In 1917 Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into a readymade sculpture. He called it “Fountain”, and tried to exhibit it at the Independents Exhibition in New York. It was the largest exhibition of modern art ever mounted in America; the “Fountain” was not accepted, but even so it revolutionized the world of art.
Duchamp wanted to question the notion of what constituted a work of art. In his view academics and critics were unqualified judges of taste, so he had to come up with his own standard. This is what he landed on:
- Something – anything – is art if an artist say so.
In Duchamp’s view the artist is the expert, but at the same time he warned against understanding the artist as someone extraordinary; artists, he said, took themselves and were taken much too seriously.
A second notion presented was:
- The art is in the idea, not the object.
This second notion directly influenced several major movements, e.g.: Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism …
Eve Babitz and Marcel Duchamp playing chess at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 18, 1963. Photo by Julian Wasser.
According to Duchamp the artist’s role in society is akin to that of the philosopher; it doesn’t matter if he can draw or paint, his job is not to give us aesthetic pleasure (designers can do that), the artist’s role is to step back from the world and attempt to make sense or comment on it through the presentation of ideas that have no functional purpose other than themselves.
Duchamp privileged philosophy over technique. Craft was left behind as something belonging to the age of uninformed darkness. Most people working in art today like for example Will Gompertz (the BBC art director who has written an excellent book called: What are you looking at? (2012)) see the paradigmatic shift following Duchamp as a positive revolution, as true emancipation.
I’m not always so sure. (By admitting so, I know I express myself as a conventional figurative fundamentalist – who I am not). But I have several worries regarding our contemporary situation, worries both regarding beauty and philosophy. The situation – as I see it – can be described like this: A lot of art galleries and museums are filled with art not worth spending time on or with, ugly art, boring exhibitions, hermetical objects, badly made works with nothing important to say, works participating in a debate only understood by an elite (a closed society – believers).
To be a good conceptual artist (like Duchamp) you have to be a good thinker, like a clever and original philosopher. Most artists are not. It seems to me that the art world to a large degree overvalues the intellectual potential of artists. Through this naiveté I’m afraid a lot of contemporary art institutions does nothing but eradicate the role of art and artists in our society.
This is my impression (I know its rather harsh): very few artist have a talent for conceptual art, most conceptual art is not of any general interest.
I’d love to hear your view!