Why you should care
Duchamp’s readymades are what’s behind all those weird installations you’re struggling to “get” each time you visit MoMA.
It’s been exactly 100 years since Marcel Duchamp, since hailed as the Father of Dada, attached a bicycle wheel to a stool by its forks — and sparked an idea that would change the art world forever. It was innocent enough at first: Duchamp wanted a kinetic corner-piece in his studio to look at and give an occasional spin to. The piece was never shown in an art gallery or museum, but Duchamp later called Bicycle Wheel his first “readymade,” or, as he defined it, “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”
Duchamp was trying to get away from what he called “retinal” art, art based on visuals alone.
Critics and curators since have declared one of Duchamp’s subsequent readymades, Fountain (1917), the 20th century’s most influential work of art, though it was nothing more than a urinal Duchamp turned on its side and signed “R. Mutt.” Back then, the Society of Independent Artists refused to exhibit Fountain, but it’s worth asking now what he was getting at, and what contemporary art has inherited from the idea. That’s what Israel’s Haifa Museum of Art is doing with its commissioned exhibit, 100 Years of the Readymade, which runs through January 2014 and shows the work of 37 artists, including a replica of Bicycle Wheel created by Duchamp and art collector Arturo Schwarz in 1964.
The work of the other artists at Haifa’s exhibit comments on the readymades, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. Some pieces, like Hadas Hassid’s meticulous drawings of shopping receipts, play with the tension between found art and created art. Others, like Daniel Davidovsky’s piece, which consists of a bicycle suspended over and connected by tape to two old recorders, are more direct homages to Duchamp’s found objects.
Duchamp was trying to get away from what he called “retinal” art, art based on visuals alone, which dominated the scene of the day. In readymades, concept took precedence over physical manifestation. Artists didn’t create readymades; they found them and declared them “art.”
A century later, perhaps the most relevant question about Duchamp is whether conceptual art has gone too far, as some critics claim, or has simply been played out. Are installations like Cornelia Parker’s The Maybe (1995 and ongoing) — in which Tilda Swinton sometimes sleeps in a glass box (and sometimes doesn’t) — artistic, commercial hype or something else entirely? What about Damien Hirst’s famous pickled shark, or Marc Quinn’s self-portrait as a sculptured bust made from his own frozen blood?
There have been many backlashes against what’s sometimes seen as the excesses of conceptual art since Duchamp — and increasingly, the criticism is coming from within the art world. Critics like Dave Hickey have leveled some of the harshest attacks, and not long ago David Nahmad, one of the biggest art dealers in the world, called the prices charged by the contemporary art market “almost a fraud,” citing inflated prices for overhyped work. (This came on the heels of Hirst’s announcement that he had sold his piece For the Love of God, a skull covered in diamonds, for £50 million or close to $100 million.)
Perhaps Duchamp is more palatable than some of his contemporary heirs because of his sharp wit and childlike humor.
Not far from Duchamp’s idea that art is defined by the artist is that the artist also defines her own market. There’s some debate as to whether there was even a real buyer for Hirst’s piece or whether it was a marketing ploy. At least one critic argued that a such a marketing ploy would be a work of art in itself. You have to wonder: Need an artist do more than put a price tag on an idea and then pretend to sell it at a high price? Is that art? It’s fair to wonder — and yet many wondered the same about Duchamp’s readymades a century ago.
Perhaps Duchamp is more palatable than some of his contemporary heirs because of his sharp wit and childlike humor, the same kind that created Bicycle Wheel. There was a playfulness to most of what he did. Maybe his true heir is not Hirst, Parker or Quinn but the elusive street artist Banksy. Whatever you think of Banksy’s stenciled street art, his subversive antics are clever and often fun to watch, and just as Duchamp’s stunts did, they tend to challenge established ideas in the art world. This month, Banksy set up a table on a sidewalk in New York and tried to sell some of his original pieces for $60, some of which had been declared worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. There weren’t many takers. But no matter; the sidewalk sale itself was the work of art. And just as with Duchamp’s readymades, it wasn’t the curator who decided.