Marcel Duchamp saw that art and politics mixed poorly. His observations continue to provide a valuable point of view for examining definitions of art and the artist within the contemporary art world.
In a choice between an inbred state establishment and a dubious mix of rebellious, independent artists, Duchamp sided with the artists. The Beaux-Arts Academy with its state jury was the most powerful, tightly controlled, cultural establishment in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Reform was inevitable, and he knew it.
The artist had a gift for examining reality from different angles. At CSULB, Professor Karen Kleinfelder recalled that Duchamp watched the fluid visuals of a chess game in progress. The artist was very competitive. He would not make a game winning play if it disrupted the pleasing way that the pieces looked on the square chessboard. Duchamp had a practiced eye. He recognized art.
The Salon des Independants formed in reaction to the state’s abuse of power. Artists alone would determine what qualified as art. The artist was welcome to submit their work as long as they paid the entrance fee of ten francs. If Duchamp sided with French artists furious at despotic jury evaluations favoring the state, he saw imperfection in the independents’ solution.
When, for example, Duchamp entered Fountain in the 1917 Salon des Independants, it was rejected. Duchamp had selected a porcelain urinal and signed it “R. Mutt.” The independents’ committee raised its prissy eyebrows at the submission. They were scandalized. The artist’s choice was a guiding principle of the Salon des Independents. Duchamp acted accordingly. In 1917 the Salon broke its rules by rejecting work that met its definition of art.
Consider Fountain for a moment in aesthetic terms apart from its initial function. The elegant line, symmetrical shape, exquisite marble (a material that sculptors have appreciated throughout history) conspired in a way that met traditional definitions of beauty. Duchamp chose an aesthetically pleasing object and boldly pronounced it art.
Forty-odd years later Duchamp’s choice was finally validated with replicas admitted to museum collections across the globe. In the January edition of ARTFORUM, Thierry de Duve in “Why Was Modernism Born in France?” argues that if the 60s vanguard ratified the artist’s decision, they nevertheless miscalculated its terms when they concluded that if anything could be art, then anyone could be an artist.
The author draws Duchamp’s 1917 commentary away from the notion invented by the 60s vanguard by emphasizing that the artist worked within the parameters of the art establishment of the day. By contrast, the 60s looked forward to a place where anyone could be an artist. It projected into an area that could not be seen. Duchamp’s message said nothing about the status of the artist within a utopian culture. The nature of the Salon’s so-called independence from the state was the point of interest.
De Duve offers a worthwhile examination of the difference between the European and American art worlds. While the French have always had an – often tired — system in place, American artists haven’t known rigid government control.
Then again, American artists are not respected in contemporary culture. Art is considered inferior to disciplines that value logical thinking. Artists are not rocket scientists. They need no formal education, nor a degree. A portfolio is a sole requirement.
In the current economic climate, however, art has become dispensable within a federal system eager to cut spending. A lack of rigor hasn’t served the American art establishment as it has struggled for credibility.
President Obama advocated funding the arts during the 2012 campaign. The chances of funding in the current political climate are slim to none. Never mind that educators represented by the National Education Association have found that art education correlates to student achievement. Playing an instrument reinforces math skills. Memorizing a script improves language arts comprehension. It states that analyzing a painting enriches critical thinking skills. It’s that simple.
In the United States, the burden is on art alone to survive. It must consider itself from every angle. It needs practiced eyes. Cavalier definitions of the artist will not help us gain respectability. The artist must be qualified to determine what is and isn’t art. It’s a daunting task. There is no consensus when it comes to definitions of art. Nevertheless, we must think through these problems.
If Duchamp sided with the revolt, he was equivocal about the Salon des Independents. A flawed institution displaced an imperfect system. Moreover, the artists themselves were often mediocre with the exception of the Impressionists,
De Duve recalls that Duchamp advocated allowing the aristocracy into the brave new world of independents, even if it meant fishing them out of the gutter. Duchamp had mixed feelings about the aristocracy. Andre Breton and others within his circle wrote about the Duchamp’s sense of refinement. They saw that he didn’t wear berets or conform to cheap artist caricatures. Duchamp was preoccupied with art.
By not funding the arts, we cheat ourselves in our imperfect democracy. Human beings should have a right to discover their creative potential. Creating a vital art community requires the participation of our better selves.