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Tito Bastianini (1884-1934)
2012, oil on canvas, 22×19 cm
Tito Bastianini (1884-1934)
Marcel Duchamp as a Contemporary Praxis
Marcel Duchamp, the Artist, and the Social Expectations of Aging
(French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is considered by many art professionals to be the greatest artist of this century. During his long career, Duchamp developed a set of radical theories that literally redefined art as a contemporary praxis. Indeed, much of Duchamp's work anticipates what today is called postmodern theory. The Duchamp career speaks to issues of aging because over the span of an entire lifetime of 81 years there was no diminution of quality of innovation, theory, or power.)
Although other names, most notably Picasso's, are more recognized by the general public as belonging to great twentieth century artists, Marcel Duchamp is considered by many art professionals to be the greatest artist of the century. From the age of 25 and continuing until his death at the age of 81, he developed a set of radical theories that literally redefined art as a contemporary praxis. Duchamp died in 1968 in New York City, where he lived most of his life after successively fleeing both world wars in his native France.
Because the artist lived such a long life, he was obliged to reconcile his esthetic breakthroughs with insights, if not on aging itself, then on the relation of the artist to both his present audience and to posterity. In addition, the Duchamp career speaks to issues of aging because over the span of an entire lifetime there was no diminution of quality in innovation, theory, or power. In this essay I will sketch a history of the artist's developing esthetic through reference to several key artworks and then attempt to index a variety of the implications that both the theories and the specific Duchampian practice hold for those seeking a model for a great artist at peace with mortality.
Unlike Picasso, his more famous contemporary, Duchamp chose a rigorous theoretical point of view, which made the manufacture of precious objects for the marketplace of little interest. Picasso achieved near universal fame and vast wealth, whereas Duchamp was financially dependent his entire life, and continues to be largely unknown outside the art world. Even within the art world, the first acquisition by a French public collection of Duchamp's work was in 1954, when he was 67 years old. His first retrospective was in 1963, at the age of 76, at the Pasadena Art Museum in California. The first monograph on Duchamp, by Robert Lebel, appeared in 1959 when he was 72. Yet Duchamp could state in a 1971 interview that acclaim in one's lifetime was not important. "It's the posthumous spectator" who is important "because the contemporary spectator is worthless .... He is a minimum value compared to that of posterity" (Cabanne, 1971).
Duchamp began to address that ultimate public early on in his career, overseeing the accumulation of his key works in fewer and fewer collections (notably that of his close friends, the Arensbergs) and with promises by those collectors of final donation to a single museum (the Philadelphia Museum of Art). It is only a way of putting myself in the right position for that ideal public. The danger is in pleasing an immediate public; the immediate public that comes around you and takes you in and accepts you and gives you success and everything. Instead of that, you should wait for fifty or a hundred years for your true public. That is the only public that interests me. (Sweeney, 1973)
Although some might object that these are the rationalized observations of a neglected old man, the evidence over the length of Duchamp's career is that he was uniquely consistent about such matters from the moment he turned his back on the conventional art world. He was also serenely aware of the import of his life's work.
When Duchamp had finished his first masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase, in 1912, it placed him in the first rank of the avant-garde of his generation, which was exploring the subjective realities of cubism. The work caused widespread mockery in the press, but in such cases (then as now) the artist earned considerable renown. A painting in predominantly dark colors, it depicts what the sophisticated late-century eye recognizes as a figure moving down a flight of stairs over time, with the fluid, blurred, and staccato elements that such movement suggests. Most mainstream critics at the time could find no nude, no staircase, and no art; one unidentified critic, in a perhaps apocryphal but almost proverbial comment, is said to have called it "an explosion in a shingle factory" (d'Harnoncourt, 1973).
Despite this attention, after the war Duchamp's attitude toward the art process was changed, and his career pattern veered away from Picasso's. Along with many other artists of the era, especially the Surrealists, the political nature of the art process began to be addressed. Duchamp's work from this point on in his career anticipates to a remarkable extent what is today called postmodern theory. Most simply put, today's estheticians seek to understand art not as an isolated world made up of color, line, and shape, but rather as an integral part of the sociopolitical construction of society.
The following are some questions that are part of that inquiry, and that again, Duchamp was one of the first to raise: For whom is art made? What is the audience? Can art be separated from other cultural forms of image making? How does art create meaning? To whose advantage or disadvantage? Is it possible for an artist to create art that takes a political stance without being a polemicist? Is it possible to create art that isn't ideological? If not, how does one communicate this? In an age of mechanical and now electronic reproduction of images, is the notion of originality an anachronism? Can an art be found that does not concern itself primarily with the artist's personality? All these issues and more are informing the contemporary debate in the visual and other arts, and they were all anticipated by Duchamp in the early years of this century. The courage it took for Duchamp to disappoint those who expected him to grow into a "mature" artist churning out predictable art products is the first sign of his refusal to fulfill the cultural expectations placed on the aging artist.
Alienated from the art world which had not treated him much better than the general public, Duchamp took several months off to travel alone to Munich. Writer Thierry de Duve (1989) describes the possible impact of this trip on the artist in his essay Resonances of Duchamp's Visit to Munich. Although nothing can actually be proven about this trip, one fact remains: Afterwards, he never produced another traditional artwork.
The only philosopher Duchamp ever claimed as an influence was an obscure 19th century German named Max Stirner. Stirner was a Hegelian who used the dialectic to develop his own theories of individual fate at the hands of social and political constraint. He suggested that the standoff between authority and rebellion could be synthesized in an anarchistic liberation that refused the oppositional role. The impact for the young Duchamp most likely included a denial of any universal philosophical system, and a delight in defeating systemization.
Shortly after his trip to Germany (1913) Duchamp created a piece that randomly set up a new standard for measurement - challenging the official (and random) length of the meter. He created three versions of differing lengths in a work titled Three Standard Stoppages. While one length would be a new standard, he set up a second as an opposition and a third to defeat all three as anything but a variety of possibilities.
This deliberate defeat of any maneuver to force a choice between polarities is the first and most important of several themes in Duchamp's adult work. What I have left unsaid is the remarkable nature of the leap from his Nude painting to Stoppages. What we have is no less than the first work of conceptual art, circa 1913. That is, with this simple act, the artist had created an artwork wherein a philosophical argument is made on the surface of the work, as its prime raison d'etre. Furthermore, traditional esthetic forms are instantly placed in jeopardy; conceptual art causes painting and sculpture, for the first time, and permanently, to justify their continued creation. Most important, contemporary art is an attempt to come to terms with this challenge or extend the Duchampian critique through newer theoretical insights.
Duchamp's artistic biography continues in its radical path, with his infamous Fountain - a urinal on a pedestal - and other, similar works he dubbed "readymades." Objects of no particular claim to esthetic stature, by being subjected to an artist's traditional, if reconfigured, tools of selection, isolation, and recontextualizing, find their status in the world altered. Duchamp used the dialectic again: If the art object was authority, and the mundane object its opposite, his "readymade" was a synthesis repositioning all three into a universe full of choice, but free of taste and hierarchical value. "Duchamp kept nothing of art but its name," says de Duve (1989). Again, these notions anticipated the common contemporary genre of recycling found materials into new artworks, from the Fluxus movement of the sixties to today's appropriation artists.
Duchamp's masterpiece is universally acknowledged to be his Large Class, 1915-23, subtitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Almost 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it consists of two panes of glass with several translucent paper drawings, wires, dust, and more, laminated between them, and looks like no artwork ever made before it. It also embodies an impressive array of narrative and philosophic elements that Duchamp elaborated for the rest of his life. This is another aspect of the artist's relevance in the current context, for this process he developed created a methodology that lasted to the end of his life. After the Large Class was seen - and he worked on it for 8 years - Duchamp spent most of the rest of his life developing the concepts suggested by that work, which include sexuality, identity, space and time issues, and much more, in a series of smaller works, none of which were on the same scale of ambition as the Large Glass. Yet the truth is that Duchamp from this point on built an argument that an entire life's project, from finished products to dead ends, from recreation to reworkings of older notions, constitute the opus, the style, of his expanded definition of what it meant to be an ambitious artist. Again we see denial of the artist/nonartist dichotomy, leading to a radical opening of the way we might think of what art and art making might mean in this century.
The art world accepted his periodic appearances of restated and reconfigured objects, book covers, interviews, but it was generally understood that Duchamp was a respected if peripheral figure. For the artist himself, however, this was a conscious decision to modestly yet seriously avoid the cult of personality and careerism many of his better known contemporaries pursued. He often referred to himself not as an artist but merely a "breather," and cautioned young artists not to overexpose themselves.
There were many other pursuits for the now-privatized Duchamp that have formed a legend about him, ironically, after his death and rediscovery: his love of chess, his numerous alter egos, his obsessive word play and punning, his fascination with molds (which simultaneously embody a positive and negative image of an object, forming a third thing), and an interest in ideas of a fourth dimension (which made possible a resolution of the limits of only two choices - two or three dimensions - by speculating on a physics that made possible a sort of inside-out movement of objects in space). All these interests and many others not mentioned here have to do with opening options beyond the received conventions. The word play he used for most of the century opens the possibilities for meaning in language in ways that today's postmodern poets and other artists and writers are wrestling with. His female persona, Rrose Selavy, anticipates the constructed nature of sexual identity that today's feminist and gay theorists investigate.
Ultimately, the opposition of life and death is also confronted and denied. Duchamp's epitaph is "AND BESIDES/IT'S ONLY THE OTHERS THAT DIE," a punning reference to those in the graves beside him, but more poignantly a suggestion that with his wit, and thus by extension his presence, he exists. Of course, we can only truly know, and witness, the death of others. In her essay, Rendezvous with Marcel Duchamp: Given, Judovitz (1989) suggests that this emptied grave of Duchamp's rhymes with his last masterpiece, the posthumously revealed Etant Donnes, or Given (1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas).
For 20 years, from 1946 to 1966, Duchamp worked on this one artwork in total secrecy. Only after his death was it painstakingly assembled based on his meticulous notes and exhibited for the first time. As with so many of his works, it created a new art form, the installation piece, a sculpture that necessitates the active participation of the body of the viewer, and that has architectural elements.
Given reprises many of the themes first taken up in the Large Glass half a century earlier, in a sensational farewell to the art world, proving that the artist at the end of a very long life was just as vital a thinker as ever - despite conventional wisdom concerning aging. Traditionally, the older artist is patronized as at best quaint or at worst a pathetic self-imitator of a great early career. Duchamp proved there was no diminution of his power - the installation sculptural art form has been arguably the most important innovation of the past 20 years in art making in the Western tradition. Etant Donnes was the inspiration in many ways.
The artist also accomplished a wonderful gesture of humility; by not revealing the work until his death, he defeated those who would dismiss his claims to disinterest in art world acclaim, at least while alive. The years of apparent inactivity were revealed to be a conscious strategy to place perfectionism and introspection at work in a redefinition of productivity only a mature mind could conceive. He refused to be rushed. In fact, in their book on Etant Donnes, d'Harnoncourt and Hopps (1969) remark that his "finest work was his use of time." If eternity is one end of a polarity in which the finite life of an individual is the other end, then time turned inside out is Duchamp's strategy to defeat this ultimate human dilemma.
As Judovitz (1989) suggests, Given, Duchamp's veritable deathbed masterpiece, contains the body that his epitaph claims is missing from his grave. The viewer approaches a large, battered old wooden door installed ambiguously in a wall around a corner in a museum gallery. At the door he or she discovers a peephole, through which a highly theatrical and dramatic scene is revealed. A broken brick wall in the foreground opens onto a brightly lit rural landscape reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, rendered in three dimensions. The centerpiece is a partially revealed, supine female nude with her legs spread revealing her genitals, holding up a lamp, with a waterfall in the background. The suggestion that this is a reprise and resolution of The Bride Stripped Bare, executed some 50 years earlier, and referred to in dozens of intervening projects, is inescapable. Many of the image metaphors in Large Glass involve machinery and energy as they might relate to sexuality; these are echoed in the gas lamp and water power of Given. An entire life is telescoped into no time at all, as the viewer peers through a little telescope, and Duchamp the youthful innovator is revealed as one and the same with Duchamp the aged philosopher. The actual body in the museum crypt is present yet never alive; the artist is not present yet claims a life in our engagement with his arguments. If Large Glass and Given are two poles in a lifetime's achievement, the artist denies a neat linear analysis by fashioning the two works as two sides of a three-sided coin.
Evan Turner, former Director of the Philadelphia Museum, stated in a preface to d'Harnoncourt and Hopps' (1973) book that "all of the thinking about Duchamp to date must now be sharply reconsidered with the appearance of this work, created during years generally thought to have been quiet, contemplative ones." In those quiet years Marcel Duchamp was in fact planning his final assault on antiquated notions of art making and the life of an artist.
(The Gerontological Society of America, Vol. 30, No.5, 1990, pp. 636-639.)
 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 41 st Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, San Francisco, November 1988.
Cabanne, P. (1971). Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. New York: Viking Press.
de Duve, T. (1989). Resonances of Duchamp's visit to Munich. In R. Kuenzli & F. Naumann (Eds.), Marcel Duchamp, artist of the century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
d'Harnoncourt, A., & Hopps, W. (1973). Etant Donnes, reflections on a new work by Marcel Duchamp. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art. (First published in Museum Bulletin, 1969).
Judovitz, 0.(1989). Rendezvous with Marcel Duchamp: Given. In R. Kuenzli & F. Naumann (Eds.), Marcel Duchamp, artist of the century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kuenzli, R., & Naumann, F. (Eds.) (1989). Marcel Duchamp, artist of the century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sweeney, J. J. (1973). A conversation with Marcel Duchamp. In M. Sanovillet & E. Peterson (Eds.), Salt seller: The writings of Marcel Duchamp. New York: Oxford University Press.