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Sunday, 17 February 2008
Art-maker or piss-taker
Imagine you are living a hundred years ago. Ninety one years, to be precise. You are helping to curate the inaugural exhibition of an art society, The Society of Independent Artists that you and a few artist friends have co-founded. You are receiving the members' entries when at the last minute, just as submissions are about to close, Marcel Duchamp walks in and plonks his entry on the table. It is a urinal. Just that, an ordinary, everyday urinal. Indeed, you recognise it as one of those dollar or so jobs from Pans R Us in the High Street. He wants to exhibit it under the title: Fountain. You walk all round it, examining it closely, looking for his input (pun not intended), but no, beyond removing its price tag and signing it R Mutt 1917, he has not changed it one iota. There has been no exercise of skill whatever. It's a wind-up, it's got to be. He's taking the proverbial - only, he looks serious enough, and is very persistent. Reluctantly, you admit to yourself that you can see there is something about its shape, something you had not noticed before, not in all the years you have been using such things (or not, depending on whether you happen to be in that half of the population which uses such things)... even so, your instinct is to reject it, for you do not want to become the fall guy, the laughing stock of the art world. However, a quick look through the society's constitution confirms your worst fears: as a fully paid-up member he is entitled to show any work of his that he pleases. Ah, that might be your get-out clause: his work. You point out that it is not his work, that he bought it, it is some other person's work, someone who is not a fully paid-up member. There is nothing from him, no contribution that would make it his within the meaning of the rules. As a work of art it is still raw material.
He of course, will have none of that. No contribution? Was it not he who saw it, his perspicacity that first recognised its potential, was it not he who rescued it from its former fate, and has he not now, by changing its environment and giving it a title, cancelled out whatever utilitarian significance it may previously have possessed? And by doing all the aforementioned, has he not furnished it with a wholly new and more appropriate point of view? In short, can you not see that he has transformed it into a new work by generating a new and radical thought about it!
But still you are unconvinced; after all, the society is about art, not philosophy, and art is about line, colour, texture, shape, isn't it? New thoughts, new points of view... that sounds like philosophy... and in any case, he didn't actually reel it all off like that there and then, even if he was getting there slowly, making it up as he went along, and even if one month later, when The Blind Man, a magazine he was co-editing, came out, the whole justification was in place and there for all to read. Too late to help you, of course, and doubtful if it would have, anyway. Some thought he was just making a play for intellectual respectability (the stuff he actually made by hand was a touch weak, anyway), but you allowed his entry and the rest, as they say, is history.
But it is history that will not lie down. (Ah, I almost forgot to say you can come back now to 2008.) You must be finding it to be wearing a bit thin by now! Every so often someone pops their head above the parapet to ask again if perhaps the whole thing was a joke, if Duchamp was taking the proverbial - or maybe even conning us all: public, curators, critics, other artists and art historians. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian of Saturday, 9th February is the latest (unless you know of a more recent someone), though he suggests varying the question to ask how Duchamp came by his highly original thought. The question is interesting, but does not seem to lead to an answer to the first question, which is also interesting, but hardly light-creating. Suppose we were to assume for the sake of argument that Duchamp was a joker or a con artist (for it hardly matters which), what does that say of the artists who have worn his mantle since? Not much, for either they too were duped or they saw in Duchamp's displays something that he missed. My father had a favourite saying: Many a true word spoken in jest. It could make the perfect riposte to a sarcastic remark or some other thoughtless barb. Maybe Duchamp's jokes, if that is what they were, had a wisdom that was hid from him. But no matter, the situation is not much changed if Duchamp was being genuine. For us, looking at the situation with which we are faced today, the same two possibilities exist: either his inheritors have seen in him something worthy of further exploration or they have latched on to a way of making an easy buck. So far as he is concerned there does exist a third possibility: that Duchamp began by taking us all for a ride, but then realised that he had stumbled on something more than he had bargained for: an all-time winner. It would change nothing for the present situation, even if we knew.
Ah, if we knew... Yes, it would be fascinating to know what was in the mind of Duchamp, to understand his motives and to know by what stages he reached his vision, but it seems unlikely that we ever will. Nor would it profit those who simply want to understand what has happened since. We are left as we always are, to pick our way through the forest of good, bad and indifferent artists that has grown up in the soil that, for better or for worse, he has bequeathed us.