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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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Andersen traces Duchamp’s degenerating behavior to the influence of Dadaism and describes him as “its supreme avatar.” Originally a progressive, international movement against war, the Dadaists became increasingly cynical and rejected everything definitive in the reigning culture. Andersen describes them as “reactionary minimalists, fanciers of absurd words and talk that reduces quickly to babbling.” In selecting weapons to degrade society’s standards of civil behavior, the Dadaists chose “idiotic buffoonery and obscene performances that disrupted the complacency of traditional values and exposed the camouflage of bourgeois traits of corruption.” Dada poetry readings were meant to “bewilder, provoke, insult, and confuse,” and Dadaists believed that the destruction of society was the only way to regenerate it. Duchamp praised Dadaism as “a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic. It was a way to get out of a state of mind—to avoid being influenced by one’s immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from clichés—to get free. .  .  . Dada was .  .  . a purgative.”

Paired together, Duchamp and Man Ray were the Dadaesque playboys of the modern Western World. They lived within and promoted an art world of degraded women, pedophiliac sadism, and crude pornography. In an enormous bibliography over a century, Du-champ scholars have praised his gadgets (among them, rudimentary Precision Optics), touting them as works of genius “comparable to the machines Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers designed.” But Andersen declares them “fakery” and grimaces at the very thought of a Leonardo Duchamp. He also points out that Duchamp’s last two major works—“The Large Glass” (1915-23), a seeming exercise in abstract doodling, and the “enigmatic assemblage” “Étant donnés” (1946-66), an artwork that lets the viewer see whatever he wishes—were in development for 20 years, longer than it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And yet never quite finished either!

The 1959-60 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris presented “a sensory overload” of artworks dedicated to just such specimens of Eros. Duchamp was one of two designers and directors, and its deluxe catalogue was housed within a green cardboard box displaying items for the viewing public: “The Padlock of Chastity,” an intimate photograph of a nude woman, apparently obtained from a mortuary for the poor and indigent deceased; a dismembered and grotesquely recombined adult, female doll; Duchamp’s contribution, a playful pair of his and hers potholders featuring male and female genitalia; and a faux “cannibal feast” adapted from a story of the Marquis de Sade, displaying a live, naked female as the sacrificial centerpiece.

Andersen closes with a two-page bibliography of his own, a firm slamming of the door on a Duchampian myth that remains alive and influential in art circles. He describes that myth in these words: “A ground covering vine that puts down roots as it grows always in the same soil, some of the runners seeing the light above their leaves, but hardly any of them turning upward and growing towards it.”

Steven Ozment, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, is the author of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People and a forthcoming biography of Lucas Cranach.

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