We’ re On Instagram:
Follow Us:

Destabilizing Marcel Duchamp: the dark side

This paper was peer-reviewed by senior professors and specialists in the field and published in RISD’s Journal of Aesthetics.

Endorsement by Art historian Richard Schiff: “Your writing is lively, and your arguments are a challenge to the commonplace understanding.“


– Abstract –


Duchamp proposed that painting discard the sensual or beautiful as decorative, opting instead for an art generated by concept. He broke with tradition by purging art of taste in order to shift painting from sensation to ideas. But ideas belong to literature; ideas are for writing, just as vision is for seeing. The image’s primacy is not to think but an immediate experience of sight just as music is an aural experience. Rejecting one’s sense is nonsense and senseless; Duchamp lost his ability to make art and retired to play chess.  Duchamp claimed the Readymade was not art, it was a found object.


– Preface –


In his later life he was so influential that had he not existed they would have invented him. Duchamp, mostly ignored for thirty years following his New York success with the painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, owes his resurgent popularity in the 1960s to Robert Motherwell, Jasper Jones and John Cage.  Still, Richard Dorment wrote that the “Tate Modern’s 2008 Duchamp exhibition demonstrates that he was not quite the isolated genius most of us had imagined. In placing his work beside that of his two friends, the Spaniard Francis Picabia and the American Man Ray, the show demonstrates that all three were operating on the same wavelength and pursuing similar goals”.(1)


Most of us know little of Duchamp other than reading that the urinal was a great work of art because it shocked the bourgeoisie. In fact there are competing schools of thought; curator Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso, was an early supporter who now holds Duchamp responsible for the deplorable aspects of contemporary art, as much as critic Donald Kuspit. Kuspit wrote that Duchamp’s ideological rejection of the sensual was a strategic response to Matisse who surpassed him in skill, hence Duchamp made his own brand conceptual rather than productive.  Research in psychology since his time has shown that aesthetics and our perception of beauty (both rejected by Duchamp) were in fact leading evolutionary advantages for Hominids, while today they are crucial components of the mind’s sophistication and spirituality, as well as necessary for mental health.


This paper differs from all previous writing on Duchamp in that this author has no debt nor commitment to the belief that Duchamp was a great artist who made great art. Losing that prejudice opens ground to fascinating new interpretations.  Thegood that Duchamp has done did not get interred with his bones, even if I come to bury Caesar and not to praise him. Duchamp would have been amused at this spotlight on his art as an idea that is problematic, uncertain, and now exhausted. Rather I suggest a different view that may yet support our appreciation of Duchamp by providing a glimpse of his shadow, for the darkness of one’s shadow is a consequence of the bright light that one walks in.  Once the fog of myth is cleared away we see that Duchamp’s actual contribution was in discovering the limits of art by denying their existence and going beyond them, at which point he stopped making art.


– Questioning the readymade –


It took a hundred years of solitude for other questions posed by Duchamp to finally rise to consciousness, as there’s a side to him not yet considered.  It’s inevitable these questions would arise at the decline of postmodernism, itself a movement indebted to Dada, and as much against tradition and logic. When Duchamp created the Readymade he begged the question of whether it really is a work of art. “The curious thing about the Readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me.” Marcel Duchamp(2) This allows that some meaning may yet be found tucked behind a blind spot.


In the Cabane interviews when asked how he came to choose the Readymade Duchamp replied “Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it… when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool… it was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason… or any intention of showing it, or describing anything.(3)   “The word ‘Readymade’ thrusts itself on me then.  It seemed perfect for these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies.”(4)   Duchamp’s refusal to have the readymades treated as works of art led him to claim that “for a period of thirty years nobody talked about them and neither did I.”(5)


Duchamp seems to have eventually allowed the Readymades a quasi-art legitimacy, since others insisted, but with reservations; “the Readymade’ thrusts itself on me”.The only definition of “readymade” is in Breton and Eluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” The Museum of Modern Art’s learning page on Duchamp includes an altered version of this quote erroneously attributed, but it is not his.  While published under the name of Marcel Duchamp (or his initials, “MD,” to be precise), André Gervais nevertheless asserts that Pierre Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry.(6)


Dario Gamboni, in The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, writes that Marcel Duchamp “at the end of his life in 1964… explained to Otto Hahn that his Readymades had aimed at drawing ‘the attention of the people to the fact that art is a mirage’ even if ‘a solid one’, and concluded from the vagaries of taste that history was to be doubted.”(7)   


Duchamp speaking of art as a mirage suggests potential qualities our “false” art reflects, as a mirage reflects a distant reality. Duchamp denied the spirituality of art, but always with an unspoken hint of what art wasn’t yet would be, were it to exist. Peer-reviewed facts contradicts Duchamp’s assumptions.  Science tells us that aesthetics and art are a crucial aspect of evolutionary development.(8)  Psychology says creativity is vital to mental health and functions as art therapy. Art is not a mirage but an essential tangible process. It is the Readymade that Duchamp made that’s a mirage, even if a solid one, and it is the Readymade whose history is to be doubted as we do now. Concerning the vagaries of changing tastes, they validate art history rather than raising doubt; history itself is a consciousness of such changes. We need revise our historical narrative to show that Duchamp said the Readymade was a mirage but not real art.  The Readymade is a placeholder for an actual art object, but by its context it suggests that artworks can orbit around an idea, a concept can generate art.


The spectacular success and social value of the Readymades is their simplicity, a minimalism like Brancusi’s work or Sol Lewitt’s, a minimalism suggesting an essence, a core of thought. Duchamp’s unique contribution was that one could look at a work of art and deduce, or question, or discover the concept at the core. While Duchamp complained of art being visual whereas he wanted to make it conceptual, and spoke of wanting to get rid of art, it is likely his denial of form was a psychological necessity to lessen the power of aesthetics in order to place idea as its core; this was Duchamp’s timely contribution to the cultural domain when he complained that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.  Things differ today. An antithesis reminds us that in a study of form a concept will eventually arise, just as a study of concept must eventually take form.


It’s possible the Readymade was an idea in search of an author when it thrust itself on Duchamp. If not him someone else would have thought it up. The rules back then needed shaking up; this was a time when even photography struggled to be art. The machine-made photograph at the push of a button seemed far from the art of achieving mastery of technique to the point of excellence, of mastering the art of something. Reflecting reality the way a photograph does seems to cancel creativity or personal expression. However it was soon understood that composition, light, and methods of printing the negative offered multiple controls allowing intricate personal statements. Duchamp’s paradigm now means that photography’s lesser status as a visual art today is it’s dependence on the sensuality of light. In postmodern terms “photography” was deprecated to “lens based practice”. Notice that in all these situations art is described as a doing.  “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Willing is not enough; we must do.Johan Wolfgang von Goethe


Generally speaking Sol Lewitt’s postulate that an idea is art is disproved in the etymology of the word itself.  Wikipedia notes that an idea is science; a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.(9) Art is defined as an activity of creating and a product. When Dada aims at an art that cannot be consumed, and conceptual art aims for art that is not a product, such exceptions prove the rule; art evolved as a biological urge to individuation and cultural identity.Some argue that cosmetic body art was the earliest form of ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago from the African Middle Stone Age. The evidence for this comes in the form of utilized red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa.(10) There’s also evidence of art as vital to evolutionary development.(11) Which means denying art may have harmful consequences.


It was an exciting time for Dadaists to reject bourgeois traditions and to destroy art as a bourgeois presumption.  At the time Walter Benjamin wrote that authorship, creativity, and aesthetics were outmoded concepts and the only valid form of art was Marxist propaganda made by the working class against capitalism.(12)Benjamin meant it, and a few years after denying art and individual worth, he killed himself in a moment of crisis from a lack of moral strength. Meanwhile, for revolutionary Dadaists in the throes of brilliant iconoclastic gestures like rejecting beauty and craftsmanship, why not be even more Dada and declare any object whatsoever to be art? It is a wonderful thing when in a fit of revolutionary fervor we overleap logic and discard common sense, declaring manifestos to prove we need work no more, everything is art, things are their opposite, now the bourgeoisie’s confused and we have shocked them! Epaté la bourgeoisie!(13)


Assumptions must however stand the test of time in the consequence of applied ideas.  Now when Duchamp says the readymade is not an art object, then neither is anyone else’s work that is based on misunderstanding Duchamp, such as found objects, or pages cut from art books, or work made without technique, practice, experience, or effort.  We see dominos knocked over in sequence. These objects are not art but the obvious household items they were before “the artist elevated them to the dignity of art”.  To claim them to be anything more and to call them art is a metacognitive insensitivity to the complex iteration of sensations… and a failure to grasp the creative unconscious that psychology has documented and peer-reviewed.


It is true that Duchamp was not sensual but an intellectual type, and that much has been done in psychology since the 1920s. Psychologist Carl Jung writes of four mental functions being sensation, intellect, feelings and intuition, each of equal validity as thought processes.(14)Duchamp was obviously an intellectual type with blind spots in sensation and feeling, for he finds no appeal in painting, no delight in visuality and the senses, in spite of the fact that he was a brilliant painter, certainly a genius in the field. Nude Descending A Staircaseis an aesthetic masterpiece, like most of his cubist paintings, something which Duchamp ignores in his contempt for aesthetics.We can under-appreciate our talent if it’s too easy or if we peak too early.  It’s ironic Duchamp was richly talented in an area he despised.


In a 1986 BBC interview with Joan Blackwell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see…that he made it intellectual.(15)In a 1998 panel discussion titled Vision and Visualitysponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that (except for Mondrian and Seurat)Duchamp despised optical artand disliked artisanal work.(16) We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes; these are things to respect, not to despise.


A ready-made in Duchamp’s time meant a factory made object when the Industrial Revolution was but 50 years old; factory objects were still a curiosity, futuristic, perfect for a meme. Is a piece of trash from the street or a commonplace object made in a factory as meaningful and worthwhile a statement as studio work that took the artist months to execute after a lifetime of study?  The very nature of humanity is questioned in such Dadaist assertions, later becoming a foundation of Lyotard’s postmodernism, that your contingency devalues your humanity.  Lyotard was disproved by facts remaining facts no matter what culture they come from, and the economy of art production did not fare so well with Martin Creed.


Marcel Duchamp distinguished himself and created his brand by adopting an intellectual position, rejecting sensuality, visual aesthetics, and the stylistic visual trends of his time in order to focus on ideas. But ideas belong to literature, ideas are for writing, whereas vision is for seeing. If you remove sensation from vision you have a scene no longer visible.  Jasper Johns wrote that Duchamp wanted to kill art “for himself”(17) andwe know that he was successful. This world is dualistic, solipsism is never far, Duchamp succeeded in killing art within his own world, “for himself”, he destroyed his own ability to make art and retired to play chess. Rejecting one’s sense is senseless, it’s nonsense as it makes one insensible. By denying and disrupting his personal taste he harmed the motivational functions of personal creative choice. Duchamp’s counter-aesthetic model says that a found object is as good as any work made by the artist and if you say that art is not worth making and you say it long enough, you will eventually believe yourself and lose interest in making art. Jasper Johns went on to say Duchamp tolerated, even encouraged the mythology around that ‘stopping’, “but it was not like that… He spoke of breaking a leg. ‘You didn’t mean to do it’ he said”.(18


And now history whispers thatPlato reproached Pericles because he did not “make the citizen better” and because the Athenians were even worse at the end of his career than before. (Gorgias515) Duchamp was also a poser, he posed questions not knowing the answers, throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.  Art was the highest expression of a culture until Duchamp suggested that iconoclasm could be the highest expression of a culture; that art was a mirage. At that point he officially stopped making art, then spent twenty years isolated in a small room located behind his now empty studio, working on Etant donnée.  His ideas had hurt him, like a broken leg, and it took us a hundred years to notice.


Kristin Lee Dufour’s comments (from a school assignment at Oxford) engage Duchamp’s philosophy. “The pertinence of the artist is erased in favor of the pertinence of the concept. In Duchamp’s readymades, the involvement of the artist as a generative source is minimal… Thus, the value of the artist as a craftsman, mastering a particular media, is annihilated, as are values attached to any of these media.”(19)It all sounds very unhealthy.


Peter Bürger argues insteadthat “the central distinction between the art of ‘bourgeois autonomy’ and the avant-garde is that whereas bourgeois production is ‘the act of an individual genius,’ the avant-garde responds with the radical negation of the category of individual creation…all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked…  it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art.”(20)


Notice Bürger’s revolutionary language “that radically questions the very principles of art in bourgeois society”… bourgeois, the B word, like a grenade tossed into the conversation; it signals your virtue and our horror when “an individual is considered the creator of the work of art”. Bürger fails to clarify what horror occurs when the individual is considered as the creator of a work of art, yet this abnegation would repeatedly infect the next hundred years, appearing in our time as postmodernism.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347, 8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?”

Hannah Arendt wrote, just as Goethe did, that “a life without speech and without action, on the other hand – and this is the only way of life that in earnest has renounced all appearance and all vanity in the biblical sense of the word – is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men and women.”(21)


 – The dark side –


There’s so much admiration for Duchamp that criticism is suspect, confrontational; it raises ours hackles, put us on defensive, threaten our intellectual investment.  Yet someone on Facebook wrote that when we can no longer explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets. If everyone’s an angel where do devils come from? If we fetishize heroes we lose sight of contextual influences; without that balance we become admiring fans instead of scholars.


Duchamp held himself at one remote from humanity, which means his inspirations may be no panacea but simply advice for those who wish to distance from life, live with less emotion.  We note a distance from the mainstream.  His father’s support meant that Duchamp did not face the financial anxiety most live with, which restricts their options.(22)  “Basically I’ve never worked for a living…  Also I haven’t known the pain of producing, painting not having been an outlet for me, or having a pressing need to express myself. I’ve never had that kind of need – to draw morning, noon, and night…”(23)   


Duchamp looked with horror on marriage, children, the time consuming bourgeois servitude to social expectations; “It wasn’t necessary to encumber one’s life with too much weight, with too many things to do, with what is called a wife and children, a country house, an automobile.  And I understood this, fortunately, rather early. This allowed me to live for a long time as a bachelor.”(24)   Duchamp’s first marriage (1927) lasted six months; “because I saw that marriage was as boring as anything, I was really much more of a bachelor than I thought. So, after six months, my wife very kindly agreed to a divorce…. That’s it.  The family that forces you to abandon your real ideas, to swap them for the things family believes in, society and all that paraphernalia.” He spoke of “a negation of woman in the social sense of the word, of the woman-wife, the mother, the children, etc.  I carefully avoided all that, until I was sixty-seven.  Then (1954) I married a woman (Alexina Teeny Sattler) who, because of her age, couldn’t have children.” They were both avid chess players. (25) 


It seems plausible that Duchamp was less sexual from comments like “marriage was as boring as anything”. Although that may also have been the result of his love of chess along withnarcissism and lack of empathy, since he spoke of a long affair with Mary Reynolds starting in 1923. The tale of Duchamp’s first marriage recounts that in 1927, exactly 27 years before his second marriage when he was 67, Marcel Duchamp, the French-born trail-blazer of conceptual art, married a young heiress called Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor. The honeymoon did not go well. Oxford University Press mentions that “Duchamp spent the one week they lived together studying chess problems,” recalled the artist’s close friend Man Ray, “and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.” They were divorced three months later.(26He was obviously open minded about sexuality in hisresponse to Frank Lloyd Wright’s question, posed to him at the Western Round Table on Modern Art in 1949, when he’d just said that he did not consider homosexuality to be degenerate: Wright-“You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly in debt to homosexualism [sic]?” Duchamp-“I admit it, but not in your terms. I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual public.”(27)  That’s a curious answer, that modern art was indebted to gays, who had shown more interest. It suggests they bought his work more than others, possibly friends?  Speculation abounds.


Though Duchamp may or may not have been asexual or ambisexual, he certainly queered the arts both creatively and occasionally in person. Alex Robertson Textor attests in his Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Culturesthat Duchamp “also posed for Man Ray in drag, displaying exaggerated feminine mannerisms, though not passing particularly well as a woman.  Considered from a range of feminist perspectives, Duchamp’s tendency to see Rrose Sélavy (invented in 1920) as his ‘muse’ can be seen as representing  an assimilation of an abstract ‘feminine’ as a territory for the critically transgressive. But since he was openly disdainful of feminism, this move is clearly problematic.”(28) Still, an aversion to feminism would not contradict a personal progress in integrating one’s own female side.


– The redemption of aesthetics in the meaning of art – 


So far we see Duchamp’s deflection and remoteness, a queering of norms that restricts the individual but still, norms that promote culture, the mainstay of life, sexuality, reproduction and family. Duchamp’s deflection includes an antipathy to work itself; “I did as few things as possible, which isn’t like the current attitude of making as much as you can, in order to make as much money as possible…(29Robert Motherwell  suggests that Duchamp found an ethic beyond “the aesthetic” for his ultimate choices. “To get away from the physical aspect of painting, I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”(30Duchamp was unaware of the subliminal visual language already at the service of the mind, as shown in Dennis Dutton’s A Darwinian Theory of Beauty.(31) A purely aesthetic choice bears a complexity no Dadaist ever imagined; postmodern theory is refuted by a primacy of biology that overrides any contingency of location or culture. There are unconscious factors at work that account for creative choices, there are depths of coding undecipherable by the conscious mind yet vital to our conceptual and experiential framework. Disposition, environment, practice, and experience can endow one with exceptional skills and inspiration, with a direct link to the creative unconscious of the mind.  Jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong, like many others, spoke of channeling a vibe as he played, flowing with the inner flow of a musical groove.


Duchamp on the other hand said “I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist.  He’s a man like any other… those who make things on a canvas, with a frame, they’re called artists.  Formerly they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer.”(32) Michelangelo could then be described as simply one more craftsman who makes objects out of marble, mainly statues. Our beliefs carry little weight with an objective reality that goes on with or without our approval.  Creativity has been experienced and documented by so many artists and scientists, their sheer volume discredits Duchamp’s assertion.  Without creativity we have a limited set of possibilities that can be memorized and structured in patterns, hence Duchamp’s love of chess, which is highly complex yet eventually predictable by computer… compared to creativity which is not. The 1996 match of IBM’s Deep Blue against Garry Kasparov, the Soviet grandmaster, proved that chess had a scientific consistency that could not be improved by chaotic and unrelated events, no creativity was truly involved, only an ability to memorize patterns and remember them.(33)


This negation of creativity would of course negate painting, which would then be simply a product, a decoration. Motherwell says that “Duchamp was the great saboteur, the relentless enemy of painterly painting… His disdain for sensual painting was…intense.”(34) When Cabane asked where his anti-retinal attitude comes from, Duchamp replied “from too great importance given to the retina.  Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error… still interested in painting in the retinal sense. Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral… It’s absolutely ridiculous.  It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.”  (Cabane’s footnote; Duchamp uses the word “retinal” in the way many people use “painterly”. In other words, Duchamp objects to the sensuous appeal of painting).”


“in a period like ours, when you cannot continue to do oil painting, which after four or five hundred years of existence, has no reason to go on eternally… The painting is no longer a decoration to be hung in the dining room or living room.  Art is taking on more the form of a sign, if you wish; it’s no longer reduced to a decoration…” On Cabane asking if easel painting is dead Duchamp replies “it’s dead for the moment, and for a good hundred and fifty years.  Unless it comes back; one doesn’t know why, but there’s no good reason for it.”(35)  “…The Coffee Grinder.It was there I began to think I could avoid all contact with traditional pictorial painting. I was able to get rid of tradition by this linear method.”(36)

We are told that “before Marcel Duchamp, a work of art was an artefact, a physical object. After Duchamp it was an idea, a concept. …  Duchamp had two strategic objectives. First, to destroy the hegemony exerted by an establishment which claimed the right to decide what was, and what was not, to be deemed a work of art. Second, to puncture the pretentious claims of those who called themselves artists and in doing so assumed that they possessed extraordinary skills and unique gifts of discrimination and taste.”(37) In an interview with Katherine Kuh, Duchamp said “I consider taste – bad or good – the greatest enemy of art.(38) I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.(39)  [My intention was to] completely eliminate the existence of taste, bad or good or indifferent.(40)


Duchamp was mistaken in thinking that taste was the enemy of art. Taste is the expression of the individual and what defines you as a person, taste is all you got.  As Michelle Marder Kamhi reports, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “emphasized (that) every perceptual experience we have is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration–an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, according to the circumstances–which is stored in the brain for future reference. Each new object we encounter is automatically compared to those stored cognitive and emotional memories of past experience, providing an instantaneous evaluation based on past knowledge and experience… art is not mere “cheesecake” for the mind. It is instead a cultural adaptation of great significance.”(41)When Duchamp “contradicted himself to avoid conforming to his own taste” he was wrecking havoc with the fine tuning of sensitive mechanisms within us, the antennas by which we attune to finer things, the calibrated controls by which we apprehend the most complex understanding.  No wonder ideas stopped coming and losing interest, Duchamp took to chess.  Taste is who you are; once your taste is lost your ability to make art goes with it, as happened to Marcel. We could see a lesson here, of committing oneself to an attractive idea that destroys you… but what else is nihilism expected to do? That’s Dada. Duchamp wanted to destroy art and he did. The majority today who emulate him are wracking havoc on art and likely harming themselves as well as the culture, which is why we live in an era of insanity in the cultural field. It’s the tale of the man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.Matthew 7:24-27 When everyone cheers a nihilism they haven’t considered and don’t understand, they will surely reap the whirlwind.


No establishment has any claim to the right to define art.  The practice of art is ruled by an instinct resurgent in time that ensured genetic survival. Painting is not five hundred years old. We have evidence of 100,000 years of red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens.Then the “pretentious claims of those who assumed they possessed extraordinary skills and unique gifts” were not pretentious, they were a fact.  Michelangelo proves that, as well as numerous artists since then who did and, including myself, do possess extraordinary skills and unique gifts of discrimination and taste. Painting is far more than mere decoration, but to experience that you unavoidably need a higher sensitivity and more complex feelings than come from processing through an intellectual paradigm.  Hannah Arendt wrote “if men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.”(42) 


One considers Edward Fry’s statement, published in 1972, that Hans Haacke “may be even more subversive than Duchamp, since he handles his Readymades in such a way that they remain systems that represent themselves and thus do not let themselves assimilate with art.”(43)  One can only gaze in admiration at this subversion, but remind me once again what we’re subverting in art and why desire systems that aren’t art?  I could agree art is terrible but explain to me why. Why not let art express it’s dynamic and potential instead of a neurotic seeking of greener grass in other pastures? As for the urinal, pissing on your bed is rarely a good idea, and never attractive. Those who believe art is to piss on should now leave the field to those with higher spiritual values.


Destabilizing Duchamp begins with the ontology and phenomenologyof visual art, which we call visual language.  As noted above, ideas are the object of writing, the subject of literature, while images are the subject of vision.  Ideas do complex thoughts but psychologists tells us there are other types of thinking than intellect. Obvious ones are feelings and intuition, both carry complex coded messages.  More surprising is visual language and dance, both of which are unmistakably sensory non-verbal communication. Albert Mehrabian (born 1939 to an Armenian family in Iran), currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, is known for his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes have been misquoted and misinterpreted throughout human communication seminars worldwide, and have also become known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking.(44)This gives us an idea of the relative importance of visual language, a precursor to written language and at least equal to it in complexity of expression, for a picture is worth a thousand words.  Kevin Zeng Hu, a Ph.D researcher at the MIT Media Lab, writes of images that “we all know how unwieldy texting can be and how much context can be lost, especially emotional context. Once you make it visual, you have a higher bandwidth to convey nuance.”(45Painting was already “at the service of the mind” and it was specifically the parts Duchamp sought to eliminate, the visual and subliminal, that were the most essential aspects both consciously and unconsciously.


Unawares, Duchamp was trying to invalidate a vital cultural expression, which explains why painting hasn’t died and why it’s more than a decoration. John Cage brought Duchamp’s ideas to music in his piece 4’33, which was entirely silent, the musicians did not play a note.  I myself have a conceptual painting performance titled “Homage to Marcel Duchamp”, where the public is asked to wear sleep masks handed them on entrance, and to let a guide bring them to a large unlit painting in a semi-dark room. After the viewer reaches the painting, they wait 10 seconds still wearing the eye mask in near darkness, and then are led out of the room.An indiscriminate practice is the realm of Thanatos, daemon of non-violent death. His touch was gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep).


Evidence says Duchamp bears blame in trying to dispense with limitations. The I CHING or Book of Changes is one of the Five Classics of Confucianism; under limitationswe read that unlimited possibilities are not suited for us; if they existed, our life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, one’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted.(52In a further note on the importance of parameters such as personal taste, compared to Duchamp’s attempt to discard these limits, the composer Igor Stravinsky writes “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles… and the arbitrariness of the constraint serve only to obtain precision of execution.(53) The difference between Stravinsky and Duchamp is that your ear tells you Stravinsky’s truth but your eyes and senses fail to perceive Duchamp’s intent. You have to be told what to see and think before you can “like” the urinal. That’s no longer art but religion, no longer visual art but text and illustration.


His Cubist work shows Duchamp as a highly gifted painter with a talent he denied to favor conceptual art, a strategy to distinguish his brand from the others. Ironically, the success of his cubist paintings gave Duchamp the credibility to promote a denial of personal taste and the destruction of painting, two points he often claimed as his goal. To deconstruct your process and functional aspects means you lose the function, then the motivation and so the ability. Why this was seen by Duchamp and the art world as a superior wisdom spells trouble and leads us to call for an ideological reformation, away from the practice of nonsense towards an understanding of the complex role of sense and sensation in the field of fine arts.


Nam in omni actione principaliter intenditur ab agente, sive necessitate naturae sive voluntarie agat, propriam similitudinem explicate; unde fit quod omne agens, in quantum huiusmodi, delectatur, quia, cum omne quod est appetat suum esse, ac in agenda agentis esse modammodo amplietur, sequitur de necessitate delectatio. . . . Nihil igitur agit nisi tale existens quale patiens fieri debet.


For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows. Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.




– Endnotes –


1-Richard Dorment, Marcel Duchamp: Art changed for ever, www.telegraph.co.uk

2-Calvin Tomkins: Duchamp: A Biography, page 159. Holt Paperbacks


3- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press.


5-Marcel DuchampTalking about Readymades, Interview by Phillipe Collins. p.40, Hatje Cantz.

6-Pierre Breton and Paul Eluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, p23, 1938.

Obalk, Hector: “The Unfindable Readymade”, toutfait.com, Issue 2, 2000.


7-Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p260, Reaktion Books.

8-Dennis Dutton,A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube. https://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty

9-Wikipedia, Science, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science

10-History of cosmetics.http://www.crystalinks.com/earlymakeup.html

11-Dennis Dutton,A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube.


12-Walter Benjamin, preface, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.


13-DADA Companion, http://www.dada-companion.com

14Jung, Carl G. (1971). Psychological Types. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01813-8.


15-Joan Blackwell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel DuchampLate Night Line-Up, 1968BBC ARTS.


16Rosalin Kraus, The Impulse To See, Vision and Visuality, 1988 Dia art foundationhttps://monoskop.org/images/3/39/Foster_Hal_ed_Vision_and_Visuality.pdf

17-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, An appreciation, p110, Da Capo Press.

18-Ibid, p109.

19- Kristin Lee Dufour. The Influence of Marcel Duchamp upon The Aesthetics of Modern Art, p3 12/2010,


20-Marjorie Perloff, Peter BürgerTheory of the Avant-Garde(1980, trans. 1984)


21-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The Disclosure Of The Agent In Speech And In Action p176


22-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p33, Da Capo Press.

23-Ibid, p15

24-Ibid, p76.

25-Ibid, p76.

26-The Oxford Dictionary of art, ed. Ian Chilvers, Marcel Duchamp, p221, Oxford University Press

27-Douglas MacAgy, ed., “The Western Round Table on Modern Art

in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt’s Modern Artists in America(New York: Wittenborn Schulz, 1951), p. 30.

28-Alex Robertson Textor, Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures, p262, Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000

29-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, I live the life of a waiter, p95, Da Capo Press.

30-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p11, Da Capo Press.

31-Dennis Dutton,A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube.


32-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Eight Years of Swimming Lessons, p16, Da Capo Press.

33-Marina Koren, When Computers Started Beating Chess Champions


34-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Introduction, Robert Motherwell, p12, Da Capo Press.

35-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p43, Da Capo Press.

36-Ibid. p36

37-Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture– March 10, 2015


38-Katherine Kuh , The Artist’s Voice, p92, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1960

39-quoted by Harriet & Sidney Janis in ‘Marchel Duchamp: Anti-Artist’ in Viewmagazine 3/21/45;

reprinted in Robert Motherwell, Dada Painters and Poets(1951)

40-The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978, p. 164

41-Michelle Marder Kamhi,Why Discarding the Concept of “Fine Art” Has Been a Grave Error


42- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The Disclosure Of The Agent In Speech And In Action p175


43-Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p278, Reaktion Books.

44-Albert Mehrabianhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Mehrabian

45-Lorraine Boissoneault, A Brief History of the GIF, Smithsonian.com,

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-gif-early-internet-innovation-ubiquitous-relic-180963543/ – W2SG7W2VZcchjom7.99

46-Arthur C. Danto, Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste:*A Defense of Contemporary Art



48-Wilhelm/Baynes, I CHING, Limitations, p231, Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press

49-Matthew McDonald, Jeux de Nombres, Automated Rhythm in The Rites of Spring. Journal of the American Musicology Society, Vol. 63, No.3, Fall 2000, p499.


Toronto Editor: Miklos Legrady

Published by Luxenburg Magazine

Don't have an account?


You don't have permission to register