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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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Wayne Andersen writes both to expose and hold accountable the artists and curators who ushered in the post-Abstract Expressionist art world that still flourishes today under the Du-champ brand. It was not the critics, he tells us, but the curators and academic experts who made Marcel Duchamp “a messianic anti-master, whose nihilism was eagerly adopted as artistic freedom.” A total media-made man, Duchamp never met an art curator he could not seduce. When he exhibited the urinal as “Fountain,” and the experts fell to their knees before it, the most powerful art work of the 20th century was born by the artist’s fiat! Here was a dark messenger with well-positioned enablers, none of whom had any sense of history, each and all “seeking originality for its own sake” in an undefined era whose creed was anything goes.

Andersen’s Duchamp is cursed with “stunted maturity.” He grew up on the facile, raw side of life, his dearest friends and companions being illustrators and cartoonists, pranksters and playboys. He read little and was a “vulgar man with a dirty mind—sexual, not sensuous.” At a time when art criticism also became “vulnerable to the deconstruction of traditional values across the humanities,” writes Andersen, Duchamp appeared as “a destroyer of the formal and aesthetic aspects of art history.”

Rolling in like a ground fog through critical theories defining and explicating post-modern art, Duchampian waves of mediocrity engulfed Academia from the University of Paris, to Columbia and Berkeley in the 1960s. The spreading, common belief in his having come into the world as a “Messiah” to liberate artists from oppressive traditions of art history became a “messianic trap of salvation in an era that had thrown away critical thinking and peer review.”

Despite his lack of artistic production between the 1930s and ’60s, impressionable curators, academics, and media mavens raised Duchamp to legendary status. Art magazines and university art galleries “figured importantly” in his ascent. Even mighty Yale, whose experts should have known better, exhibited one of his store-bought readymades: the one and only Duchamp snow shovel! In an undefined era where today is always the first day of one’s life, Duchamp studies compared the new Messiah favorably to Michelangelo. How mind-boggling it must have been for youthful students to imagine Duchamp’s “Fountain” side by side with
the Pietà!

Duchamp had little formal training as an artist, and painting was never a great fire in his belly. A healthy child, he survived boarding school and did well in mathematics. He excelled in drawing (mostly landscapes and town settings) but did not graduate with honors from his lycée. After his schooling, he joined his brothers in Paris, where he worked as a commercial artist, married briefly, but sired no children. Easily bored, he spent the greater part of his time in billiard parlors and at chess matches which, together with cartooning, were his passions. Gifted at drawing, he made cartoons the staple of his repertoire: He loved visual and verbal puns, silly word games, and light adolescent play. Typical of his cartoons and revealing of the man, he never addressed social or political life, nor showed any interest in the distant past. Under the strong influence of the Dadaists, Duchamp’s artwork dwelt on “salacious, humorous sex that deprecated women, children, and old men.”

An art historian who has been criticized for letting Freud overhaul his subjects, Andersen treats Duchamp’s struggle with gender identity in a manner that turns out to be persuasive and fair. He presents remarkable photographs of Duchamp’s long blond wigs and cross-dressing as he assumed the fictitious figure of “Rose Sélevy.” Nor does Andersen cross any forbidden lines in his analysis of Duchamp’s attraction to unattractive women “in an effort to ward off an [unwanted] aspect of himself.” As Andersen puts it: “He could not tolerate the aesthetic of the feminine. .  .  . By fantasizing himself to be a seductive woman, he could master the threat of feminine beauty by incorporating the sensual into himself.”

Out and about in the real world, Andersen’s Duchamp spent the greater part of his time loafing around and goofing off with his Dadaesque buddies. Diversions progressively displaced art in his life; but chess and cartoons did not make him rich. Throughout much of his adult life he was supported by women. In 1927 he married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, strictly for support and domination: She was 24, upper-crust, large boned—and considerably overweight by the standards of the 1920s. Duchamp saw in her “a hapless ‘ready-maid’ of convenience and financially well endowed.” Before and after the marriage, he was preoccupied with his soulmate, the photographer Man Ray, and also had a lover in the background.

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