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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.


Jim Murdoch said...

Irrespective of Duchamp's motives I think Fountain did something very important, it made people re-evaluate what exactly art it. It brought into question context. When something is displayed, placed on the proverbial pedestal, it requires re-evaluation. The latrine was not being used for the purpose for which it was designed nor was it in situ in a Gents and by giving it a name Duchamp was providing a means to consider that lump of porcelain as art.

I see poetry in very much the same way and I've wondered for years what the smallest unit of poetry could be (I'm working on a blog at the moment so I have dibs on that one) and I don't think in all honestly it can be less that two 'words' either forming the poem so the reader has to consider their relationship to each other or one word as the poem and another as the title to contextualise it.

I don't agree with the it's-a poem-because-I-say-it-is school of thought and I suppose I have to take a similar stance when it comes to art. The smallest unit of art must therefore be an object and a filter through which to consider it even if that filter is only its title.

To be totally honest, as I'm never likely to practice that kind of art or poetry, it's not something I'd want to fight over because my lack of passion would shine through but it's still something interesting to have a think about when there's nowt good on the box.

Unknown said...

One Man's Animal Corpses Are Another Man's Artwork

NEW YORK (AP) ― In front of a shuttered Chinatown store, artist Nate Hill rummaged through a pile of trash, fishing for the tools of his craft in someone else's garbage.

"Oh, look, a flounder!" he said, as he dug in one bin wearing blue surgical gloves and drew out a quivering white slip of fish. "Does anyone want some? I think there's more."

There were no immediate takers among the half dozen or so people who had followed Hill on a drizzly night as he led a tour of his favorite spots for digging through Chinatown garbage. The goal:

Find interesting dead animals to make into art.

The 30-year-old Brooklyn artist has been using animal carcasses to craft his own "animal kingdom," as he refers to it, since 1999. The results are grotesque or sculptural, depending on your point of view. For in Hill's hands, a puppy's head just as easily goes with a turkey neck and fish bladder as armadillo fingernails and birds' legs make abstract art-in-a-jar.

Dave King said...

Jim, I await with interest the results of your experiment? research? Is it to be a practical exploration? Are you going to write such a poem? If it is a purely theoretical approach, I suppose one line might be to determine first what is the least a poem must have in terms of quality, characteristics, effects etc and then what is the least number of words in which that can be attained. Whatever you do, I shall be interested to read the result.

judging purely from the picture you have conjured up in my mind's eye, "grotesque" seems to sum it up nicely!

Jim Murdoch said...

As is my usual approach, Dave, the article is a Word document into which I dump ideas and web links. At the moment the notes are sitting in what started out as an essay on haibun but which moved quickly onto other forms of short poetry ending logically with one-letter poems, a concept I'm struggling with I have to say. I'm not sure how I'm going to develop it or when. I have about twenty of these Word documents on the go at any time some of which go back several months and keep getting usurped by newer, and generally easier, stuff.

The next one I expect to finish is about Brautigan and my mother of all people but I've always got a half-a-dozen or so in hand to pick from so there's never any panic.

Oh, and since you asked, I do have a one-word poem (two if you count the title) which I might include. It really depends on how much I ramble on about the other stuff. If you want to have a look at it, it's on-line with a few notes here.

Unknown said...

dave, Yes, grotesque is a fitting word. It illustrates to me at least one place where Duchamp's logic wandered off to. On YouTube you can find a video of this guy making his art, with commentary in the background from his friends.

There is this need in the avante garde to keep pushing the envelope to the next sensational aesthetic experience.

The NYC art world was in Soho then moved East to Alphabet City and has now jumped across the river to Brooklyn to Williamsburg. We lived in that area for about 15 years before the MFAs started showing up... we left for cleaner air, not because of the influx of artists. Anyways, they also brought with them the apartment galleries... these are the art galleries that make up one room of their usually very small apartments. It is like small press publishing in a way... you take a room in your house and call it an art gallery then get some likewise young critic to write up your show of found trash for the Village Voice. Voila! Instant celebrity.

As much as I may make fun of that scene I love the characters.

Dave King said...

Yes, Gabriel, I think I know what you mean. I have often been fascinated by this apparent mis-match between the characters and the art. I think you either start out wanting to be avant-garde and then have to dream up something that's just over the next horizon, or you start out wanting to do a particular thing, and after you have achieved it (or not) find the rest of the world thinks you avant-garde

Unknown said...

One of my favorite characters is the painter Gully Jimson in Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth.

I have a friend, a 60 year old child of an American guy who was inspired in his youth by the Cary novel and moved to London with the idea to become a painter. After a while of being there he got the idea he was not a very good painter but he fell in love with dry laid stonework... stone laid up without mortar.

He then spent all of his life, from then to now, wandering around the world to look at stone, talk with people that work to pile stone on stone, and here and there he piled stone on stone himself.

He has managed to survive in ways that most folks would consider dysfunctional, a whole lot of it support from his friends who have over the years been caught up in his delight, his vision, and his unbending enthusiasm.

Every year he hosts a symposium, a very disorganized affair, where people from all over the world who like to play with stone come together and talk, and talk and drink a whole lot of beer. He also publishes a very nice magazine that is wholly uneconomic, but beautiful just the same.

What often worries me with the MFAs is that they either come from independent wealth, or they are in severe debt from obtaining their education. Either way the pursuit of the avante-garde becomes a striving burdened with the need to get somewhere enough to attract attention to 'break out' with an attendant hope of fame and fortune. I agree though, and admire, those who just sort of go off and do something that comes up out of the way that they see the world and then other people come along and say, "Oh, wow. Look at that!" But to have fame as an end-goal is a tough nut and I suspect a hollow one to desire to obtain.

Dave King said...

It sounds very like what used to be called Bohemian. Words like dysfunctional don't somehow catch the flavour. You can be dysfunctional in so many ways, it hardly tells you anything of interest. I have a sneaky sympathy with such folk. I have taught quite a few children from supposedly dysfunctional families. They tend to be larger than normal life and twice as interesting, though the effort of teaching them does not always bestow that warm, cosy feeling of being good at one's job!

Unknown said...

You are correct -- I agree that dysfunctional does not quite catch the flavour. I use it as a lazy shorthand for not wanting to go on and on to describe details.

Let us say though that in the USA if you have the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on your case not because you are a criminal, or anti-taxation, or intend to be up against the authorities but mostly from a lack of being able to deal with any money accounting, not even to be able to figure out your check book whatsoever then that would be considered dysfunctional.

As a human he is functional, walking, talking and much to be admired. But he is also as a child. I like him very very much... but on many levels he is more the grasshopper than the ant. We need grasshoppers. We also need ants.