Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 4, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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It has been written that “excellence as a practice does not apply to fine art,” which begs the value ‘fine’ when specifying the kind of art. When Duchamp proposed the ready-made as a work of art he raised the question whether it really is one, and he himself said it was not. Duchamp said he didn't understand the work till near the end of his life. "The curious thing about the Readymade is that I've never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me." -- Marcel Duchamp (Tomkins p159). This allows that some meaning may yet be found tucked behind a blind spot.

Dario Gamboni, in The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism tells us that “At the end of his life in 1964 he 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.” (Gamboni p260). Duchamp then believed in distant qualities that our ‘inadequate’ art reflects, as a mirage reflects a distant reality. Science tells us that aesthetics and art are a crucial aspect of evolutionary development, and psychology says art is vital for mental health. This contradicts Duchamp’s conclusions. Art is not a mirage but a tangible essential process, and changing tastes validate art history instead of raising doubt. In fact history itself is a consciousness of change. We now revise our art history to reflect Duchamp creating the Readymade as a placeholder and a pretence, a mirage and not real art.

Duchamp also said as a Dadaist he wanted to destroy art but as we see below he destroyed his own ability to make art. In a 1998 panel discussion titled Vision and Visuality chaired by Hal Foster and sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work(Foster, p76). We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes. Optical art requires years of skill, artisanal work is done with concern; these are things to respect, not to despise. Detritus does not compare to a sculpture or painting that took months for the artist to execute after a lifetime of study. The ready-made is not our best, not our excellence.

Marcel Duchamp created his brand as a Dadaist by rejecting the Impressionists, aesthetics and the artisan. The ready-made assumes that a factory-made or found object is as good as any work by the artist. If you say art is not worth making and you say it long enough, you will believe yourself and eventually lose interest in making art.

Duchamp was not an impostor. He was a poseur. He posed questions without knowing answers, as in not understanding the ready-made. He acted knowing when in fact he seems to have been throwing ideas at the wall to see which one would stick. Art had till then been the highest expression of a culture. As a Dadaist Duchamp said that trash was the highest expression of a culture. It took us a hundred years to reply no.

In the bicycle wheel we see some attractive chaotic elements as the workers failed to make a perfect fit of the spokes. The post bolted into the stool and the stool itself are mildly interesting as historical objects of a bygone style. But these contributions are so slight they are nothing more than encumbrances taking up unnecessary cultural space. 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 guards themselves?”



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Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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