Rhona Wenger, Director email@example.com
Grimsby Public Art Gallery
18 Carnegie Lane, Grimsby,
Ontario, L3M 1Y1
Presented by Miklos Legrady, website
as the 2018 opening lecture at the Art House Café Lecture Series,
Who proved that art isn’t anything you can get away with.
(Sound of orchestra tuning up)
Good evening and thank you for joining us.
It’s not true that we’re entitled to our own opinion. Patrick Stokes writes in The Conversation that we are only entitled to an opinion for which we can provide a convincing and intelligent argument.000 Five years ago I started writing about art as a logical reaction to an illogical world, and before we jump into Duchamp I'd like to share a few example that I see as his legacy. Rest assured that if I say anything shocking, or outside of standard history, proof and explanation will follow soon after. The art world, it seems, is in trouble, and I'm not alone in thinking so. “Mr. Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, and in recent years a fierce critic of l’art contemporain, was a major interpreter of the work of Marcel Duchamp. He organized the Duchamp retrospective which was the inaugural exhibition at the Centre George 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.”00
I’d also read an article in the Atlantic by William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.01 He says an artist is just a business person who profits from creative work, a line straight out of Duchamp or Walter Benjamin. William Deresiewicz (not an artist, a literary man) compares the sad state of visual art today(!) to how literature still fascinates us. He writes that art is now universal, it looks the same on every continent, often the work is glanced at only for a minute,(!) while books can hold our attention for weeks.
Another sign that art has issues comes from Dario Gamboni writing about a sculpture exhibition in Bienne, Switzerland, a city known for high tech steel and space age technology. The typically law-abiding Swiss citizens destroyed or vandalized 44 outdoor sculptures out of 177. Gamboni admits the only vandalized works were those made of trash from the town garbage dump, but the trash had been certified as art by experts. He was surprised the townspeople couldn’t get that. Gamboni thinks these engineers lack the sophistication to see garbage as their highest cultural achievement...02 a concept the Readymades had legitimized. If Duchamp said that garbage was art, who are we to object? In the Cabane interviews Duchamp said the readymades, the found objects, were never art, they were chosen as a pastime because they could have nothing to do with art. As Duchamp said garbage is not art, the Swiss citizens were right to protest garbage being foisted on them as their highest cultural achievement; Gamboni was wrong. But no one noticed, they're still promoting fake art.
The National Gallery of Canada proudly notes that their acquisition Trailer, by Geoffrey Farmer, is not a real trailer but a fake. It cost them a fortune and that is how we know the fake trailer is real art. They would not spend a fortune on a fake trailer that was fake art, or would they? Perhaps they would, because that’s postmodernism.
“Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling…” so Roger Scrutton writes in aeon; “ Anyone can lie. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but the fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted."03
In Canada, fake art is encouraged by some curators who see it as a brilliant art strategy they take pride in, they consider it a legitimate conceptual strategy, this complicity to feel what we cannot feel and to believe what we cannot believe. They need to think a step further; for if fake art is legitimized, then art loses much of its trustworthiness. It's the paradox of the tolerant society that must reject the intolerant among them to survive. Even if Duchamp said contrary.
Postmodernism is dominant today and it means that destabilizing art seems to be the highest stage of scholarship. Imagine if we end this lecture right now, in order to destabilize your cultural conventions, and you have to go back out into the cold, but I still get a lecture fee, or if we cut pictures from art books and hang them without further explanation, to destabilize your viewing conventions, but the artist still gets an artist’s fee? You’d be confused - creating that confusion is today’s hottest postmodern strategy. Purposefully doing something that cannot be understood, to strategically confuse the audience, proves the artist’s higher intelligence; art today is about being intelligent, conceptual art is about the idea. When you make an idea strategically incomprehensible, you are indebted to Marcel Duchamp and his Large Glass, which was built on these principles, as we see later. Be warned, this study has upset some people… and to understand why, we need to take a step back in time.
In 1947 statistician R.A. Fischer04 was invited to give a series of talks on BBC radio about the nature of science and scientific investigation and his words are as valid for art 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 upheld are shown to be either obsolete or false. Most people, I think, can take it in good part if what they have been teaching for ten or twenty years needs a little revision but some will take it hard, as an invasion of the territory they have come to think of exclusively as their own, and they must react with the same ferocity as animals whose territory is invaded. I do not think anything can be done about it… but we should be warned and advised - that when someone has a discovery to offer for the enrichment of humanity, some people will certainly wish to discredit that person and shred them to bits.”
We’d like to believe an entire profession of artists, editors, curators, and professors can’t all be wrong at the same time. But then remember the 2009 sub-prime loan crisis. That financial collapse took ten years to build during which an entire profession of bankers believed delusions that eventually crashed the global banking system… and artists love to wear the emperor’s new clothes. It is plausible the art world you know has been delusional for decades, causing serious cultural damage.
And so we come to Duchamp (born 1887- died 1968).
Here’s a different point of view, Duchamp is not the man we know. That persona, the way that we know him, is a cultural construct created by himself and also by other artists and critics with their own agenda, their career, their own brand to promote. It will sound like I’m talking trash about Duchamp - because we’re so used to hearing him praised and few have critiqued him, although we all have access to the same historical documents. People generally skip over and ignore facts that don’t fit the myth, and that’s how narrative drift happens.
Duchamp was very much a talented painter, a classic genius, it's evident in traditional work like this portrait of his father. It’s ironic Duchamp was able to paint with such ease he took his talent for granted and denied its value. That could be at first to “épater la bourgeoisie”, Nude Descending a Staircase was shocking at the time - walking down a staircase was not a dignified bourgeois pose for a nude.
We’re also aware that Fountain was not originally Duchamp’s idea. In a letter dated April 11th, 1917, two days before Fountain was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in New York,06 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne Duchamp to tell her "one of my female friends, under the masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture".07There are a few contenders for the title but Fountain is likely by Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, also known for another plumbing work called God. This work is perfect Dada.
Often a work of art starts as an unconscious whim and concretizes over time into a finished work that is obvious. This wasn’t the case for his found objects; Duchamp said “The curious thing about the Readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me.”12 Duchamp must have sensed that if a Readymade was art, finding an object would be as valuable as months of studio work, one’s vision would be meaningless, and artists would settle for the attainable. A troublesome speculation that must have disturbed him as it did others.
In Dario Gamboni’s ‘The Destruction of Art’, Duchamp at the end of his life attempted another explanation, yet inconsistent with previous ones, “ that his Readymades had aimed at drawing ‘the attention of people to the fact that art is a mirage even if ‘a solid one’”,12 When Duchamp denied art he was misinformed, but the Readymade were obviously a solid mirage, not being art, yet people insisted.
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. 14
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. It’s didn’t happen, it cannot because it makes no sense, and by now we know that lacking sense does not make a work of art, even among curators who sincerely believe it does. That which lacks sense is senseless, while art is our highest spiritual expression, they’re polar opposite. It is not the artist’s 'choice' that makes a work of art, but their vision and effort, and only when that vision is transcendent and that effort is successful.
Art historian and critic Barbara Rose wrote: “What was done in Duchamp’s name… was responsible for some of the 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.”15 Jerry Saltz calls it Anarchy Lite and he sounds like he just returned from the Canadian pavilion at Venice; “it's everywhere, and it all looks the same. Those post-minimalist formal clumps of broken 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."16
For Duchamp the Readymade were a pastime, but for us they create a nasty case of cultural pollution. Game theory predicts that if art is anything you can get away with, then the worst you can get away with is always the best strategy, creating dominos of devaluation. Today’s theory is grounded in a misconception that Duchamp said the Readymade and found objects were art, when he didn’t and they are not.
In Duchamp’s time Walter Benjamin was writing that the only purpose of art is to reproduce reality like a camera does, and the only genuine art was made by a workers’ committee, as propaganda to control the masses. “The art of the proletariat… the art of the working class, brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.”17
Duchamp also denied genius, creativity, and authorship. “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.”18 That would mean Michelangelo was another craftsman making things in marble, mostly statues. Duchamp saying this does NOT make it right. Again there’s a science of psychology on the creative process in hundreds of artists and scientists, rejecting both Benjamin and Duchamp’s assumptions. It becomes obvious that here Duchamp is not always the brilliant thinker who can teach us how see art, sometimes he was just another guy with a bad attitude, at a time when the dangers of nihilism were not fully understood. Around this time Marie Currie, who discovered radioactivity, was handling radium with her bare hands and it killed her.
Robert Motherwell said “Duchamp was the great saboteur, the relentless enemy of painterly painting… His disdain for sensual painting was… intense.”19 Duchamp’s ideas could not be based on a deep philosophical understanding of art; reason being the science was missing in his time to confirm the biological necessity of the sense-based art he rejected. And when 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”20, he was unaware that visual language was unconsciously at the service of the mind and the retinal aspect of painting he wanted to get away from were the core and essence of visual art.
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… (he’s recommending that painting be degraded to illustration) It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.” [Cabane’s footnote; 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 living room. Art is taking on more the form of a sign, if you wish; it’s no longer reduced to a decoration…” 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…21 The Coffee Grinder. It was there I was able to get rid of tradition by this linear method.”22
Science says Duchamp hitched his wagon to the wrong star and exhausted his ability to make art. Neuroscientists in Great Britain have discovered that the same part of the brain that is activated by art and music, known as the medial orbito-frontal cortex, was activated in the brains of mathematicians when they looked at math they regarded as beautiful.23 For an overview of the psychology of art there’s also Dennis Dutton’s Ted Talk on youtube, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty.24 Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote that “every perceptual experience we have is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration–an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, dark and light, feelings, temperature, smells, physical awareness, all 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… art is not mere “cheesecake” for the mind. It is instead a cultural adaptation of great significance.”25
Archaeology says that painting goes back 100,000 years or more, not just 500… that art is biologically specific, crucial for evolution, has subliminal components and is vital for mental health. Visual art is not simply a “decoration for the dining room”; it is an expression of our highest evolutionary potential. Instead of painting now taking on the form of a sign as Duchamp wanted, a semiotic reading shows that painting is a symbol, it is composed of signs, so painting cannot be reduced to a sign; a sign by itself is calligraphy, which is used in writing.
Duchamp’s influence made visual art an illustration of writing.26 Roger Scrutton in his BBC article How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock, wrote that “it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was”. Today on youtube, MOMA curator Ann Temkin tells us what to see and what to think while looking at the Readymades.27
Visual language expresses itself differently than intellectual concepts so it expands their meaning. Duchamp’sprocess actually weakens the idea by discarding its terminology. Obviously the more pragmatic skills the artist has, the greater one’s visual vocabulary, and the more complex the idea expressed. When Ann Temkin has to tell us what to see it's a reduction, there's less meaning than if the work spoke for itself.
In a 1968 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.31
Today we know at that moment Duchamp stopped painting;
he made no paintings anymore after he made painting intellectual.
Still he poked at Étant donnés for the next twenty years as if trying to revive a lost relationship.
Duchamp wanted to rid art of vision, but vision won.
There’s a famous photograph of Einstein’s brain, with a fold in the lower right quadrant we only find among those who studied music as kids, and consistent activity is necessary to develop the brain structures where this activity occurs. Visual activity also develops brain functions associated with non-verbal language. As Duchamp stopped using his visual cortex, the Large Glass is rather boring when compared to Canadian First Nations West Coast artist Brian Jungen’s art, where tradition remains firm and it's the medium that gets cut up. Jungen’s work needs no interpretation; we do not need to be told what to see or what to think about it. That's art.
Duchamp may also have been chromatically anomalous or insensitive. Duchamp didn’t enjoy painting and almost all his work suffers such restricted chromatic range, that perhaps he was colour insensitive or unreactive, even when he used color in his spiral optical experiments. Of course Picasso and Braque and other Cubists at this time also restricted their colors to earth tones, possibly from post-war economy. But for me his 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 are used straight out of the tube, all hint at chromatic restriction. That an artist would be so technically brilliant a painter yet not enjoy his work suggests a neurological disconnect between the visual cortex and the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. Neuroscientists call the nucleus accumbens the brain's pleasure center. When activity is tagged as desirable, the brain releases a surge of dopamine in this area. Duchamp never displayed much emotion, or sensual response.
In conclusion it's ok to like beauty, skill, and aesthetics, it's the art instinct. Art is not contingency but biology; Denis Dutton found we're hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined… likely to enhance survival of the perceiving human's genes.”35 It’s not only ok to want beautiful things but Nobel physicist Paul Dirac says “to find beauty in one’s math, if the concept is valid, means a certainty of success”.36 When language is ugly, we recoil, when language is beautiful, the meaning goes deeper than we can ever know.
0Patrick Stokes, No, you’re not entitled to your opinion
0 Arthur C. Danto, Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste: A Defense of Contemporary Art
1 William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur, The Atlanti,
2 Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, p173, Reaktion Books, London, U.K.
3 Roger Scrutton, The Great Swindle – A Cult of Fakery has taken over what’s left of high culture
4 David Salsburg, The Lady Tasting Tea – How Statistics Revolutionized Science. p51, Holt, N.Y. 2001
5Joseph Plateau of Belgium and the Austrian Simon Ritter von Stampfer are credited with the invention of the stroboscope in 1832, a disc with radial slits turned while viewing images on a separate rotating wheel.
6 Based on the French Société des Artistes Indépendants, the goal of the society was to hold annual exhibitions by avant-garde artists. Exhibitions were to be open to anyone who wanted to display their work, and shows were without juries or prizes. In order to enter, one had to pay a six-dollar membership and entry fee. Founders of the Society were Walter Arensberg, John Covert, Marcel Duchamp, Katherine Sophie Dreier, William J. Glackens, Albert Gleizes, John Marin, Walter Pach, Man Ray, Mary Rogers (artist), John Sloan and Joseph Stella.
7 Sue Tate, The unsurprising truth about the urinal, counterfire.org, 2015
8 Dr. Irene Gammel, Strip(p)ed Bare: The Life and Art of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Elizabeth Dee Gallery lecture
9 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press.
10 Marcel Duchamp Talking about Readymades, Interview by Phillip Collins. p.40, Hatje Cantz. 1967
11 “Artist Marcel Duchamp Visits U-classes, Exhibits at Walker,” Minnesota Daily, 22 October 1965.
12 Calvin Tomkins: Duchamp: A Biography, page 159. Holt Paperbacks
13 Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p260, Reaktion Books.
14 Pierre Breton and Paul Eluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, p23, 1938.
Obalk, Hector:"The Unfindable Readymade", toutfait.com, Issue 2, 2000.
15 Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture - March 10, 2015
16 Jerry Saltz, Art’s Insidious New Cliché: Neo-Mannerism, Vulture magazine,
17 Miklos Legrady, Deconstructing Walter Benjamin http://www.mikloslegrady.com/writing/benjamin.html
18 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Eight Years of Swimming Lessons, p16, Da Capo Press.
19 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p12, Da Capo Press.
20 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p11, Da Capo Press.
21 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p43, Da Capo Press.
22 Ibid. p36
23Mathematical beauty activates same brain region as great art, 13 February 2014
24Dennis Dutton's A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube
25 Michelle Marder Kamhi, Why Discarding the Concept of "Fine Art" Has Been a Grave Error
26 Roger Scrutton, How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock, BBC magazine
27 Ann Temkin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqySnbbyB2U
28Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, p. 297.
29Marjorie Perloff The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage p34, (Princeton UP: 1999).
30Rosalin Kraus, The Impulse To See, Vision and Visuality, 1988 Dia art foundation
31 Joan Bakewell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp Late Night Line-Up, 1968 BBC ARTS.
32 Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, An appreciation, p110, Da Capo Press.
33 Ibid, p109.
34 Jed Perl, The Art World Has Stopped Distinguishing Between Greatness and Fraudulence, New Republic, June 2014
35Dennis Dutton's A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube
36 Paul Dirac, Quotations from Paul Dirac, http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Quotations/Dirac.html