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Duchamp was wrong

all writing and images ©2021, Miklos Legrady.

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Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit



Let us not praise past mistakes

This book 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.

This book puts our gods on trial; Benjamin, Duchamp, Lewitt, Asher, Weiner, others. 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 Duchamp’s statements that he had tried to discredit art, to get rid of art the way some people got rid of religion. Or Benjamin’s dictum that all we can expect of art is to reproduce reality. Or Sol Lewitt, whose experience forced him to recant his Sentences On Conceptual Art.

R.A. Fischer(1) was a preeminent statistics theorist who built the foundations of modern statistical science"(2) 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.” "(3)

Cognitive bias is real, hence this trigger warning - Disagreeing withDuchamp is as offensive to the arts community as questioning the divinity of Jesus to a Christian, suggestionghe art world has taken the place of religion for cultural workers. Most students, artists, curators, professors feel disturbed on hearing that someone did not accept Duchamp as their personal savior.

And yet… on finding some errata in the archives I was drawn into a ten 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 book 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.

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 behavioral 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 book 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.

In 1968, the year he died, at a BBC interview Duchamp explained his life’s goal; “I wanted to discredit art, to get rid of art the way some people got rid of religion". And the art world gave him a free pass, made him a god and now teach art students how to follow that path. The urinal says that art is to piss on; what's not to love? But wait... why would an artist deny their vocation? When Duchamp said that it was the Dada talking. Unfortunately Marcel played the devil's apprentice and the devil turned on him. He stopped making art except for fidgeting with one piece for 20 years, instead devoting himself to playing chess. Considering that there's little creativity in chess we might conclude Duchamp lost his mojo.

I think we should take to heart what Duchamp said about getting rid of art and ask if that's our path, and if not, then why did the art world make him a god? The knowledge of Duchamp we acquired in academia is a myth of cherry picked stories, a fairytale woven by people with vested interests... means we see only see a fraction of a art history, as if looking through a few cells of a bee’s compound eyes.

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.

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, at which point it gained cultural influence and shaped social beliefs; postmodernism may own the post truth era...

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. We saw it in 2008 following decades of financial misconduct called sub-prime loans, when 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 this book is about.

Duchamp said we should not try to define art; strangely enough academia complied with a strategic suspension of judgment, a sacrificium intellectus. Perhaps that was called for, to break out of the box, iconoclasm for a culture that wanted to up its game. Perhaps for a while the concept served a need but then like the moon that wanes, our concept, having done its job, descends. We often do not see its flaws for the brilliance.

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 dissertation. This eventually led to a 2004 survey in which a group of British art professionals declared Duchamp’s Fountain (the urinal) to be the single most influential modern art work of all time"(4). It’s unsettling to learn that professionals can be so wrong.

First, the urinal is not a work of art. It never was according to Duchamp, he maintained till his dying days that found objects were not art, he called them a mirage.(5) Second, the urinal called Fountain is not by Duchamp, there’s solid evidence that both the urinal and found objects are by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a Dada artist friend of Duchamp’s who exhibited found objects a few years before him. Third, if scatology is our most influential emblem, something’s clearly wrong with our culture. Our most influential artwork was not art… yet we thought it was… not by Duchamp, yet we thought it was…, and please wash your hand after using the urinal. A group of professional art experts… sheesh…

In today's world, found objects signal a counter-aesthetic school within the postmodern. According to Jerry Saltz, the counter-aesthetic is now an epidemic. “Anarchy Lite; It’s everywhere, and it all looks the same. Those post-minimalist formal arrangements of clunky stuff, sticks, planks, bent metal, wood, concrete and whatnot leaned, stacked, stuck, piled, or dispersed. There’s usually a history straight out of Artforum or the syllabi of academics who’ve scared their students into being pleasingly meek, imitative, and ordinary.” Today we add an exotic mask or a broomstick tied with string. Language theory does apply here; a semiotic reading can no longer be ignored, and we can’t pretend we didn’t see it or that it’s unimportant. The urinal says art is to piss on.


We learn that Duchamp made painting intellectual and then he stopped painting. It is important to understand that he could no longer paint after he made painting intellectual. In the Cabane interviews, Jasper Johns says 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”.

It's interesting to consider that Duchamp's practice eventually blocked him from making art . And yet that didn't happen with the art world that had adopted Duchamp's philosophy. One reason was different goals; Duchamp really wanted to destroy art, whereas the art world adopted his ideas and practice with the contrary aim of making art.   Perhaps art took a dive Galerist and writer Reagan Upshaw wrote  “to say that most art today is mediocre is merely to state a historical fact – most art of any period is mediocre History will sort things out”.

What does this tell us about art theory and those artists whose ideas were seminal to postmodernism? Today we have readily available sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology to correct their mistakes. We need to revise and update our history books - we cannot keep grounding art practice on fallacies, errors, misunderstandings, or confused arguments. We’ll review Walter Benjamin, Marcel Duchamp, and Sol Lewitt, and their influence on Jasper Johns, John Cage, Benjamin Buchloh, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Asher and others.

The information I'm working with was always there, available to all and any, but awkward facts are ignored if they contradict established narrative; ill-fitting details are silenced so as not to shake the tree. Layers of anecdotes bury the artist under a cultural canon and contextual drift, old ideas lose traction, words changed meaning. There is a natural gradient to the corruption of ideas; in time most dogmas needs a pressure wash, it’s a Martin Luther paradigm.

Communication theorist Claude Shannon suggested redundancy as a way to correct entropic degradation, and if corrections were ever needed in the art world, today is always a good time to start. Principles of redundancy applicable to art exist in the standards of sciences like anthropology and psychology; such principles are also found in cultural values that were previously unquestioned. When “no one knows what art is anymore”, when “art is anything you can get away with” ,the language speaks of dishonesty; you have to “get away with it”. When standards fall the profession suffers.

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 and immortal mystery. These are alternative facts, Benjamin actually 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 does not age well, yet this paper of Benjamin’s is still revered by generations whose adulation lacks both scholarship and common sense.

Another highly respected theorist was Sol Lewitt, a brilliant visual artist whose Sentences on conceptual art and Paragraphs on conceptual art show a failure of logic; 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.

It was Robert Storr, MOMA curator and later Dean of Fine Arts at Yale, who observed that in the 1960s the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room"(6). This becomes problematic when the seminar undermines practice, when the school room takes precedence to the studio.

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

2- Efron, Bradley (1998), "R. A. Fisher in the 21st century", Statistical Science, 1988: - -> back to top

3- David Salsburg, p51, The Lady Tasting Tea – How Statistics Revolutionized Science. Holt, N.Y. 2001 - -> back to top

4- - -> back to top

5- See the Cabane interviews, discussed in the chapter on Duchamp. - -> back to top

6- - -> back to top



Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp

Destabilizing Walter Benjamin

Demystifying Sol Lewit


Deconstructing Marcel Duchamp.

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, which he called non-art. Our narrative remaps his place in history and sweeps away myths built up over time by academic-curatorial vested interests. Forgive me for shaking that tree. Many have said they don’t need to hear bad things about artists and certainly not about Marcel.

Rest assured that the good Duchamp has done did not get interred with his bones, as the darkness of one’s shadow comes from the brightness of the light that person walks in. And here we acknowledge Duchamp’s shadow, understand what he did, what he wanted, which was basically the opposite of everything we know.

In spite of his misfortune in losing interest in art, that event was the fruit of his ideas and the completion of his life’s work. It so happened that 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. He found that rejecting a sensory language kills our motivation, stops us dead in our tracks; “it was like a broken leg”, he said.

When Duchamp made painting intellectual, he didn’t know that intellect and vision use separate languages that cannot replace one another; the science was not available 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, nor of the consequence, we ourselves only see it in retrospect. Rejecting art looked like a shocking marketing tactic, a competitive career strategy, an extreme yet logical move in his desire to Dada. Shock tears the veil, the sheep look up.

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 forty years later).”(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 pay his living.(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’s is best known for the readymade, a found object picked up in the street yet now believed equivalent to years of studio experience and months of creative work. Til then, art took decades to master, Duchamp’s readymade seemingly declared mastery irrelevant. Still, an inquiry prompted by Duchamp’s own words is gaining importance and needs consideration. Duchamp always said the readymades were not a work of art. Only once did he describe ready-mades as art, and that was in an explanation on his retrograde belief that we shouldn’t define 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.

The only definition of "readymade" published under the name of Marcel Duchamp is 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 name, or rather his initials, "MD", André Gervais nevertheless asserts that André Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry.(12) Duchamp scholar Dr. Glyn Thompson commented on reading this, “the above is Breton’s second ‘definition’ of the readymade, which differs in a small by significant detail from the first, and neither are attributable to Duchamp, whose own definition, formed even earlier, totally contradicts both”.

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) The readymades really are a solid mirage… but art isn’t an illusion just because readymades are, especially those that are non-art. The vagaries of changing tastes 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 says art is vital to mental health; art is not a mirage but a tangible process and product. We need to finally revise our history and accept 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 looks like one at first glance . If it was limitless art could not exist - without limitations we dissolve in the boundless. Art is not an accident nor is it a found object but an intention, an effort, and definitely an achievement. A question arises that if the readymades were not art then why did others say they were, and why would Duchamp even deny readymades, his found objects? One answers that Duchamp called them non-art, seeking the antithesis of art. There may be other reasons.

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 in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture” 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)

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.”
In another account, Alex Ling’s ironically misnamed 2016 paper “Parrhesia” also ignores Elsa while deeply probing Duchamp’s state of mind in that decisive moment when he chose 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 is not crystal clear and the most precise explanation in the world 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 medicine, philosophy, or food? When a surgeon operates, 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 how Duchamp has been abused over the years. It’s not that we’re against deep philosophy or the quest for being, but that’s not happening when Ling is mining his imagination for details that never happened. Hes going down the rabbit hole. When top tier art writers like Gompertz and Ling are so clueless it's infuriating; he art world needs a shake up because art history is looking more like the history of vested interests; academics who cherry picked bits of history to create a false and flawed narrative to publish and keep their name in the light.

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. Gossip said he purchased the urinal from JL Mott Ironworks Company, adapting Mutt from Mott, but the company did not manufacture the model in Stieglitz’s photograph, so this story is inaccurate.(19)

My housemate Timothy Luchies wonders why no one has given any credit to the original designer, the technical artist who made production drawings for the urinal that Man Ray later photographed as Duchamp’s Fountain. 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 kept 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 the intellectual anti-aesthetic of an idea as non-art, the antithesis of art.

It was Sol Lewitt who said an idea alone can be a work of art, something all dictionaries refute, saying an idea isn’t art, it’s science. “A systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. The Oxford dictionary says an idea is a thought or a suggestion as to a possible course of action. Merriam-Webster defines art as skill acquired by experience, study, or observation, an activity or product… yet this definition is still unsatisfying as it suggest no more than mere professionalism. Having an idea is thrilling but needs a reality check, since an idea may also be a brilliant mistake. Sol Lewitt’s consideration that an idea can be a work of art is further disproved when we realize art is a cultural achievement, any achievement requires effort, a “work” of art takes work. Having an idea isn’t work, it is an awareness of content from the unconscious reaching consciousness; “it dropped into my head”. An idea is conscious knowledge but it is not a work until we act on it with intention and effort.


According to the science, art evolved as an instinctive urge towards complexity 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, 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 functions as art therapy.(22) This means denying art can have harmful consequences including mental illness. In Duchamp’s time, Walter Benjamin for example wrote that authorship and aesthetics were outmoded concepts.(23) Some years after rejecting the foundations of his own legitimacy, Benjamin suffered a devastating failure of morale and committed suicide 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 are not transformed but remain the everyday items they were before the artist supposedly "elevated them to the dignity of art”. Museums 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 to the complex iteration of a process involving the creative unconscious that psychology has documented and peer-reviewed. These broken sticks perhaps symbolize no more than that institution’s failure to understand the nature and function of art, the curators being 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. Marcel Duchamp promoted ideas as the most important aspect of visual art but ideas are made to write down, ideas belong to literature, whereas visuality is for seeing. If you remove sensation from vision you have a sight no longer sensible, and you've lost the incentive for visual art because you’re aesthetically blind. Vision is for seeing and there’s a reason for that.

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.(27) This echoes his desire to get rid of painting “for which there is no reason to exists anymore” I advance the assumption that this was the Dada speaking.

Picabia said that “art is a pharmaceutical  product for idiots” and the nihilism is typical of Dada It is likely Duchamp played the devil’s apprentice and the devil got the better of him In the BBC interview, after denying art, he muses on how “sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do.”  But now some fifty plus years later we have psychology as a science to interpret his words In multiple peer-reviewed articles Duchamp’s words fall into the category of being self-destructive His reasons are unconscious, as he himself admits to not knowing why.

We, on the other hand, have the advantage of hindsight Duchamp denied art  first as a Dadaist, then because he was looking for his own brand and that denial was shocking, finally because he, in his own words, didn’t like to work, he only worked when an idea came to him, and they didn’t come often, he said Obviously should you consistently direct your thoughts in a specific direction the momentum will eventually overtake you

Duchamp forgot why he lost interest in art, he doesn’t understand why he’s telling us that “there is an unnecessary adoration of art”. We ourselves would ask why does Duchamp dislike art, and the answer comes that he made it his brand And because he made disliking art his brand  he stropped being an artist and neither he nor anyone around him realized it. Instead numerous devotees across the art world will recreate his chess moves without realizing they are aping the failure of a once creative soul.

When Duchamp asks why this unnecessary adoration of art, he might ass well substitute spirituality for art. We adore art because it enriches our lives and leads to cultural development. Duchamp unwittingly reveals that he didn’t know what art was or else had lost touch.

Jasper Johns wrote that Duchamp wanted to kill art "for himself” which he obviously did, so be careful what you wish for. 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. It denies one's perspective by stopping sensory information and feedback. When you try and destroy art you may succeed. We must judge for ourselves if it’s desirable for artists to lose interest in making art.

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 the highest expression of a culture until Duchamp suggested iconoclasm as a higher expression Since then geopolitical forces led to a resurgence of revolutionary fervour, a resistance seeking 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)

Trashing the artist and rejecting mastery will certainly bring about a golden age of the simple mind but even there Kristin fails logic. She’s unable to explain what advantage come from an artist’s concept once there’s no artist to think of one, since a non-existent artist has no idea what they’re doing nor an ability for concepts. Let’s not fprget that a found object was previously conceived by a designer with a goal in mind. To claim that object is art when it is not, nor ever was, and to make such a claim by refusing to define art, is madness indeed, something to consider later on.

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 by what authority 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?”

The Public and Personal

There’s such admiration for Duchamp that any critique of the Maestro makes us defensive, threatens our intellectual investment, disturbs our comfort zone. Yet Danielle S. McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wrote that when we can no longer explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets.(31) If we fetishize heroes we are acolytes or sycophants but not scholars.

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.

Duchamp’s 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 lack of interest in visual sensation seems mirrored in a lack of interest in sensuality, although documents exist of a long affair in his life. His relationship with Sarazin-Lavassor on the other hand shows the coldness of an intellectual stance; we do read 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 deal with Motherwell, Cabane and Duchamp’s aim to tilt at the establishment and at the title ‘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. 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 come up with found objects or the urinal known as Fountain. The second shock is Duchamp’s ideas about art were not and could not be based on a deep philosophical understanding; the science was missing in his time. That science today confirms that contrary to Duchamp’s view, there is a biological necessity for the sensory art he rejected. Ironically, it looks like Duchamp proved that art is not anything you can get away with. Studying the archives tells us that while we made him a hero, Duchamp was really a cautionary tale, his ideas destroy our ability to make art, and lower the quality of the art we still manage to make.


He 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 such 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 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 ‘m where 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) (author’s comment: as an artist I myself work as much as possible, not for money but to map out any creative visions to it’s fullest.) Duchamp held himself at a distance from the mainstream. His father’s support meant that he did not face the financial anxiety 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.

Brain Power

Doing as little as possible was a devastating error. Our character, personality, intelligence and ideas grow from doing, engaging with physical reality, shaped by the resistance of matter, just as material is shaped by the ideas it is itself shaping, this empirical process is the nature of a reality check. The procedure has an organic base; the brain itself changes physically with the knowledge we acquire, brain folds develop and neural patterns grow around the function we’re practicing.

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.

This process of learning and the skills acquired contradict any suggestion that art is about ideas and not about the making. It would be fascinating to compare the visual cortex of an experienced artist with the population at large. The brain like the rest of the body is improved by practice, by repetition, by acquiring experience that turns into skill, knowledge, and mastery. None of that happens when you do as little as possible, which also tells a tale of a doomed genius. Duchamp’s early work reveal a gift for painting but it was a gift that perhaps came to him too easily so he likely failed to appreciate and respect his talent. Work is important. Practice leads to knowledge which eventually adds up to mastery, a process in which immortal works of art come to life. There are works that once seen or heard cannot be forgotten. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Munch’s The Scream. The 10,000 hours to mastery proposed by Malcolm Gladwell makes us wonder what Duchamp could have achieved had he worked instead of doing as little as possible. It’s not only knowledge that resides in neural networks, there’s a spiritual element in there.

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) There’s obviously no spiritual element here. Spoken just like Walter Benjamin, how wrong they both were, and how strange no one ever said so! A craftsman is a professional, yet ads for children’s clothing printedin newspapers, no matter how professional, do not equal Vincent Van Gogh brushstrokes.

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)

So the readymade denies art. On the other hand, historically all styles of art conform to specific laws, consistently defined with specific qualities, reaching back into prehistory. The readymade does not meet those standards because that is how Duchamp designed it, as not art. So no claim as art. Today we define electricity down to the quantum level; we also have more information than was available to Duchamp on the science of art, the history, biology, psychology, and on electricity; these all from later science. Social anthropology posits that an aesthetic paradigm gave our primitive ancestors an advantage in propagating their genes. Etymologically speaking, art means content from the creative unconscious transformed by the artist’s experience, their hand at excellence, and their breath of sensory appreciation.

In early 1900s, machine-made objects were relatively recent and trendy, today a deluge of cheap machine-made objects have reawakened our appreciation for the artisanal, the hand made, that Duchamp held in contempt. It is at this level that we learn to appreciate Duchamp, as we realize he describes the negative shape of art, that which is not art, and so we map art and it’s negative contour. Scientists often spend years on research that eventually prove they are wrong, you cannot reach the desired goal through such methods. Yet they still provide a major service to human knowledge, mapping the places where we should not go, proven dead ends. Duchamp mapped the negative space of art, his philosophies pointing to dead ends. For example his rejection of aesthetic in favor of intellect was not informed by today’s knowledge that aesthetics is an algorithm more complex that momentary consciousness, ditching it leaves the mind impoverished.

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) But is this actually good advice for doing physics? Most physicists believe you don’t need to chose between the two, that beauty is a powerful guiding force towards truth. It is likely the same applies to 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 mind. A review of language as the formative structure of thinking present the intellect as but 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 has its origins in biology, in bodily functions, since there has to be a language 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) gives us an overview of the evolution of humanity directed by the psychology of art. Aesthetics are 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.

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) Dismissing sensuality and sensory feedback and personal taste clearly degrades painting, because these are the fundamentals and parameters of visual language. Art takes intention and effort, cannot be replaced by accidents or ready-mades like found objects, in any case these also mean effort on someone else’s part. We can now say with certainty found objects fail to meet our definition of art, they are its antithesis.

Nihilism, sign and symbol.

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) Of course Duchamp lacked knowledge about visual language and how visual art actually shapes culture, which is certainly more than decoration for the living room. We must recall that as a painter Matisse out-performed him, therefore Duchamp had to produce an ideology that deprecated both painting and effort, allowing him to do less work.

To understand how Duchamp misread the art hypothesis, there are at least five modes of perception and expression that are not verbal nor intellectual. Body language includes dance; acoustic language includes music; there’s visual language, the language of feelings; the language of sensations. Only one mode is verbal, the art of writing, and only here does intellect rule in art, although poetic sensation and inspiration are driven by the unconscious depths. If we make art conceptual we make it shallower, reducing it by trashing non-verbal languages art depends on, that has always given intellectual thought its depth. The different linguistic modalities, the different languages are all crucial for best practice, we suffer otherwise. Unfortunately intellectual knowledge has as blind spot; we 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.

As we read the science, the archaeology and psychology of art, we learn that visual art including painting is not simply a “decoration for the dining room”, “cheesecake for the mind”; it is an expression of our highest evolutionary potential. In psychology, beauty is the genesis of art therapy. Contrary to common expectations, beauty is not a pleasure principle but an algorithm, a compressed judgmental code. As an algorithm it channels us to constructive attitudes that enhance productivity and has been shown to further the propagation of our genes; beauty can also straighten twisted minds, clear confusion and allow a greater adaptability.

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. Duchamp did to art what Einstein did to physics and Darwin to religion: each destroyed the foundations of a subject…” 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) Why do people write silly things that are obviously wrong? Duchamp left art to play chess, a game where creativity has no place, the rules being specific requiring conscious calculations. Duchamp left art behind and did not take it with him.

Duchamp did not destroy the foundations of art nor the hegemony of art standards that evolved since the dawn of time; he only destroyed his own ability, it was he who stopped making art, no other artists. The next 20 years playing chess is not a creative life, more a dopamine addiction.

Meanwhile those claims to extraordinary skills were not pretentious but proven fact. Michelangelo, Duchamp, and other visual artists including myself really do possess exceptional ability in painting, discrimination and taste; that’s what it means to be a professional artist compared to an accountant or scientist with their own skillset. Professionals and experts have the right, based on their experience, to decide standards in their field, to determine what is art, as long as they can prove their definition meets a reality check, and aligns with the functional role of art through the ages.

A work of art is a judgment of an end product, the idea is a precursor. The art of conversation, the art of cuisine, “the art of anything” means that it is the best in that field. Ideas and concepts cannot be qualified to see if they meet those high standards without the idea being expressed in the physical world outside the artist’s mind. I am surprised the former president of the British Royal Society didnot think deeper, and since his thoughts align with the beliefs of his time we will later examine how temporal belief systems depart from truth, and why no one till now brought together the facts, tested the assumptions of the last 120 years. Likely no one back then understood the concept of an anti-hero, an anti-artist who was interested in non-art. Another likelihood is that Duchamp showed amazing painting talent with Nude Descending A Staircase; that painting established his credibility as an artist, setting assumptions that everything he did was art, even when Duchamp said he was doing the opposite, non-art.

What about found objects? Why is it that today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice has consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art? Even if King Canute returned telling those sticks to be art, we remember that Canute’s waves failed to recede. It’s now an established principle that art is created not by the artist’s choice but their vision and effort, and only when that vision is transcendent and their effort is successful. Art is a valuation, it is a standard above the norm, excellence is its calling card. Even though Breton writes of the artist raising a found object to the dignity of a work of art(55), it’s time to stop thinking that garbage is art and that art is garbage.

Art and it’s evil twin.

What of an artist who does not achieves their best but their worst?
To answer that question we return to the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven.

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... (she) committed suicide 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, and those who met her did not forget her quickly. As Duchamp once said, “[The Baroness] is not a futurist. She is the future.”

Is she or not? Was she an artist orjust an undiagnosed schizophrenic? We look at Elsa because of the proliferation of found objects by artists, the garbage in museum collections today. As George Biddle wrote

“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?

We already know she’s responsible for the urinal and found objects, still, is a toilet the most significant art of our time? Let’s rephrase Biddle’s questions to ask if Elsa’s mindset was in advance of her time? Is her vision more suited to the punk era and the 21st century? Stated another way, since Elsa was insane and George Biddle approves her behavior in today’s context, do we expect future artists to smell bad, to be arrested for theft and public nudity, and to commit suicide in an insane asylum? Elsa lacks the discipline and intellectual ability of Frida Kahlo or Louise Bourgeois and so she drifted, a stinky madwoman eventually forgotten. Do we really want to be like Elsa, who killed herself? By now logic proves that trash is art only if trash is your highest value, which is rather unhealthy.

Taste and personality

Ideas are valuable only when they 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; 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, it’s who we are.

Taste cannot be the enemy of art - it is the expression of each unique individual and what defines you as unique. Lacking taste, one is common and boring. 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, “a pharmaceutical product for idiots”, as Picabia put it.

A 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 Paleolithic.(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. 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) Instead of admiring this subversion we question the self-loathing that wants to subvert and reject art; being subversive is past shelf date, been there, done that, it’s not the answer for today.

It can be argued that Duchamp destroyed art as scientists destroy objects, to measure their boundaries; in seeking to kill art he'd found the edges. 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 the system, it grinds to a halt. Ideas are what we write down, they belong to literature, not visual art, while visuality is the vocabulary of retinal art, the subject of vision.

A biology of visual art

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)

Defining our ability to define art

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’s Kant after Duchamp opens with a Robert Musil quote 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… This nonsense is quickly settled by evidence all empirical beings answers to laws that define their nature, invalidating Museil’s ill conceived statement. This is a bad start and predicts what is to come. Thierry de Duve wrote a 484 page book justifying his ignorance or that of his time; how one person believes this, another believes that, how can we tell, how can we know, who is to judge? This multiplicity of opinions on art, surely each as important as the nex,t by what authority do we dare question them?. And yet we can start by asking are these opinions of equal value, do they even make sense, we should look and see. A clue to why we don't follow through comes from the fact that through his writing de Duve engages in a strategy of distraction, introducing irrelevant facts interrupting the narrative, which eventually tires the reader. This fatigue resembles the gravitas of intelligent thought, but is a poor substitute. de Duve’s thick book is nothing more than a paean to Duchamp’s erroneous dictate that we should not define art. When we don't define art, our ignorance means charlatans hold sway. The idea fails the reality check.

Recently, National Gallery of Canada curator Kitty Scott cut to the chase on Facebook when she wrote that no one knows what art is anymore. This chastisement of the art world occurs at a time when every other profession knows what they are doing.Whydon’t artists? The science has been there, the psychology… the historical documents where Duchamp says he wanted to destroy art are there for all to see. R.A. Fisher’s explanations helps a bit; while research yields an advance in knowledge, this is untactful and feelings get hurt. Anyone aspiring to tenure will not contradict comfortable common beliefs and risk their career that way. Teachers vary, we should not be too judgmental, especially when art is something anyone can get away with it, which means so can we. However this can only occur so long as we lack a definition, standard, rule of art.

It’s not only our failure to learn what art is, it’s fear of failure if we attempt to understand it. Artists generally did not focus on intellectual practice but on the non-verbal languages of their medium. A sculptor had to know their material to represent content, a painter had to know brushes and paint in order to express their intention in a visual statement, a dancer needed physical experience to express their body language in dance, a singer had to… In the late 1800s “stupid as a painter” indicated the need for artists to up their game by adding intellectual functions; for that, art had to go to the seminar room, an environment focused on thinking more than doing.

All of our fallacies and resulting errors comes from our baby steps at intellectual activity, one always makes most of their mistakes at the beginning of a new project,. Our mistakes included downgrading our valuation of the non-intellectual activity that was the foundation of art. One wonders if the last hundred years of art theory is simply a manifold explanation for having experimented with taking nonsense as face value to see if it was as valid as sense, recalling the anti-hero, the anti-artist.

A sacrificium intellectus, a suspension of judgment, may be useful for a broader perspective, but that perspective must answer a reality check or else it fails the laws known through the evidence of our sense, hence it’s nonsense. The shock of seeing the elephant in the room does not justfy any further retreats into denial. If logic tells us something is nonsense and a reality check confirms that judgment, then we can no longer ignore the truth of advanced thinking in order to support the past. One wonders if the last hundred years of art theory was an apology for our sacrificium intellectus. No apologies are needed; one must test the truth but we still have to take the next step, which is to apply our judgment afterwards.

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)

We can seduce people into thinking that worthless stocks are valuable, but we’d likely end up in jail. Legal penalties for misinformation testify to the importance of accuracy, the legal consequences reflect the harm we cause others through misinformation. An intelligent rebuttal to Gann and Cage answers there is a difference between art and non-art, that is not merely a perception that we can control. Logic again tells us we don’t consciously control our perceptions though we are vulnerable to peer pressure. We experience our perceptions and we cannot talk ourselves into believing that nothing is something, or that ambient sound is equivalent to an intention, for music is an intention, an ordering of acoustic elements into a statement. Nature herself presents sounds as indicative of our environment, a kind of echo location of places and their features, as the call of specific animals, sound carries other information such as conversation. When Cage declares that the ambient sound is revealed by silence as music, that ambient sound is art, he is not establishing a a fact but simply making a declarative statement that needs to be questioned and tested, to confirm if that’s a brilliant idea or a brilliant mistake. If ambient sound was music it would mean every sound we heard would be music, there would be no need for the word music to exist. Music is an intentional arrangement of sound. There is always an audience for intended music, there’s little audience for silence as music. Cage actually proved himself wrong, he proved that sound is not music, the world disagrees.

Intellectual dominance hobbles the arts rather than promote them. But everywhere we hear that we can create our philosophies. In a classroom setting this is harmless, but in the real world ideas have consequences; Duchamp’s philosophy permeated the arts in the 1960s, a philosophy that said he wanted to destroy art, that we don’t know or shouldn’t know what art is. This Trojan horse snuck into the cultural canon and proceeded to destroy it from within, but we can now correct our lapse of integrity.

Reality check as definition of art

It’s time for logic in defining art. We communicate through commonly agreed definitions that evolved in primeval times; one of these definitions is that art is a judgment of quality. The art of conversation, the art of medicine, all speak of 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, aural rhythm, and the resulting numinosity.

“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 his inspiration was interrupted by a knock at the door, but these few lines possess the numinosity of art, as much as poems by e.e.cummings and the words of Edgar Allan Poe, whose raven ever flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. At best art is excellence, at worst decorative. However instead of cleansing the art world with hellfire, we can simply apply this standard of excellence as the definition of art, as our expectations of art. The art of medicine, the art of cuisine all speak of excellence. Let’s set standards of quality, that we do not dilute for the sake of social harmony, one would say let’s raise the standards of art. But since postmodernism denies these standards exist, we have to create them anew. We need standards to exclude charlatans, as architecture needs standards to prevent collapsing new buildings.

On limitations

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 did not hear John Cage’s. When we must be told what to see and how to think before we can “like” the urinal, that's no longer visual art but illustrated social science.

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 our expectations have a continuity reaching back to our stone age ancestors, are tendencies may be a social construct but they rest on age old experience. Social agreement prevent major delusions; we instinctively agree with intuitive truths. 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 being an excuse for the silliest, most inane, most vulgar found object in a museum, much of our Duchamp myth consists of flawed accretions that won’t stand the light of scholarly research. When Duchamp said readymades were non-art, why by did late 20th century culture ignore him and consider them art?

One answer looks at the huge investment of time and effort needed to acquire skills to paint, sculpt, dance, write, act, the 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 of quality, 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 salesperson and fantastic networker who attends all opening night parties.(74)

When we read that Duchamp’s ideas sabotaged his ability, shouldn't we ask how those ideas function, what they do, what they’re doing to us? We look back at a 150 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? Or is there something wrong with 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.

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”. Duchamp did not say that! His words are specific: can one make works which are not works of art? I pointed out to Naumann that he was projecting, it was not a paraphrase, it was not what Duchamp said.

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 of mine 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)

Based on my debt to him I invited Mr. Naumann to join me in a new definition of Duchamp’s work based on the artist’s actual intention, invited him to extend his legacy by taking a step further into an understanding of Duchamp, but he did not reply.

“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…. 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.“ R.A Fisher

Yet since I am indebted to Mr. Naumann for the grounds on which I made my own observations, I wish to share credit with him for what comes next and thank him for his assistance, for without him the shoulders of giants would not have been there. I believe that once past the surprise of such a dramatic change in previous beliefs, his knowledge will add to our direction in the future just as he has contributed till now. We will review our Duchamp, ask ourselves what he actually said and what he actually wanted even if he himself wasn’t sure; we have the hindsight of history, we’re also able to determine what his intentions lead to.

Non-art, anti-artist

The only possible observation is Duchamp’s consistent statement that he sought non-art, that which was not art, he sought what existed outside art. It’s what he said. Let’s unpack that narrative.

We recall above that 1959 Audio Art interview where Duchamp had sought todeny the possibility of defining art, even as he tried to clarify our understanding of art, without defining it. “What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.”(77) ,

To actually face the words of the master inspire deep awe, until we realize Duchamp contradicts physics, psychology, and the scientific evidence of art social role and evolution through history, and then we see that what Duchamp said is just plain wrong. We need to get habituated to the idea that an anti-artist will be anti-right, which is wrong, Duchamp becomes art’s evil twin, a rebel whose cause went contrary to expectations. But we need to get used to the fact that our god was often wrong, in fact he delighted in doing wrong and exploring this contradiction.

Logic tells that throughout history, as artists were hired to make art, it was expected the work would be sublime; quality was expected and demanded. Artists must be skilled, for everything done without skill is shoddy. If art is bad or indifferent it’s a failure. Emotions or art, we can’t ignore their quality even if Duchamp and Benjamin, Dada and Marxism profess an indifference to it.. A decision to judge art restarts postmodernism else precipitates an entirely new movement. Let’s review what we know.

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.

Rosalind Krauss mentioned that (except for Mondrian and Seurat) Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work.

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”… ”I wanted destroy art, to get rid of art the way some people got rid of religion”.

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”.

In a highly competitive field, Matisse outperformed him. “I did as few things as possible, which isn’t like the current attitude of making as much as you can…

Like all of us Duchamp could be competitive; the desire for fame, recognition, influence, according to some, is the noblest of motivations,. The Greeks held no man worthwhile unless involved in the politics and administration of the city-state. There was much leeway. Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragic poets of Ancient, 485 or 480 B.CE.. was a well known recluse, but his plays profoundly influenced drama down to modern times, especially in the representation of traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In the long run fame is the highest level of peer review. Since the mind has an infinite capacity to fool itself everyone appreciates a public confirmation of our accomplishments.

Duchamp was unfortunate in having his father’s support; not having to work he did as few things as he could. Pablo Casals was regarded as one of the greatest cello players; he studied and practiced every day for a dozen years before performing his work. Asked why he continued to practice at age 90 he said, "because I think I'm making progress”. Excellence in traditional media requires constant practice and production, while having an idea is independent of our volition and comes when it wants.

In an intellectual art Duchamp had found his niche, such a contradiction ideologically placing him in the center of Dada. “To get away from the physical aspect of painting, I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products”.

It also reduced his work load; in the Cabane interviews he said he only worked when an idea came to him, and often none did. The encouragement or setbacks of fate and chance shape tour destiny. Duchamp was attuned to his time, when a respect for science distanced itself from the artisanal and sensory values such as beauty. Duchamp’s first kudos in art came from a painting; Nude Descending A Staircase. Duchamp shows exceptional visual talent, placing him among the best, but he disdained painting. Perhaps a disconnect between his visual cortex and the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center, and he also didn’t like to be touched, cultivated a slightly detached persona. As an accredited artist his intellectual attitude to art fit a social need and was instantly rewarded.

A successful rejection of traditional practice encouraged more of the same, so Duchamp sought other directions that were non-art, objects “that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies. The term readymade came to me then”. Unfortunately, in this iconoclasm Duchamp fell down the rabbit hole (and the art world followed), none among us can always keep a straight head.

Duchamp developed a dislike of the sensory aspect of visual language, and then of art itself, tried to destroy art and get rid of it, as he said himself. This makes sense in the context of Dada and it’s influence. Typical of articles published in 2016 is 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.(78) Dada was also a rejection of logic, common sense, and other bourgeois values, a return to the freedom of a child’s mind in an adult’s body.

Dada wasn’t the only game in town; other plays appear. Science at the turn of the 200th century was high-status, while the expression “stupid as a painter” implied the non-verbal art community would have to develop their intellectual faculty. Of course non-verbal languages can contain an even more complex narrative than a verbal intellectual thought, so it is not that painters were stupid. Rather this was one of those great historical movements, an expansion of art’s consciousness ; the addition of a conceptual language, of the intellect, had become necessary for the arts to progress further. And of course the first time you try something you botch it up, and may repeat your mistake for a hundred years until the answer finally pops into your head, as a result of trying out and rejecting one possibility after another. We may often take wrong turns, in fact they are all wrong turns except for one, but each error maps the territory so we have a larger picture and better idea of our concept’s structural integrity, it’s philosophies.

Perhaps the most curious aspect is that Duchamp’s iconoclasm was never seen in context, nor the consequences of that iconoclasm, to the point that some despair at aspects of postmodern contemporary art. It is obvious that Duchamp’s philosophy went unquestioned. The shock of nihilism, the Fountain, that art is something to piss on, that if we refuse to define what art is then charlatans hold sway, that a denial of pragmatic sense, when pursued in vitro such as with art, will break out of it’s academic constraints and go on to infect an entire society. For it could be that art is where our collective consciousness maps out our future steps. The dark side of current North American politics is the promotion of delusions, and postmodern delusions first emerged in the arts.

The anti-hero first appeared in 1714 in works such as Rameau's Nephew. A protagonist who sometimes perform actions that are morally correct, but not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes. Duchamp is poster child for such a role, an anti-hero anti-artist who explored making non art. Then Duchamp quit art to play chess.

And yet, for the next twenty years, in a small room behind his now empty studio, he poked at Étant donnés as if trying to revive a lost relationship, but like any spurned lover the muse was gone and she wasn’t coming back. His ideas had hurt him like a broken leg, and it took us a hundred years to notice. If you say art is not worth making and you repeat it often enough, you will eventually believe yourself and lose interest in making art, even lose interest in making non-art, it’s evil twin. Someone as gifted as Duchamp, as influential, cannot help but succeed at anything he puts his heart into, and since destroying art was his wish,
destroying art is what he got.

Duchamp effectively mapped out the region of non-art, that which isn’t art,
explored numerous tropes that were not art or that undermine art.

1-readymades and appropriation,

2-rejecting one’s taste, feelings, sensibility,
i.e. taking the artist out of the equation,

3-rejecting non-verbal languages like the retinal,

4- denying quality judgments and definitions of art,

5- making art predominantly intellectual,

6-deploying deconstructive strategies
to destroy, demean, and discredit art.

Duchamp then lost interest in art, which is what wed expect from someone continually discrediting art. He is not a trailblazer... but a cautionary tale who did everything one should avoid; his experiments clearly mapped out concepts and directions toxic to art that should be circumvented instead of followed. Ask yourself what Duchamp would have done, then run for the hills.


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

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- 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

77-The Creative Act by Marcel Duchamp - -> back to top

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



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

- -> back to top



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 book 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



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."