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.”
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
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.
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.