is likely a complex sense of beauty and a finesse of feelings and moods was awakened by music and art, this value put into both religious objects and daily usage. We question Benjamin’s oppressor-oppressed binary as the dominant process of culture and civilization. There are other drives and motivations beside class struggle; conflicts are constant but they’re not the only template by which history is read.

The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction opens with a 1931 quote by Paul Valéry that industrial technology is transforming culture so much that it may bring about an amazing change in our very notion of art. Today’s sciences of archaeology and psychology disagree, instead they see the nature of art as relatively unaffected by any specific technology because it is instinct-driven; the medium is the message, the art of our ancestors does not differ in intent from a work by performance artist Marina Abramovi. In Benjamin’s paper a materialistic philosophy denies personal spirituality and individual values; Marxism is the cult of the collective.

Benjamin’s preface therefore contains the seeds of it’s own demise when he writes of Marx’s critique having prognostic value. Marx described how capitalism would exploit the proletariat with increasing brutality and ultimately create the conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself through the worker’s revolution. What actually happened was the opposite. In Russia the serfs had been freed in 1861 and were economically part of the middle class; the 1917 revolution occurred not from brutal oppression and poverty but was wrought by educated generations frustrated at being denied political power. Meanwhile, dramatically contradicting Marx, in the rest of Europe and North America’s unions created a newly risen middle class, where retirement funds invested in the stock market also made capitalists of the working classes. The proletariat had become owners of the means of production. As a result Benjamin’s words stumble like dominoes;

the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power… or the art of a classless society… brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.
Today peer-reviewed documentation of genius attests to child prodigies and exceptional adults, while spiritual values create mystery giving meaning to life; these psychological functions cannot be underrated. When psychology speaks of art therapy the opposite is also true. Rejecting aesthetics and spiritual values degrades mental health, it lowers morale and motivation, weakens character, and likely played a role in Benjamin’s suicide.

In chapter 1 Benjamin writes that for the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions, this most important artistic function is later explained as an accurate representation of reality (chapter XI). Marxists believed consciousness to contain the sum total of existence, that conscious intent and conscious behavior were the sum total of reality.

Today we hear of an unconscious language from Albert Mehrabian, born in 1939 to an Armenian family in Iran and currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. He is known for his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messaging. His findings on inconsistent messages have become known as the 7%-38%-55% rule (8) on the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language in speech.Ditto the relative importance of the hand in painting; the unconscious and subliminal codes of body language in his brush strokes are what make Van Gogh’s work so popular. Psychology describes consciousness as always the last to know in the hierarchy of thinking, with unconscious processes accounting for the majority of brain activity, contradicting the Marxist dialectic.

It is in chapter 2 that we find the core of Walter Benjamin’s argument on how art is transformed by technology; “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”.The facts in the ground say that this is wrong.. Books are made by mechanical reproduction yet stories and authors retain their magic as much as any work of art. Munch'sThe Screamis known from reproduction yet remains haunting, as haunting as any Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.

In writing that the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity, Benjamin forgets that works made by the artist were of a higher quality than copies made for sale to the public by the master’s less skilled assistants; the practical standard wasn’t originality but quality; the master’s work was better than the apprentice’s. There’s also a point in that art has a spiritual element which is often reproduced by mechanical reproduction such as prints, a magic whose existence Marxists deny which astounds us in a work of art.

Chapter 3 offers a fuzzy definition of aura as “the unique phenomenon of distance”, that theme also present in Benjamin’s work titled Aura. “ A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be. To follow with the eye –while resting on a summer afternoon – a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay.” As Mark Twain quipped “The reports ofmy deathare greatly exaggerated.” The aura of art has grown rather than decayed.

Benjamin wrote that the masses on their assumption of power will no longer let works of art be kept at that distance, which supposedly created the aura of mystery. instead the working classes will own that art; this was expected to create a familiarity that breeds contempt, so reproductions would devalue the image. In fact the opposite happened. Instagram’s billion dollar evaluation reflects a public’s avid addiction to their images.

Benjamin talks of “the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality”, with a nod to communist thought control. Once religious mystery is dispelled from a work of art, art turns political to adjust the masses to a communist reality. It is worth noting similarities between Marxist thought and the Protestant Reformation, where Puritans stripped the church of incense, candles, rich colors and all distractions. The devout sat between whitewashed walls, free to reflect and think of God instead of being seduced to God by the richness of the senses. Historically, revolutionary cleansing seem part of an instinct to develop the intellect through diminished sensory distraction.

In chapter 4 the aura is also described as uniqueness; “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art”… mechanical reproduction destroys this uniqueness thereby destroying the aura. Photography is given as an example “The status of a work of art will no longer depend on a parasitic ritual (of authorship).From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense”. History has not been kind to Benjamin; an authentic print by Ansel Adams 100 years later sold for $722,000 because of the uniqueness of the work. Original photographs are defined as photographs printed by Ansel Adams from the negatives he photographed and developed.

Baudrillard didn’t get it right either. JeanBaudrillardwas a French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer. He is best known for his analyses of media. Baudrillard argues that copies or even forgeries were not as denigrated in the past as today in part because art was more the collective product of artist's studios, whereas in the 1980s art was supposed to be the "authentic" product of an individual creator as part of her or his oeuvre. (9) As we see below, he stands corrected. Lisa Jardine writes in Going Dutch

in 1617, Sir Dudley Carleton protested to Rubens that paintings offered to him as by the hand of the artist himself were in fact largely the work of his studio. Rubens was quick to replace them with works he could vouch for as being entirely his own — it would not do to acquire a reputation for passing off inferior work as original. In 1652, Peter van Halen, painter and Master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp purchased Brueghel’s painting Cattle Market for 204 guilders. On closer examination, Van Halen decided it was not an original but a copy. After three years of lawsuits, van Halen managed to establish that the painting was indeed a studio copy made by Brueghel’s assistants and was awarded damages.(10)

The master’s work was sold to the wealthy while studio apprentices made copies at a lower price for the public. Talent and skill make a difference today as in the past, though postmodernism has developed a philosophy that argues for a lack of skill. It fails logic since that which is done without skill is always shoddy.

Through chapters 5 onward, Benjamin writes about film as the final form of an art that dominates all other media by being the most realistic.
The age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever… for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter since it offers… a reality which is free of all [personal bias]. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.

That’s Social Realism 1920s, but today we know nothing is free of personal bias and we expect more from art than the obvious. In fact what’s valued today is bias and personal vision; Van Gogh’s paintings are filled with it and so is work by Anish Kapoor.

Benjamin saw painting as reactionary and film as comparatively progressive: “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie.” Viewing a painting is a personal affair; “there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception”.

We’re surprised to think of the masses organizing and controlling their reception… but the masse’s intake of ideology was important to Communists. So was ideological control by the communist party who, in the name of the working class, told the working class what to think. Benjamin mentions Duhamel’s reaction while watching a movie; “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.”(11) A film better lends itself to indoctrination because it is viewed collectively.

The Epilogue turns toword salad unless one understands the context. Benjamin was thinking of Nazi graphics, symbols and branding, as displayed at the Reichsparteitag orNuremberg Rallies, the annual rally of the Nazi Party in Germany, held from 1923 to 1938. They were large Nazi propaganda events, especially after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Benjamin follows;

The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system…
Benjamin quotes the insane Futurist artist Marinetti’s manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war as proof that uncontrolled aesthetics leads to war.
War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns…”
But in a Marxist sate “The work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.” If the artistic function is incidental then the work is no longer art, it becomes political illustration. Benjamin concludes his essay by writing “War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.” Later generation preferred TV and the internet over war. “This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” When art is politicized it is no longer art but political illustration, propaganda.

We can also learn from what Paul Valéry wrote, of his expectations that since our technology is so much more powerful than that of the ancients, the forms of art not only change but they transform us too. In retrospect technology has hardly changed us at all. Our lives are marked instead by the evolution of civilization, which does have its up and downs. It is not our technology that changes us but our civic interaction. Add aviation technology to local change and there’s global change. But the basic rules of who we are and what we want remain much the same, except for an increase in general intelligence and social awareness, an increase in our collective consciousness.

All conclusions must acknowledge Benjamin’s creative expression and the discipline of his political thinking, which lend a hypnotic gravitas to his essay. Marxism enhanced his credibility among the greatest thinkers of his times; John Berger’s major essay Ways of Seeing owes a big debt to Benjamin. Which also means that Berger’s views are flawed and invalid where based on Benjamin’s writing. Science disproved much of what Benjamin wrote, political realities disowned the rest; Marxism lost its aura after the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991.


1-Joseph Henry, “All Awareness Becomes Base”: Jens Hoffmann’s Reduction of The Arcades Project, MOMUS --> - -> back to top

2- Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” In Illuminations,
edited by Hannah Arendt. New york: Schocken Books, 1969. --> - -> back to top

3- A.J., Language, Truth and Logic, Pelican Books. p48, --> - -> back to top

4- Gary Saul Morson, The house is on fire! On the hidden horrors of Soviet life. The new Criterion, 2016 --> - -> back to top

5. Richard Pipe, The Russian Revolution, p.130, Vintage Books. --> - -> back to top

6- Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing, 1954, Hamish, Hamilton & Collins, p. 421, --> - -> back to top

7- Walter Benjamin, Neue schweizer Rundschau, April 1929. Gesammelte Schriften, IV, 359-364. --> - -> back to top
Translated by Edmund Jephcott. It has been collected in English translation in his Selected Writings II
(Belknap Press 1999).

8- Albert Mehrabian, Nonverbal communication, 2007, Aldine Transaction --> - -> back to top

9- Jean Baudrillar, Critique, p. 102. --> - -> back to top

10- Going Dutch, pps. 105, 108, 123, 124, Lisa Jardine, Harper Perenial, 2009. --> - -> back to top

11-Georges Duhamel, Scènes de la vie future, p. 52. Paris, Mercure de France, 1930, --> - -> back to top

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What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit


Demystifying Sol Lewitt.

Sol LeWitt was a friendly man, a great artist, his famous letter to Eva Hesse is poetic and passionate…in fact Benedict Cumberbacht recorded it. Can we find a different approach with Lewitt because he ‘s empathic? Everyone’s emotionally exhausted after this deconstruction of Benjamin and Duchamp, author and reader alike will appreciate a gentler, kinder approach. And Sol Lewitt was different; Benjamin was a talented and passionate, yet flawed political writer, a literary genius whose writing bent to his Marxist beliefs, while Duchamp wanted to destroy art. Lewitt on the other hand suffered neither handicaps, he was an artist who loved art and helped other artists, he was an art poster child, he led a good life, produced great work.

Sol LeWitt’s famous letter to Eva Hesse.

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing — clean — clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistent approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO

Sol Lewitt is a founder of Minimalism, his work is a geometric bridge linking visual art and mathematics. LeWitt is also a highly respected art theorist known as a founder of Conceptual Art, but unfortunately his best-known writing on conceptual art is flawed, contradictory, and illogical. To err is human, to forgive divine, but divine is outside our mandate; how was it Lewitt made great art but his writing is nonsense?

He wrote that conceptual artists were mystics and that’s not something we’d agree with today, unless we include all artists working with the creative unconscious, a process that can be described as mystical and spiritual. We also need remember that Lewitt did not sit and visually think his art, imagining his images from line to line on a mental wall,. Like all visual artists, he did sketches and drawings, made visual art; often a visitor would leave his studio with a drawing as a gift. And from his visual art one would never think of him as a conceptual artist. Lewitt is a graphic artist, his work is graphic art, genus Abstract Expressionism. Which could explain why Lewitt adopted a conceptual brand , hitching a ride on that new art movement.

Lewitt was obviously a graphic artist but so talented that his graphics reach the level of art, he rose above the norm and earned this global reputation. Lewitt may have been one of those able to bake a chocolate cake using only lemon peels, it’s obvious he had a gift, but at the same time there was something quirky in that head of his, his crayons always stayed inside the lines, as if his images needed discipline to tame a wayward spirit. In using the word mystic, he was obviously aware of non-intellectual languages such as feelings and intuition, conscious of the powerful depths of the unconscious mind.

Perhaps his misadventure was not of his making but that of his times. He was a fish swimming through the waters of art movements of his time; influential artists are often attuned to their time.

In2984, visiting the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, I walked in as Lewitt’s work was being drawn on large walls by a crew of assistants guided by Sol Lewitt. Since I didn’t know his work I didn’t look at the workers but did appreciated the work. Those pencil drawing enlarged to monumental scale made all the difference, created the a magic in his work; even his small drawings appear as monuments scaled down for convenience. Same with Open Modular Cubes, they look like large versions of 3D models normally seen on small screens. His work is art writ large, Sol was a monumental artist.

Despite his success and being one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Sol LeWitt didn't want to become an art personality, refused prices, didn't want his picture to be taken and hardly ever gave interviews. The film SOL LEWITT, directed by Chris Teerink, is not a biography, the work itself is the point of departure. The beauty of his work raises the question where the conceptual principles end, and where the quest for beauty begins. 'Conceptual artists leap to conclusions…logic cannot reach', we hear LeWitt say in a rare audio-interview from 2974. 'I really believe that art is not something that's laid down as frosting on the cake of society. I think that aesthetics and ethics are really very much the same kind of thing'. ."(1)

Paul Dirac said that when he found beauty in his equations, he knew he was on the right track to progress, and Lewitt correctly equates aesthetics to ethics, ethics being the pragmatic form of truth. There’s also Lewitt’s admirable modesty, his refusal to become an art personality, his financial assistance to numerous artists who never knew he was the patron behind some major purchases. Overall a poster boy in the very real sense, an ideal artist, and since no one’s perfect he had his flaw; his Sentences and Paragraphs on Conceptual art are refuted by experience and often contradicted by logic, as seen earlier.

That raises curious question about his writing and critical theory. He identified himself as a conceptual artist but that’s as open to question as much as his writing. While the letter to Eva Hesse shows a poetic side in shades of Gertrude Stein,, his instruction to art crews far away shows an organization of thought as clear as the architectural lines of his mural works. But when we get to his Sentences on Conceptual Art and his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Sol writes nonsense.

Sol LeWitt laid out the terms for conceptual art in his seminal “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in the June 2967 issue of Artforum. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work”. His “Sentences on Conceptual Art”. proclaim that “Ideas alone can be works of art. Ideas “need not be made physical,” he continued. “A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. There’s the possibility that the idea may never reach the viewer, or that the idea may never leave the artist’s mind. But all ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.”"(2)Lewitt was a major influence in the academic foundation of conceptual art. How would that change if his concepts were de questioned?

The introduction to this critique reminds us that taxonomy counts. An idea isn’t art, it’s science. In Wiki, science is “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe”. That sounds like ideas. The Oxford dictionary says an idea is a thought or a suggestion of a possible course of action. Merriam-Webster defines art not as an idea, but as a skill acquired by experience, study, or observation, art is a quality and a product. But all dictionaries agree; a work of art takes work.

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair."(3)

A fascinating tale revolves around this line from of his Sentences, where Lewitt speaks of execution as perfunctory. He addressed this numerous times in his career, each time the results taught him that cannot be. He was not satisfied with the results of his exhibitions unless his crew consisted of skilled artists who took great care and effort in the execution,. And yet he never revised Sentences nor Paragraphs. These primers on conceptual art are a theoretic foundation for undergraduate today, yet Lewitt may have left them behind as uncorrected mistakes.

Sentences no 28 “Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist's mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly.” At the time, LeWitt believed that with the instructions anyone could finish the piece. The Vogels bought the instructions for Wall Drawing 65 by Lewitt in 2972. Dorothy Vogels tried her had at installing it on a bathroom wall. “When Sol saw what I had done” she recalled, “that’s when I think he changed his policy – no more trusting amateurs."(4)

Conceptual art claims the idea’s dominant, yet logic says an idea needs a reality to distinguish a great ideas from a brilliant mistakes.

“Once you start working on a wall you start thinking in terns of the whole wall, the whole room, the whole building. You can't do all of this yourself, but it is a very traditional idea in art that artists have assistants and craftsman who are very good, sometimes even better than the artist."

He made a distinction between the assistants who could draw lines and those who could bring something deeper to the projects:

“When I started to do the wall drawings, I had the idea that if you can pass on the instructions from one person to another that they can draw a line or a group of lines or different kinds of lines, arcs, etc., and it is still true. But although anyone can do the kinds of lines that are very precise, only a very few people can do them very well. Perhaps your ten-year-old child can play a Mozart piano sonata, but you wouldn't pay money to hear it played. If a great pianist were playing it, then you would. There are very sublime ways of making these wall drawings that even I would never have imagined when I first started. I have assistants who are so good at it that I am completely amazed and in awe of the result.”

The final comment in his 2970 Arts piece introduced some readers, however, to the way that LeWitt's mind could sometimes be playful and contradictory, and the mystical nature of the wall drawing: "The wall drawing is a permanent installation, until destroyed. Once something is done, it cannot be undone." A point to consider in all of this is LeWitt's 2967 reference in "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" to the "perfunctory affair," in that all of the serious work on the piece is done before a brush or pencil or piece of wood is ever handled. This presumes, of course, that the "perfunctory" part is carried out by (a talented) someone who can make it perfunctory."(5)

Lewitt saw that the work couldn’t be perfunctory. And yet it’s as if t a hypertrophy of the intellect would not acknowledge a reality denied until then. Matter is vital it is the physical side of ideas, material is half the equation. A meeting with Dan Flavin and Donald Judd tested LeWitt’s credo that the idea was more important than the execution in a work of art. Based on the evidence, Judd and Flavin agreed with him. Lewitt’s ideas for his pieces, they said, were a lot better than his execution, which they dismissed as crude."(6) Perhaps the monotony of repetition bored him whereas a crew of hired artists would be highly motivated by what they considered an important art project. In that case we understand his intellectual art, and be equally surprised his intellectual expression was so vulnerable to critique.

In seeing how the mind works, the processes involved, Carl Jung writes of four mental functions; sensation, feeling, intellect, and intuition, each with qualities of equal value to consciousness. We all have a dominant function; some are more intellectual, others more sensory or feeling types. Jung also notes a person relying only on their main function is a rather shallow character… while engaging more functions creates depth of personality. For example when an intellectual listens to their feelings and intuition, when a dancer also engages their intellect, we have a well-rounded person.

The visual cortex is located at the back of the head in the occipital lobe; Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are language functions found on the left and right sides of the brain. Such areas can grow at different rates, and a weakness in one can lead to hypertrophy in another, as seen with legendary blind musicians Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. I suggest Sol LeWitt’s admirable visual ability counterweighed a lesser intellectual complexity. Not that LeWitt was less intelligent, but he was less intellectual; the exceptional complexity of his main function was a visual language processed in the visual cortex, leaving fewer resources for intellectual acuity.

Lewitt was capable of complex visual concepts and able to write instructions for the making of his art. But when he wasn’t dealing with the reality-based concepts of his own work, and instead thinking about what it was, how he did it, and why, unfortunately Lewitt lacked the necessary foundation and practice in logic and analytic thinking that would have prompted him to fact check his ideas. For that reason he fell back of intellectual mysticism, the writing of conceptual mythology. And so we come to this critical teardown of his writing, following which we may have enough evidence to understand how it came about that Sol Lewitt was such an amazing artist and an empathic human being, but his thinking was unclear.

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work”. Work can only happen by working, during which adaptations are inevitable, they’re improvements. The idea is always a starting point. When asked where he gets his ideas, Robert Rauschenberg wrote that "every time I have an idea, it's too limiting and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven't run out of curiosity."

A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind. The contradiction is obvious; if art is a conductor by that same rule any ideas remaining in the mind cannot conduct, so can’t be ar. Art is not a conductor but a judgment of quality; it’s the medium that’s the conductor. Idea are a precursor and art is the final product . Art is the highest quality of production.

Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution. Paul Dirac said when he sees beauty in his equations he knows he's on the right path to progress, while if beauty's lacking, the math is probably wrong. It makes sense to ask if this science of beauty also applies to art. The answer is yes, banal ideas are rescued when the work is guided by a quest for excellence.

Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” There are no conclusions that logic cannot reach, even illogical ones. Logic is pragmatic, and no one thinks of conceptual artists as mystics. If anything they’re seen as deconstructive rationalists. Lewitt may here attempt to account for unconscious processes, but he didn’t know about studies in psychology that would have given him the words to express himself.

Sol LeWitt laid out the terms for conceptual art in his seminal “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in the June 2967 issue of Artforum. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” which cannot logically be correct. Semantics are important here. The idea comes first, followed by work to realize it, and since no idea is perfect in its first manifestation, improvements are inevitable. The first state cannot be the most important because it’s always the starting point; when an idea enters the external world it changes by acquiring a physical form, even if that form is just a spoken or written word. Idea by necessity change because an idea is not work - Lewitt used that specific word; work means process.

A failure to appreciate tone’s medium would be a serious mistake; Lewitt avoided that in his actual work but embedded that error in his writing, and he failed to correct the published text once the idea was disproved. The etymology insists that art occurs in the physical world, be it the art of cuisine or the art of conversation, the art of medicine or the art of decoration. Specifically, it is the effort over time, the experience, which gives the artist their mastery. Is that final product less important than the original idea? To answer we consider the valuation implied by using the word important. Importance is that which affects us, and an idea that does not leave the artist’s mind cannot affect us and is unimportant.

If an artist changes his mind through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.” In actual practice it’s the opposite; it’s when you don’t change your mind that you repeat past results. As LeWitt himself revised his own work when problems arose, he really should have corrected this one . Unfortunately the consequence of his uncorrected and later disproved Sentences and Paragraphs was their influence on academic thought and practice. Art historian and critic Barbara Rose complained of ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops at the idea of putting a found object in a museum, "(7) today we complain of Cattelan’s Comedian, a banana that sold three copies at $225k each.

Sol LeWitt further confuses us when he writesthe idea becomes the machine that makes the art … Like an architect who creates a blueprint for a building and then turns the project over to a construction crew, an artist should be able to conceive of a work and then either delegate its actual production to others or perhaps even never make it at all.”"(8)This worked for Lewitt because his visual art stayed at the level of architecture, of straight and curved lines Yet it was what Sol Lewitt did with the idea that made the art; the artist was the machine that made the idea into a comprehensible project. The idea only gave him a start on the concept and the instructions he passed on to the hired artists who were also the machine that did the work. Except those hired artists were not machines They each contributed skill, talent, and their own interpretation when needed.

“LeWitt would provide an assistant or a group of assistants with directions for producing a work of art. Instructions for these works, whether large-scale wall drawings or outdoor sculptures, were deliberately vague so that the end result was not completely controlled by the artist that conceived the work."(9)” But Lewitt also made a distinction between assistants who could draw lines and those who could bring something deeper to the projects . Nor should we forget that in all these cases, the assistants are co-creators, although LeWitt denies credit both to them and himself… in favor of the idea. Quality must enter somehow, for without quality no art is outstanding, no art art stands out. Consider how work suffers if assistants are amateurs, or else poorly paid, ill motivated and uninspired.

“For LeWitt, the directions for producing a work of art became the work itself; work was no longer required to have an actual material presence in order to be considered art”"(10). Imagine an audience enters an auditorium, at which point the orchestra rises from their chairs and leaves, so the public could experience the event as a frame for the rustling of their chairs and feet, with the occasional cough. . John Cage’s 4’22 is clever but it is not a masterpiece; nobody returns for seconds; the work lacks depth, it’s a one trick pony. The magic of language is that you can say many things that make no sense, and sometimes we explore nonsense, but we should not take that too seriously, let’s not fetishize nonsense.

Dictionaries tell us that inspiration, (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. The concept has origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. The Greeks believed that inspiration or “enthusiasm” came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Inspiration is prior to consciousness and outside of skill (ingenium in Latin). Technique and performance are independent of inspiration, and therefore it is possible for the non-poet to be inspired and for a poet or painter’s skill to be insufficient to the inspiration."(11)

On e.flux in a conversation with Benjamin Buchloh, Lawrence Weiner said thatart is not about skill."(12)How can this be if one’s skill needs to be sufficient to the inspiration? The etymology of art is found in apothegms like the art of conversation or the art of cuisine? We know that what is done without skill is shoddy, which suggests Weiner’s inspiration is a lesser kind of art . He identifies as a “non-artist” and he calls his work “non-art”; simply put, Lawrence Weiner’s work is not art. It is nothing more nor less than what it always was, sentences written on a wall by assistants, is work is interior decoration.

Taking a position against skill, Buchloh also argues the slapdash look of Sigmar Polke’s drawings, which he admires tremendously, is grounded in a self-conscious avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh calls for artists to “de-skill”, to lose our skill in order to bring about a golden age of the simple mind. But then notice that Sigmar Polke’s work is juvenilia; he just never learned to draw. No crippling of one’s ability, nor downsizing one’s skill, will by any miracle exceed the mastery of a skilled practice. And that is the difference between one’s genius and the other’s lack of it. As much goes in so much comes out. Unfortunately In LeWitt’s case his brilliant visual statements garner such authority that his error-prone writing is followed without question or comprehension. Not such a good thing.

LeWitt again contradicts himself in “Sentences on Conceptual Art”; “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.” If the idea is already art why would it need to be complete? How can an artist have an idea they cannot imagine or perceive. Being conscious of the idea, knowing what you’re thinking, is a prerequisite to actually having that idea.

LeWitt retorts that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” There are no conclusions that logic cannot reach, even illogical ones. Logic is pragmatic while mystics are irrational… but we live in a competitive world of budgets and credibility, and we do not accept mysticism as the condition of conceptual art. As perceived above, Lewitt is trying to explain creative intuition while lacking the vocabulary that psychology had already developed for creativity.

LeWitt said art is about ideas yet it is vision that allows us to appreciate his visual work. Lacking vision or other senses an idea is not visible, nor can we see LeWitts work by reading his instructions, we see the work once it’s produced; his Sentences are “senseless” since art is empirical, grounded in the senses. Duchamp proved this when he made painting intellectual and was no longer able to paint. Sol LeWitt was an amazing visual artist, a visual genius… although Walter Benjamin writes that geniuses do not exist. Benjamin is a great writer denying reality, LeWitt is a great artist who fails at theory. Their words do not make sense and are debunked by simple reasoning, and yet so far no one dared judge and dispute these gods.

conceptual art

When the most important artwork is a blank, it means anyone claiming the conceptual mantle can no longer rely on Sol LeWitt’s assumptions nor Duchamp’s. One would have to answer how such destabilization could be justified when the theory contradicts itself, when Duchamp serves as a cautionary tale of how an intellectual approach is destructive to art practice. We need to reinterpret Sol Lewitt as a brilliant artist and an exemplary human being, appreciate his visual art and ignore his writing. His gifts were in visual language and he had a poetic mind, but he was not an intellectual.
We also bear blame for where Lewitt went wrong; the cultural canon and the most influential art theories of our time are flawed yet remain the base for academic teaching and artistic practice. Hence the highly praised yet equally deplorable state of contemporary art, for which we are responsible. For decades academia spread a cult of jargon to cover a lapse of judgment. That happens when the garage mechanic says your brakes are shot but people still go for a drive.


1- SOL LEWITT, film, directed by Chris Teerink - -> back to top

2- Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual art - -> back to top

3-Sol LeWitt, American conceptual artist and painter, The Art Story, Museum Art Insight, - -> back to top

4-Larry Bloom, Sol Lewitt, a life of ideas. p.99-100, Garnet Books, Wesleyan University Press, 2029 - -> back to top

5- Ibid, p153. - -> back to top

6- Ibid. p101. - -> back to top

7- Barbara Rose, rethinking Duchamp, Brooklyn Rail - -> back to top

8- Sol LeWitt, Rosenthal Fine Art - -> back to top

9- Larry Bloom, Sol Lewitt, a life of ideas. p.152, Garnet Books, Wesleyan University Press, 2029 - -> back to top

1-0 Sol LeWitt, SummaryThe Art Story, Museum Art Insight, - -> back to top

11- Wikipedia - - -> back to top

12- Benjamin Buchloh interviews Lawrence Weiner: “Art is not about skill. e-flux conversations - -> back to top


What If Duchamp Was Wrong?

Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit



Duchamp said we should not try to define art; generations of artists did their best, blind tothe fatality of not understanding what you cannot define. When no one understands what art is, of cvourse it becomes anything you can get away with. Marcel was wrong, there is no avoiding it. We should try to define art. We shouldn't aim to destroy it, to get rid of it the way some people got rid of religion. Brutalism has had its day.

Duchamp did that to shock, he wanted to Dada, and so came the rabbit hole, the great misunderstanding. Had the art world taken Duchamp at his word on destroying art things would be different today. Duchamp wanted to step beyondd the furthest frontier, but when you have non-anything, there is a vacancy or emptiness, a limit beyond which lies no new frontier but rather a non-existent waste.

Of course when you make not-art you have no art. But the art world, the academic-curatorial complex from the 1960s on, could not relate to the concept, couldn’t grasp “non-art”. Duchamp was an artist they said, everything he did was art… while Duchamp’s memory whispered no… no… it's "non-art". Fascinating note: Duchamp’s inadvertent guidance to contemporary art was apoptosis, non-art being work that has nothing to do with art.

Yet the etymology of that word art can be deduced from the vernacular; “the art of cuisine” or “the art of conversation”. Art is the highest form of any pursuit, art is excellence in achievement. So when Duchamp sought non-art, he sought, without knowing it, the opposite of excellence and the converse to highest achievement, he sought the worst we can do. Which explains some of the social problems we’re going through today.

Art! What is it? A strange organization of the physical brain, a biological evolution equivalent to the mathematician’s blackboard scribbles, art plans our future. When we seek non-art, certainly the future looks bleak."

Vision and Visuality