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The Duchampian Myth

The shock of the new or the old confidence game?

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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Marcel Duchamp

The Failed Messiah

by Wayne Andersen

Editions Fabriart, 400 pp., $45

Wayne Andersen’s new biography of Marcel Duchamp is a journey into darkness, and a successful effort to expose and pop the bubbles that were Duchamp and the postmodern art world he created. Already on the title page, he warns the reader of what lies ahead:

This book was written for mature readers at an adult age and contains words and expressions that are suppressed as obscene wherever English or French is spoken and also includes quotations .  .  . that are pornographic.

On the first page of his introduction he lets us know what he thinks of the artist and his legacy: “Duchamp’s gift to artists was comparable to the Marquis de Sade’s gift to sadists—relief from formal restraints, accountability, guilt, and shame.” And on the first page of the prologue, Andersen introduces the reader to the powerful gatekeepers of the postmodern art world, the men and women who collectively unleashed Duchamp on the 20th century. Citing a December 2004 editorial from the Guardian Weekly that proclaimed “Urinal Comes Out on Top,” he reports a survey of 500 international artists, critics, curators, and art dealers, who confirmed that Duchamp’s urinal, named “Fountain,” still remained at the end of the 20th century what it had been at its beginning: “The world’s most influential piece of modern art.” Having fully warned, but not completely armored, his readers for what lies ahead, Andersen promises to give them the book-ride of their collective lives:

Before bringing you into the body of the book, let me toss a few tacks on the footpath so your going will be with caution. The approach I take to Marcel Duchamp is radical, too radical for the run-of the-mill art historian, or timid critic of modern art. Reading this book will be a test of [your] tolerance, or forbearance, as the case may be.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) first caught the imagination of the art world in 1912 with a cubist artwork entitled “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” Although a mesmerizing scene of rotating, metallic plates, no nude was anywhere to be seen, suggesting art that promised more than it delivered. By 1917, “Fountain” had put Duchamp’s art in flight from the mainstream of the entire history of art. It would remain the most famous of his so-called “readymades,” by which he meant preexisting, everyday items that caught his fancy and were deemed by him to be every bit as art-worthy as creations made directly by the hands of professional artists.

When the urinal was first exhibited under the name of “Fountain,” Duchamp did not put his own name on it; rather, he attributed it to an anonymous R. Mutt, who was ultimately traced to the popular cartoon strip, Mutt and Jeff. In an etching that humanized and elaborated on “Fountain,” Duchamp turned the urinal into a live, nude woman’s torso: a hot “ready maid” (pun intended) with widely spread legs! Such crude, sex-obsessed art would henceforth be the chosen one’s way of “unsettling the conventions of [modern] art,” and although many contemporaries were slow to notice, as soon as the initial shock effect of such free-ranging art receded, Duchamp’s readymades quickly reverted to what they had always been: “Urinal” was first and last just a pragmatic, sanitary place to pee, with zero artistic value.

Among other fond readymades were a coat rack Duchamp nailed to the floor of his flat, a hat rack readied for the wall, a free-standing bicycle wheel, and a bottle rack. And in a completely different kind of readymade, Duchamp put forth an intimate piece of himself: a splotch of ejaculate, bronzed over and framed. The Philadelphia Museum displayed it as a token of the new art world, soon to be joined by other prestigious museums and galleries eager to embrace and leverage the new, lucrative Duchampian art world. Although hard to believe, here was the man and the entrepreneurs who “brought modern art to its death and keyed in such ill-begotten, post-modern new art.”

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