nicholas nicola etchings

 marcel duchamp and found objects


Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades are the found objects of everyday life through which the lost meaning of our lives can also be found.*


Art is useless

Art is life. Life is art. It is said that Marcel Duchamp led his life as if it was an artwork.  One could imagine this revolutionary ‘anti-artist’ saying: ‘the anti-art is where I am.’ **   Thus it is not surprising that domestic things in the presence of Duchamp would eventually gravitate towards him and become art objects. Here was an artist where the centrifugal forces of art history hovered towards the captivating, gravitational pull of his original mind that was like the sun shining in an ever increasing dark universe of cultural banality.  Much has already been written about the ready-mades such as the bottle rack and urinal which gained high art status (or high art notoriety – depending on your point of view) simply by having the name Marcel Duchamp assigned to them.  There is also Duchamp’s bicycle wheel bolted on top of a stool which – unlike his found objects – does not even serve a utilitarian function; seemingly serving as a symbol to the idea that art also serves no useful purpose. (There is a photo of this object at the very end of this webpage).

Yet, art is revered.


Art is spiritual

For although art serves no ‘materially useful’ role in the physical world it serves a pre-eminent role in helping to shape, focus and visualise the world of ideas and it is this unseen world that immensely shapes the physical world in which we live. 

For instance there is the tradition of an obvious higher order monumental ‘spiritual art’ from say the time of the Great Pyramids through to say the Sistine Ceiling which helped to verify a ‘natural order’ based on a rigid class system in which the priests and the aristocrats could control society. Yet, more relevant for us is to consider the social/ideological role of art in a more secular historical period such as seventeenth century Holland which is known as the Golden Age of Dutch Art. The abundance of oil paintings for a new middle class corresponded with the heightened economic growth of this burgeoning Protestant nation; one’s prosperity was based more on one’s individual ability to obtain wealth (rather than being born into wealth and having one’s arbitrary high status justified by the notion of a Divine Benefactor).  Conversely, those without wealth ‘deserved’ the low status and social disdain thrust upon them by their more privileged peers.  Thus there existed a sort of ‘Social Darwinian’ approach to morality to justify how some had the right to be superior over others.

Art is secular

God ‘blessed’ even those with an increasingly  secular view of the world with the means, knowledge and ambition to create capital while those without such monetary drive were to be ‘damned’; thus also justifying a mean attitude whereby those who were genuinely poor or exploited could not expect help from those ‘blessed’ who had plenty. The ‘low life’ of an affluent society only had them-selves to blame for having God’s righteous will shun them. What is worse, the ‘blessed’ – both Protestant and Catholic - did not have to seriously deal with the immoral issue of enslaving whole populations from whole continents such as Africa and Latin America for their economic prosperity; such ‘sub-humans’ were not even Christian and as they often resisted conversion deserved the status of ‘heathen’ and the brutal oppression as ‘pseudo-divine punishment’ from ‘God’s true people’ that came their way.    

Art is material

The Calvinistic notion of ‘the elect’ who will go to heaven had its advantages for those who considered themselves amongst a materially well-off ‘elect’ while still here on earth.  It is an insidious, inhumane cultural sensibility that one suspects still prevails to this day although in a more, subtle secular form. Of course, all this ‘meanness’ is totally anti-thetic to the ‘human values’ that art is meant to espouse.

Art is social control

In my first visual reading of the domestic and tavern scenes of seventeenth century Dutch art I was encouraged by the depiction of such subject matter that dealt with the everyday lives of people. Such ‘down-to-earth’ paintings contrast sharply with the mythological/biblical paintings far more common in Catholic Europe in which it is easy to see how such idealised works can be perceived as propaganda narratives for the ruling elites. Yet, one has to also consider the social context in which many of these everyday Dutch paintings were produced. Firstly, it is said there were thousands of paintings as the demand was great and it reminds one of today’s world whereby nearly every member of our society has a photographic record of his or her surrounding world. Photographs – like paintings did before the development of photography - more-or-less serve one rather timeless and universal emotional function of art and that is people have desired a visual record of their lives - for themselves and for a wider audience and most importantly of those events and personages that especially matter e.g. family members; friends; wedding days; birthday parties; travel; sport; etcetera; the reader can go through his or her own photo album to see their own significant subject matter. Suffice to say, that a human need to capture a visual record of life – whether it be for religious or personal reasons - goes back to the dawn of time when humanity chose to paint hunters, bison etcetera in caves.

Art is status

Yet art – or rather the possession of it as well as being the subject matter of it - also serves the function of endearing an individual with status.  

People’s collection of everyday photos do not necessarily - or at least on an overtly conscious level - serve the role of enhancing one’s social significance; yet the traditional oil painting can have such a social function and in seventeenth century Dutch society the rising wealthy middle classes wanted pictorial representations of such self-made prosperity which would help to both bolster and depict one’s higher status position in this new material society.

 Art is big business

Thus we also see the dramatic rise of an open art market which makes the production of art much more of a business enterprise than ever before (with all the ‘natural laws’ of free market economics imbued within the supposed pure cultural schema of the ‘art world’) and which it remains so to the present day.

Art is middle class

As to the art of the middle classes R.H. Wilenski comments in Dutch Painting:

  Dutch popular art at the beginning of the seventeenth century was produced for and bought by the Dutch middle classes. After the Dutch Revolution all classes in Holland-except the lowest-became rich and grew steadily richer as the century advanced. In particular there arose large well-to-do middle classes who prospered in trade, commerce and speculation. The Dutch self­-made man in these classes, if exceptionally rich and snobbish, bought the same pictures as the aristocrats and dilettanti the pictures, that is to say, which I have hitherto discussed. But the average self-made man was, of moderate means, and he was also an average Philistine who demanded pictures depicting a world with which he was himself familiar-a world in which he could move at ease and in which he himself and his familiar experience would appear of cardinal importance; and the Dutch portraits of Mijnheer, his wife, his house, his meadow and his dog were the response to this demand.

Also, it must be noted, the average Dutch bourgeois wanted his pictures to be cheap. The exceptionally rich merchant might indulge in the luxury of a painting by Poelenburgh, Berchem or Wouwerman, even perhaps by Honthorst, Lastman or Van der Werff; but the average Dutch bourgeois preferred something that made less de­mands on his imagination, something more directly flattering to his vanity, and also something which cost less money. The old popular art of the woodcut and engraving had always been cheap; and when that art was widely translated into oil paint it was also offered at low prices. It was not, in fact, till the nineteenth century that popular artists anywhere began to demand high prices-for their works, and they were only enabled to do this because institutions like the Royal Academy invested them with official honours and thus gave them a status which they had never attained or aspired to before.

  The pictures painted in Holland to please the middle classes had thus certain fixed characteristics. They were small, because middle class houses in town or country, compared with noblemen's mansions, were not large; they were descriptive of some aspect of everyday life, because the middle classes only reacted then-as they only react now-to art depicting life within their own familiar experience; they were naturalistic in technique, because this technique is the record of the automatic vision of the normal human eye, and works painted in this technique can be apprehended by the patron's eye without the exercise of any imagination or other mental activity; and, above all, they were cheap.

  As already noted in discussing the development of chiaroscuro painting and baroque tactility, the system of naturalistic painting from the model, which began in the Carracci art school, soon arrived in Holland. Early 'in the seventeenth century, any Dutch boy could acquire in a few months a considerable degree of efficiency in the new system of copying the lights and shadows on a posed model, which was so much easier than the old system of representation by symbolic line; and the Dutch artists soon discovered that to paint small descriptive pictures of everyday life in the naturalistic technique was a relatively easy and not unpleasant way to make a modest living. Hence the enormous number of these Dutch popular painters of the period.

  It is sometimes thought strange that whole families of these Dutchmen for several generations were painters. But this was really no more strange than that whole families for several generations should have been shoemakers or carpenters. The production of the Dutch popular picture was a trade, and one quite quickly learned; and the son who left a trade which had supported his father to run after some other was regarded quite naturally as a fool until he justified his bohemian excursion by results.

  At first, the demand for this popular art was larger than the supply, but as the production was so easy, over-production soon inevitably arrived. From being cheap, the pictures soon became cheaper, and finally so cheap that all classes, except the very poor, could afford to buy them. In Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century there were oil paintings everywhere-in all the rooms of the houses of the middle classes, in the taverns, in the back rooms of .,shops, and in cottages. They were hung up everywhere, just as photogravures of The Sailor's Return or The Dancing Dog were hung up everywhere at the end of the nineteenth century in England. 1

 Yet, what should intrigue us is the social ‘hidden agenda’ of such inexpensive populist art. John Berger in his famous Ways of Seeing sums it up well:

The so-called 'genre' picture -the picture of 'low life' - was thought of as the opposite of the mythological picture. It was vulgar instead of noble. The purpose of the 'genre' picture was to prove - either positively or negatively - that virtue in this world was rewarded by social and financial success. Thus, those who could afford to buy these pictures - cheap as they were - had their own virtue confirmed. Such pictures were particularly popular with the newly arrived bourgeoisie who identified themselves not with the characters painted but with the moral which the scene illustrated. Again, the faculty of oil paint to create the illusion of substantiality lent plausibility to a sentimental lie: namely that it was the honest and hard-working who prospered, and that the good-for-nothings deservedly had nothing. 2

The way what appears to be an innocuous painting can express a particular moral undertone or ideological view of the world can be considered via the use of vanitas symbols in Dutch still lifes.  A vanitas symbol is an object incorporated into a painting that prompts the viewer to realise that this life is an illusion for an inescapable death awaits him or her.

Art is mortal


 Yes, our life is ephemeral and the skull in a still life reminds us of this; also we may sight a watch at the bottom of a vase of flowers to let us know that time – an element of this mortal world (for eternity is timeless) – leads to decay and so the beautiful flowers we see will wither just as we - with our vain sense of ‘human glory’ - will also pass away. Nevertheless, consider the following remark:

These paintings are paradoxical, in that they depend upon the enjoyment of beautiful objects in a fine painting while simultaneously admonishing the viewer to beware of material preoccupations.’3

Thus if one wants to be a harsh judge this particular pictorial/ideological contradiction shows a sort of moral hypocrisy on the part of the typical ‘material-orientated’ viewer who chose to have such reminders of earthly vanity placed in their works – for appearance’s sake - but who chose to live by monetary values that believed that it was right to ‘reproduce’ heaven on earth.

To review how an oil painting such as an ‘innocent’ still life may be far more than just a decorative work but rather a ‘container’ of ideas consider the following observation: 

Willem Kalf (1619-1693)…another very famous Baroque still life painter, who within his works records social, historical and economic statements.  These social, economic and historical messages refer directly to the trade routes to the East and to the Americas.  It shows the wealth gained from trading due to the inclusion of many luxurious objects within the arrangements he painted. A statement about society is made due to ones desire to have these precious goods, and the ability of the wealthy to afford these goods.  It also makes a historical statement by telling the viewer that these goods were gained due to the trade routes, and a reference that makes one today think of the very famous trading company the Dutch East India Company.  These luxury items such as Turkish carpets, porcelain, and rare fruits make a direct reference to the prosperity of the Dutch trading ships and merchants.  In the painting Still-Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, one can see Kalf’s desire to show off these worldly goods that had been brought back to Holland via the trade route. This painting makes a nationalistic statement of the prosperity, wealth and power of Holland.’ 4

 Art is oil painting

 Oil painting became the predominant ‘host’ in European art to carry this ‘immoral bacilli’ of the idea that those in power were best suited to bring into play the necessary social controls that would disallow the social progress of any other class to undermine the status quo.

Yet, to take the matter one step further a corresponding money grubby attitude to art that also came further to the fore is not too surprising when one considers the notion that oil painting – as the predominant art object in Europe – represented a world that advocated that those who possessed most things had the right to rule over everyone else. High art – or more rather its subject matter of ‘important’ social portraits or of heroic mythological scenes (mainly common in Catholic Europe) to which the aristocracy chose to identify with by which there was an ‘obvious connection’ of them to a higher deity or to an idealised natural world - validated a worldview whereby it was deemed that the strict ‘social-control’ conventions that were in place had to be seen as the ‘natural order’. To own ‘high art’ whose subject matter was often of a higher order ‘moral’ mythological world was to acknowledge that you as a member of a ‘chosen elite’ had the capability and the ‘God favoured right’ to ‘own’ much more of the world than the majority of other people.  In this regard ‘national myth’ – and being identified as a defender or hero of it also achieves for one a special status. 

In relation to Marcel Duchamp who rejected ‘retinal art’ such as oil painting it is worth wondering if what he was really doing was rejecting the material ideas that found validation through such a predominant art form in European culture; Marcel Duchamp perhaps believed that to seek new cultural values - new ‘cultural spaces’ needed to be devised. He was not fond of the ‘habit’ of producing art the way it had always been done and it was certainly time at the start of the twentieth century to break with centuries of this regime of ‘cultural habit’. In Marcel Duchamp we may see not so much a champion of an art of ideas but rather an art of the right ideas (for much art is the expression of an idea). Although at least get away from the pretence that what is actually a purely decorative ‘empty’ artwork ‘embodies’ some ‘great ideal’ that many a pimp art dealer would like to convince an art buyer/collector to believe so as to arbitrarily/artificially inflate the monetary value. (Moreover, it also seems that what passes for ‘high brow’ conceptual/installation art these days is more akin to ‘decorating the mind’ rather than providing any great insight for it. To go back to the notion of a social/political context for art: I consider the installation work that I saw in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Vilnius Lithuania which seemed to me to be dealing with an authentic re-evaluation of looking at the world as this society was going through the societal-psychological transformation process of moving away from an oppressive state-controlled perception of ‘reality’ to a liberal democratic viewpoint that would hopefully be a positive step despite all the human pitfalls that western capitalism also ‘provides.’). 

Art is counterfeit

Marcel Duchamp would probably have agreed with Leo Tolstoy’s remarks if he ever read them:

‘Art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost. In order to be able to speak about the art of our society, it is, therefore, first of all necessary to distinguish art from counterfeit art.’ 5

Art is idea

To make the necessary artistic distinction (that Leo Tolstoy intimates) according to Marcel Duchamp it was essential that the mind predominate over the eyes to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ once more what is real. At this point it will be of some value to consider the philosophical ideas of Rênes Descartes who placed more importance on the mind to deduce what is true rather than on trusting the physical senses. In essence Cartesian thinking (the word Cartesian comes from the second part of Descartes name) entails doubting what we ‘know’ and then through the reliable process of logical deduction learning what is actually true. The world of the unseen in which our mind ‘resides’ is to be trusted over our physical senses which there is more scope for error e.g. In The First Meditation Descartes sites how our eyes can be deceived when a straight branch in a river appears bent by the water.  Rene Descartes states the only thing in which he can ultimately believe in is in his ongoing ability to think and to think is to know that he exists. “I think therefore I am.” (Cogito, ergo sum in Latin or as he stated originally in French:  "Je pense donc je suis," in Discourse on Method published in 1637). This notion of the mind’s pre-eminence over the body’s sense to deduce reality is of relevance to an understanding of Marcel Duchamp for his new approach to aesthetics chooses to ‘strip away’ what is seen on the canvas – in fact, do away with the canvas all together - to initiate a response from his audience that ‘directs’ it to perceive as more important what can be perceived as ‘art’ or ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ or an ‘idea’ and so forth in the human mind. A ‘canvas of/on the mind’ is what the art/anti-art genius Marcel Duchamp leaves us with when he chooses to reject the oil canvas which has been the main cultural ‘totem’ of Western art. It can be said – that despite all that Marcel Duchamp has ‘shown’ us - the canvas picture still remains the most manageable, transportable product for the present day art market. Although the advertising industry may prove otherwise, it is far more difficult to sell an immaterial idea and hang it on the wall than a coloured piece of material.  Nevertheless, a deductive Cartesian mental approach could help one to ‘test’ the ‘humane value’ of the idea presented to us; as well as through the prism of Duchampian conceptual art to see if the idea is valid.

Art is eternal


As another aside it is ironic to consider how the great Dutch master Rembrandt is revered for paintings that were produced outside the ideologically corrupt, monetary and restrictive stylistic demands of the art market of his time; but rather came into existence on his own terms as personal and spiritual reflections of his own sense of what it was to be a human being. Rembrandt’s main concern was to express ‘eternity’; not a nation’s aspirations:

If we examine Rembrandt's compositions we find that they were never excuses for the display of natural facility or acquired tricks, or the enlargement of purely architectural experience. No work by Rembrandt is primarily architectural art like the classical works by Raphael or Vermeer or Poussin or the modern Cubists and their successors. With the classical artists the form of the picture is the real subject and the nominal subject is incidental. With Rembrandt the form of the picture comes after his concept of the subject as human drama and derives from it. Motifs from twenty sources may be exploited in a Rembrandt composition at different stages, but the first stage-as we see it in his drawings or in the first states of his etchings-is Rembrandt's concept of a dramatic subject, which has aroused his sympathy and interest and which he has set out to illus­trate. With Rembrandt the form is the expression of his attitude to his subject, and to the universe as a whole.

  Rembrandt's compositions have no relation to the descriptive illustrations in popular art where the. artist's concept is limited by his familiar experience of everyday life and where his aim is contact with the familiar experience of spectators. Rembrandt was not con­cerned in his compositions with the little everyday appearances of the Dutch life around him, or with little national character­istics like the Dutch popular painters whose works I shall dis­cuss later. His concepts were the opposite of popular, that is to say, they were essentially original; they were not descriptive but imaginative; and Rembrandt's imagination was of the romantic kind.

  In The Modern Movement in Art I referred to Rembrandt as the herald of the nineteenth century Romantic Movement. As I pointed out there the artists of that movement substituted the recording of unusual emotive fragments for the attempt to create a formal har­mony and unity symbolizing a formal harmony and unity in the universe, which is and always has been the classical architectural idea of art; the nineteenth-century romantics also entertained the notion that fragments remote in time or space were more emotive than those near at hand; and the foundation of their procedure was the stressing of the aspect of their subject to which they had emotionally reacted, and the form of their pictures was dictated by that stress.At the same time in discussing the typical classical-architectural artist's activity, I described it as deriving from an instinct towards order, and I described the typical work of classical-architectural art as a finite ordering of architectural experience in a form compre­hensible to the human mind, To achieve this synthesis a man must conceive the universe as a finite entity in space, with bounds and a definite shape (a cube for example or a sphere), and functioning within its boundaries as an organization in accordance with a system of laws which man as such, and the formal artist in particular, is instinctively impelled to attempt to discover. Such a concept of the universe was entirely foreign to the mind of Rembrandt, and it was because it had also been foreign to the mind of Elsheimer (as already noted) that Elsheimer's pictures meant so much to him. For Rembrandt the universe was essenti­ally boundless, not only in space but in time. He could not con­template the use of geometric symbols to synthesize what he divined as infinite-. For him the universe was not a miraculously functioning geometric organization, but a boundless and eternal mystery, and the fragments in it were emotive in relation to that mystery. It is this attitude of mind which explains the difference between Rembrandt's dramatic illustrations and those by his historical antecedents. If we realize the attitude, we understand his reluctance to define physical forms, we understand his reaction to the remote in place-the turbans, the parasols and other exotic frippery which must seem otherwise no more than the Wardour Street `Orientalism' of the nineteenth-century Romantic Movement; we understand the crazy buildings of no time, place or recognizable style taken from the Elsheimer tradition which derive from his reaction to the remote in time; and we understand, too, those backgrounds in which we not only `stagger from one abyss of obscurity to another' to the delight of Hazlitt and the horror of Ruskin, but in which we can also travel freely from undefined light to undefined darkness, and from undefined darkness to undefined light, in a universe without bounds or geometric shape.

 The form of Rembrandt's pictures, in a word, is the logical expression of his attitude of mind.6

 An ‘attitude’ of mind that perhaps considers St. Paul’s advice:

‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’ Colossians 3: 2. [NIV].

It is not an attitude of a petty-bourgeoise mind that has a painter simply ‘photographing’ a visible reality but one that seeks to perceive what cannot be seen in much the same way that Marcel Duchamp desires to do. More so, desiring to see in the mind a preferred world view that supersedes a present day social reality that may be essentially unacceptable to the human spirit. 

Art is human

R.H. Wilenski continues:

‘By the process of rejecting pic­torial architecture as he knew it from his studies, he arrived at the creation of a new architecture of his own which was based on Elsheimer's; and though this architecture is not the subject of his works or his main preoccupation, it is none the less an essential part of-them. In works where his hand failed him or in works ascribed to him but really by one of his pupils, this becomes an affair of a theatrical spot-light scarcely more impressive than a spot-light effect by Honthorst. But in the works where his hand obeyed him his whole attitude is expressed in the relations of massed light and shade which have poise and balance though none can say where the light begins or the shadow ends.

 It is this attitude also which explains his treatment of religious subjects. Once he had worked through the rhetoric of a plate like the large Raising of Lazarus which he etched at the age of twenty-six, to the small plate of the same subject done the year after Saskia died, his religious paintings, ~etchings and drawings developed the character of the religious paintings by Elsheimer. They are not religious art in the sense of art called forth by the service of the Church. They are so palpably unecclesiastic that he is believed by some to have been a Jew or of Jewish extraction, though nominally a member of the Protestant Faith.' But these works can be explained without this hypothesis. To the conventional mind religion is dogma which satisfies because it claims to provide a finite explanation of the universe. To the original mind, on the other hand, religion stands for the unknown; its function is to keep the unknown continually in human consciousness. The architectural religious mind conceives one definite after-life for good men and another definite after-life for bad men. The romantic religious mind conceives a disembodied spirit disappearing after death into infinite space and infinite time. To Rembrandt's romantic mind Christianity was not the Roman Church or the Protestant Church or Christian dogma; it was not even a symbol of a divine order; it was a symbol of the mystery of life. To Rembrandt the life of Jesus was the life of man and the life of every man was the life of Jesus. In the same spirit he conceived the figures in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. He is generally said to have thought of the Bible stories in terms of daily life. But it is more accurate to say that he thought of life in terms of the Bible; for he conceived the simplest aspects of the life around him in relation to a boundless past and a boundless future and the Bible stories as symbols of that relation…Rembrandt...conceives the universe as formless and seeks the indefinite in time and space... there again he, is great by reason of another quality which permeates the finest examples of his art.

This other quality is his human sympathy which was wide and deep. Without this quality much of his work would be `the effect of rottenness' that it appeared to Gerard de Lairesse, the `vulgarity, dullness and impiety' that it appeared to Ruskin, and the `mess of rhetoric, romance and chiaroscuro' referred to by a modern critic. On the strength of it Rembrandt triumphs over the rhetoric of his historical artistic background, over the handicap of his romantic attitude, and over an artistic language which dissolves form to the point where it escapes the formless by a miracle and reduces colour to a point where it is always without gaiety and often almost without life. When we look at Rembrandt's paintings of the character of the Entombment and The Return of the Prodigal at a sketch like The Two Negroes at etchings like The Angel Departing from the Family of Tobias, the small Raising of Lazarus, Christ carried to the Tomb, The Adoration of the Shepherds, and hundreds of the moving drawings, we know that the greatness of his art lies in the fact that he was not only a great artist but also, and still more, a great interpreter of man's spirit. 7


John Berger seems to echo R.H. Wilenski’s observations on Rembrandt; in Ways of Seeing he compares an early work ‘Rembrandt and Saskia’ with Rembrandt as a cheerful young man with his new young wife and a much later self-portrait of Rembrandt as an elderly man with furrowed face and surrounded only by darkness:

The first painting occupies a special place in, as it were, the film of Rembrandt's life. He painted it in the year of his first marriage. In it he is showing off Saskia his bride. Within six years she will be dead. The painting is cited to sum up the so-called happy period of the artist's life. Yet if one approaches it now without sentimentality, one sees that its happiness is both formal and unfelt: Rembrandt is here using the traditional methods for their traditional purposes. His individual style may be becoming recognizable. But it is no more than the style of a new performer playing a traditional role. The painting as a whole remains an advertisement for the sitter's good fortune, prestige and wealth. (In this case Rembrandt's own.) And like all such advertisements it is heartless.

 In the later painting he has turned the tradition against itself. He has wrested its language away from it. He is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him - who is both more and less than the old man - has found the means to express just that, using a medium which had been traditionally developed to exclude any such question. 8

Art is interior space

Vermeer is mentioned by R.H. Wilenski and what comes into play for us now is the effect of technology on the development of art whereby the depiction of material reality was refined by the use of camera obscura; this is another layer whereby humanity imposes its will on ‘framing’ reality on its terms building on the discovery and use of perspective in Renaissance Italy.

With camera obscura Vermeer could paint precise interiors of the bourgeoisie world he was representing. Vermeer moves beyond nature by displacing it ‘out the window’ to portray an interior world with the architecture of a reality which is wholly human made; concerned only with intimate human affairs. *** His art is therefore above the simple task of painting everyday life but as a by-product reaches a more profound level in reviewing humanity’s place in the world in which humanity can be ‘centre’. On another level the sheer accuracy of his art work and technical skill involved almost reduces the artist to the machine level of being a ‘human camera.’ Technology is used to enhance human reality but in a way that leads to a very subtle process of dehumanisation which Marcel Duchamp will pick up on several centuries later; especially when he attempts to formerly paint a chocolate grinder in a sheer mechanistic, unfeeling architectural style in a sort of undermining of the tenets of classical, formal painting.   

Art is HAL

In the seventeenth century we even see the first impulse or intimation of an ‘interactive art’ that would reach its technological zenith in the computer cyber-world of the twenty-first century. A typical example is: Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) by Baugin a French artist (1610-1663) whose painting shows how the five senses would be referred to by the viewer by sighting the flowers which dealt with smell; with the musical instrument and music book dealt with one’s hearing and so forth until a myriad of objects in such paintings made reference to: touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing so that through memory and imagination there would be a ‘mental inter-action’ between the Baroque still-life and the spectator. Yet, it almost seems to me to be on a one-dimensional level as the physical senses are attuned without really involving any real critical faculty of the mind – only a sort of intellectual mimicry takes place - in much the same way that modern computer technology systems can also dull human thinking rather than accentuate and expand it if no proper ‘equal’ interface between machine and human being takes place. The HAL malfunctioning spaceship computer from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 that literally kills the humans it is meant to serve still remains a relevant ‘techno warning’ at least in a metaphysical sense to the danger of ‘automaton thinking’ (as against encouraging true human ‘left-of-centre’/automatic/ free/ lateral thinking).  

Art is industrial

Anyhow, in Vermeer’s time - as European society perceives itself in an increasingly confident position where it can control nature - this arrogant notion would lead to the ‘natural idea’ of human beings being able to eventually exploit its resources; an advantageous outlook when the scale of this control would reach never imagined levels with the massive escalation of capital in the Industrial Revolution; a technological ‘miracle’ – which would maximise the luxury lifestyle of the elites as well as maximise the suffering of the masses – and which would also eventually make Marcel Duchamp’s ‘personal’ bottle rack to philosophically question the basic cultural assumptions in play and in operation and perception of such so called ‘human progress’.

Art is anti-art

In the time of the twentieth century the art that is deemed ‘useless’ by Marcel Duchamp as well as the artists of the anti-art movement DADA is the art that is upheld by those apologists of an increasingly ‘hollow world’ - who deemed it important that whole nations nonsensically initiate a war in which nothing of any real consequence is to be gained; and at the expense of millions of innocent lives. As the Dadaists were denounced as absurd by a bourgeoisie art world whose morally bankrupt cultural values the Dadaists were undermining; it did not seem to occur to these insipid, sterile minded critics that Europe as a whole had embarked on its own ridiculous ‘art happening’ i.e. the First World War.

Art is human contradiction

Yet, at the same time such is the contradictory state of the human condition the following remarks are also valid:

Between 1900 and 1937 Europe experienced an extraordinary cultural rebirth and interchange of ideas, comparable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. If the precise causes of this phenomenon are unclear, what is clear is that it coincided with an economic surge or Kondratiev wave (a term invented in 1925), resulting from developments in communications, increased industrialization, the rise of the automobile, the importance of oil and conventional paper money which is inconvertible (as opposed, for example, to the gold standard). These obviously had an impact on politi­cal and cultural institutions, and the concomitant challenge to these insti­tutions is associated with the avant garde.

Avantgarde (literally `vanguard') denotes a band of soldiers prepar­ing the way for a general advance. In the early nineteenth century, the term came to be used in utopian politics, appearing in Henri de Saint-Simon's Literary, Philosophical and Industrial Opinions (1825). His view was that, working together, artists, scientists and manufacturers could lead mankind out of the alienation created by modern industrial society:

`Let us unite. To achieve our one single goal, a separate task will fall to each of us. We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When, we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel ...we aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.'~

This was perhaps the first manifesto, and the beginning of the association of the avant garde with the printed format. Later in the nineteenth century, the term came to be applied to art. It was more complex than this simple trajectory would suggest, and the art avant garde could move seamlessly into radical politics, as Dada did in Berlin and the Constructivists did in the USSR in order to achieve a new socialist utopia. 9

Yes, a ‘cultural re-birth’ of sorts but amidst it how many millions of lives were lost in the social cataclysm that was European political history in those years? WW1…the rise of fascism…a Great Depression…as well as the 1918/19 worldwide Spanish flu pandemic which claimed the lives of millions...and so forth…yet technological advancement especially in communications led to the fast transmission of new ideas and one thinks of the present day with the internet which is providing people with a parallel yet much faster transmission of human knowledge (and inversely also spreading human ignorance/ prejudice).  

Art is bottle rack

Nevertheless, although the avante-garde was proceeding with progressive thought-patterns (although no utopia would result, just more bloodletting) it still seems that with a suffocating, inert ‘mainstream’ - where the realpolitik still lay - in control of the destiny of Europe; in some ways propping up a bottle rack as a work of art could be seen as something as not too difficult for Marcel Duchamp to do; seeing that art’s ‘authenticity’ had been devalued (or even emptied of any true spiritual content) by so much as to deaden the European soul. Art is ‘business’ not ‘religion’ for the crude economic tenets of the ‘free market’ had come to the fore in motivating and increasing the production of art; and thus the ‘true value’ of a work of art has more to do with it being a form of financial investment; rather than as a ‘window’ which could lead a hardened human spirit to spiritual redemption (note the use of the present tense and an artwork’s ‘spirituality’ in the ubiquitous monetary context of the art market would be considered a good selling point and ironically simply raise the price of the art piece – contradiction upon contradiction such is the character of human fallacy).     

Art is trickery

Thus, to state the obvious: art brings status. Yet, it is all illusion and Duchamp’s bottle rack exposes this ideological trick. The values that were extolled by ‘high art’ were dependent on the technical skills of the artists who painted pictures that seemed so real that it was difficult to imagine that the ‘real world’ re: the autocratic social structures in place could ever be envisaged as ‘not real.’  This sort of cultural validation of a particular ideological framework is important to note and especially so in a situation such as seventeenth century Holland where we have already seen: art even on a popular level served to cultivate a predominant ideal that those with wealth were a sort of ‘higher being’ above those who were ‘obviously not worthy ’due to their lack of wealth.  

Art is power

It is a common feature of those in power to always censure the notion that there could be other ways to organise society; especially in a way where power may shift to another social group other than themselves. Any notion of another social order is always attacked as ‘absurd’ or ‘anti-social’ or ‘a threat to humanity’ etcetera with the majority of people convinced that the way society functions presently is the best ‘reality’.  

Art is revolution

In some cases this may very well be the case but we must examine who is it that claims the end of the world is nigh and who is it that claims a better world awaits us if the shackles are released; for we know that the ‘better world’ that the Bolsheviks brought to Russia was more terrifying than the oppressive Tsarist order that did need to be overthrown and it is unfortunate that the German revolution in 1918 did not succeed as it did seem to be inspired by a true libertarian spirit. Yet in the case of the Dadaists it did seem feasible to place more of one’s trust in their antics rather than in the claims of a ruling elite who saw that it was justifiable to slaughter a whole generation of men for a way of seeing the world that did allow for such a pre-meditated military catastrophe to take place. ****

 Art is lie

Wars are often fought for economic reasons clothed by nationalistic, racial, ideological or religious pretexts – or to use a more brutal word – lies that are needed to organise large groups of human beings to automatically lift up their rifles to kill other human beings.  Dadaists not so much saw through the lies but were appalled by the bloody consequences of them, they chose to mock the hypocrisy and ‘untruths’ of the so called refined European mind that could blithely doom a whole generation to such a monumental catastrophe; was this wide-scale war the true representation of European ‘civilization’?

Art is state of mind

A new order had to be produced to save humanity from itself – not one by the way based on any ‘achievement’ on the battlefield - but one that would need a whole revolution of the mind; whether the Dadaists were very conscious of this I am not sure but it does seem to me that in hindsight that the most beneficial legacy of Dadaism is to at least show the possibility that the human mind be given the spiritual and intellectual space to think in a multi-dimensional way that allows it to emerge from the one-dimensional mental straight jacket of so much ‘modern’ thinking.

Art is chance

Of course I speak in very general, simplistic terms but the thrust of DADA seems to have been to turn the visual and literary language of ‘high culture’ in on itself so as to ask: ‘ say, why do you call us absurd? Yet, what have you produced that is really less nonsensical than our ‘chance art’? What has your ordered ‘proper’ construction of life gained for humanity? You call that bloodied line from the Belgium coast to Switzerland some heightened cultural achievement akin to the Sistine Ceiling and the Great Pyramids? Why has humanity gone so terribly wrong?’

Art is prophecy

Like modern day prophets the Dadaists echoed the words of Christ who said that you shall know His true followers by their fruits but it was obvious to see that the ‘fruits’ produced by modern European society were very rotten. The war was a reflection of a world whereby the underpinning values of its elites were wholly debased by Moloch; willing to sacrifice its ‘first born’ to appease his barbaric lust.

God is absent.

However, rather than throw the moneylenders out of the Temple the Dadaists chose to mock them; they were artists after all, not political revolutionaries.2    It actually made more sense not to produce ‘serious art’ - even if critical of the status quo - but rather ‘ask’ what is the point of any art at all? After all, is not an artist a prophet who helps to lead the human mind out of the spiritual wilderness? Alas, why keep throwing pearls of truth at a deluded world that wants to keep believing that it is really better for a person to build up one’s wealth here on earth than be concerned about the eternal destiny of one’s sacred soul?

The prophets had revolted in the only way they could – to refuse to even keep using the cultural tools of their world to spell out the truth: poetry is ‘replaced’ by gibberish; painting is ‘replaced’ by paper cut-outs. Human action brought about by supposed ‘mental discipline’ is replaced by chance event - to act life out - is by chance. (After all isn’t capitalism really a random system based on chance? i.e. a shopper makes the chance decision to choose to buy one product over another and that arbitrary choice directly affects lives?).  Life is an act re: pretence, nothing this world does is ‘real’. What is truth? The question is no longer even asked in this all-consuming world so why bother searching for the answer? Yes, there is no point to finding the answer anymore – who would want to know it? Yet, in their negation of the ‘reality’ around them the human spirit seemed to find a positive thoroughfare to express itself through the so called immature behaviour of the Dadaists.

Art is quantum theory

Much like quantum theory shows us how particles can behave in bizarre ways to turn over our stratified view of a three dimensional world the Dadaists showed us there are other cultural possibilities for the human soul. In fact, Duchamp says there is a fourth dimension. It pre-occupied him to the extent that he remarked:

‘If a shadow is a two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional world then the three-dimensional world as we know it is the projection of the four dimensional universe.” 10

Art is human consciousness

The unseen is reality. The move away from pictorial representation - to abandon painting – allows the concept normally ‘behind’ an artwork to gain greater pre-eminence; it comes to the foreground and is given fuller realisation within that broader ‘mental canvas’:  the human mind. Strip away the artifice of an artificial image on a piece of material and the viewer is left to focus on the origin of the artifice that is conceived in the artist’s consciousness – a consciousness that is responding to the ‘shadow’ that is this world.

Art is multi-dimensional

Thus Marcel Duchamp freed his mind from the limits of a four sided, two-dimension to consider a world of ideas that could occupy many sides and many dimensions – a quantum approach to culture -  this to me seems to be his everlasting legacy.

Art is Duchamp

To also move away from middle class pretence as to what reality should be to validate a certain social construction that suits one’s advantageous place in the world to what reality may actually be. In other words, Marcel Duchamp is the artistic version of Luther or Galileo or Darwin or Marx who in various monumental ways have reconfigured our former static view of the relationships that have existed between humans and of the relationship between humanity and the world as well as with the very universe.

Art is irony

Marcel Duchamp objectified art by giving a machine made ‘readymade’ the same status as a hand-made art object and this ‘objectivity’ seemed to intimate to a truth that exists outside ‘normal expectations’ of what is reality in our ‘human space.’ What also can be considered is how a ‘universal morality’ as ‘invisible’ is also only made ‘visible’ through either moral or immoral action.  

Art is universe

The universe does not depend on us - or even need us - to validate its existence; rather human life needs it; we are not the centre of the universe which is the opposite of what the Renaissance mind so conveniently surmised. We must perceive reality from that standpoint. It is probably a lot healthier to see ourselves in that way re: the first shall be last and visa versa so to speak.

Art is human soul

The Cubists introduced the possibility of multi-dimensional viewpoints and even stuck newspaper pieces onto the canvas but it was all still ‘tricks’ on a two-dimensional plane; Marcel Duchamp moved beyond them to throw out the canvas and if there was a trick to his art it was to point out how deceptions went on in the human mind and these need to be dispensed with so ‘truth’ could be embraced by the human soul. We can lie to ourselves with the ‘social truths’ we constantly construct but to move away from such predictable, subjective human reasoning to perceive a more authentic reality based on artistic observations as ‘objective’ as the discovery that the earth really did revolve around the sun meant doing away with the cultural tools that people had been relying on since cavemen painted their cave walls.   

Art is human reason

Marcel Duchamp drops three threads onto the ground and purely by chance with the curved lines they form totally changes our conception of what a ‘metre’ is to what else it could be (as against what it should be); to make us realise that there are endless versions of measurement and not necessarily based on human reason. The Renaissance has us believe that humanity is the measure of all things but surely it is nature which has the ultimate upper hand. I recently saw a documentary This Is Civilisation where the commentator Mark Collings pointed out how John Ruskin made the astute observation that medieval society chose to live in balance with God and nature while the Renaissance brought about a cultural-ideological shift where humanity cast adrift its relationship with the world to state it is a ‘higher being’ that can ‘control’ the natural realm; yet we see in this monolithic carbon industrial age how we may fall into an ecological abyss where our presumptions of a ‘post-God’ ascendency seem proven to be false. Paradise Lost before it could even be gained.

Art is tightrope

We need to ‘rebalance’ – at least with nature; and also with ourselves - the millions who died in the barbarism of two industrial-based global wars and the many low intensity conflicts that have ensued in the 20th and 21st centuries at least tell us that; environmentalism vandalism and avoidable poverty in the formerly colonised third world (although it is ‘colonised’ today in more underhanded ways) and human alienation which has become the hallmark of the industrialised first world also tell us the same thing. In hindsight it is somewhat ironic that Marcel Duchamp chose industrial mass produced objects to question the prevailing cultural norms of the West. He chose such objects (although one wonders if they ‘chose’ him...) so as to take the notion of an object being uniquely produced by an individual human mind with particular ‘artistic skills’ out of the picture to reveal only a depersonalised thing now given ‘artistic prestige’ merely by his individual signature. To ‘personalise’ the object merely by the illusion of his artistic persona; illusion being the operative word – for the ‘cultural premises’ of the art world are delusional. There is no ‘higher truth being represented; only a banal social norm that advocates a ‘superior’ view of the world so as to ‘justify’ the elitism of a money-greedy art market. Yes, it’s all about the money, stupid.   The ‘spiritual ethos’ of art is prostituted to increase the investment value of an art object. It is obscene.

Art is debased

Consider the following comment referring to the art of Duchamp’s time:

‘Art had become a debased currency, just a matter for the connoisseur, whose taste was merely dependent on habit.’ 11

(Unfortunately, it seems very much to me that this unflattering observation is still depressingly relevant today).

Art is ego

Along with the war which was supposed to be about imperial powers fighting for ‘higher truths’ - such as democracy and freedom – it was in reality essentially a ‘turf war’ between primal/reptilian minded elites needlessly sacrificing their ‘helots’ to selfishly  acquire more land, resources as well as acquiring a childish sense of personal satisfaction through ‘increasing’ their nation’s ‘prestige’.

In the above hierarchical context ‘ego’ is a dirty word; petulant children smashing their ‘toy soldiers’ to get their way. Thus Dada very closely mirrored the mindset of the political masters of Europe with their nonsense antics. While Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to this ‘anti-art’ movement was to merely point out with his ready-mades how in reality the supposed principles of European civilization had been so lowered that he was allowed in his mind to be able to ‘raise’ a bottle rack to the level of ‘high art.’

Art is DADA

As already stated Marcel Duchamp wanted more than what he called ‘retinal art’ so he sought after an art for the mind; it is a positive contribution to widen the ‘field of the mind’ and the paradox of DADA and why it is still viewed with much interest today is in the very act of its attempt to destroy so much of Europe’s cultural tradition it allowed new cultural possibilities to arise – the proverbial Phoenix from the ‘ashes’ of the trenches; a sort of ‘low intensity’ cultural revolution  which can be marked alongside the high intensity revolutions of ideas’ such as the Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment; thus to make it possible for a bottle rack to stand alongside the Sistine Ceiling as an emblem of new thought.

Art is heart of darkness

The Enlightenment – this ‘Age of Reason’ which as Goya noted – also produces nightmares. ‘The horror...the horror...’ as Joseph Conrad writes at the end of his Heart of Darkness.  (Goya who we remember not so much for his flattering ‘official portrait art’ of aristocrats and royalty but rather for his dark ‘human warnings’ as to the terrible spectre of what humanity - when it loses its ‘humanness’ - can reduce itself too; reflect on Goya’s Saturn; 5th of May and his Disaster of War etchings series). Marcel Duchamp recognises the wretchedness of such human reason and although he took in chance as an important creative principle so as to negate ‘human logic’ it does seem that he was on a deeper level interested in exploring the possibility of other more positive avenues of human reason which leads one to consider that his work tended towards being tinged with a Cartesian sensibility.

Art is thread

Culture is the thread that that can lead us out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. 

Art is shamanistic

Marcel Duchamp reminds one to see again that an artist is meant to be a shaman not a decorator.

Art is everyday

To cut through the pretences of ‘high art’ by orientating our awareness back to the everyday; it is an interesting approach.

Art is cultural theory

Art derives its meaning from the social context in which it is produced. Consider the difference between the utilisation of domestic objects by Marcel Duchamp for their ironic impetus versus the depiction of domestic life say by seventeenth Dutch artists. As stated earlier: in the latter situation paintings of domestic life helped to reinforce a somewhat Philistine view of the world that the acquisition of money and the materials one gains by an accumulation of wealth is the central premise for one’s existence.  On one’s living room wall is the ‘cultural validation’ for one’s narrow view of existence. There is nothing wrong raising one’s standard of living but it should be the means by which we may then explore other dimensions of life. Marcel Duchamp leads the way on this important life principle. Dutch domestic paintings are now appreciated as it gives insight into the human quality of the subject matter and touches upon the universal nature of human nature by which a modern spectator can identify. Yet, at the time many domestic scenes were painted - by painters who were more like tradespeople by the way – to verify the world as it was and not what the world should or could be etcetera; in other words it was a very conservative approach/attitude to/about art and which only a genius like Rembrandt rose above to give us genuine spiritual insights into the nature of the human spirit. Yet, so called Dutch ‘low art’ did at least show that the everyday world was valid subject matter – not just aristocrats, prophets and angels were worth painting and the use of vanitas symbols in a work would at least give Dutch art some moral impetus; it was an art whereby so called ‘ordinary people’ could see a world on canvas by which they could identify with, without the pretensions of a lofty ideological schema. By way of the French Realists - most notably Courbet (followed on by Toulouse Lautrec’s famous Moulin Rouge mass produced posters) – and later by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism which would lead to all the ‘isms’ of the twentieth century art movements we see a further more insightful exploration of this ‘here and now’ world which had meaning to people no matter their social class. Perhaps an art which portrayed oranges, dancers and street scenes could be considered ‘authentic’.  In many ways the Impressionists who had to deal with so much hostility from the art establishment paved the way for later more radical attacks on the status quo by the likes of the Dadaists.  Yet, at the time that Impressionism was being formulated it was responding to the new technology of photography with its attempts to also portray the immediate moment and to crop its subject matter etcetera. Marcel Duchamp was very aware of the new technology as his 'watershed work' was influenced by chronophotographs which show multiple movement in the one image. There are also Edward Muybridge's famous multiple motion photos such as those that proved that a racehorse does have all four hoofs off the ground at one stage of its gallop.  John Golding in his book The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors also makes the following perceptive point:

'Chronophotography had played an important role in the first sketches for the King and Queen and in the Munich Bride Stripped Bare drawing, but here there is no hint of the earlier cinematic technique and the idea of motion in terms of physical energy has been replaced by the concept of motion as the change from one psychological state of being to another, or to use a phrase employed by the painter Matta, Duchamp's art is now about the 'process of becoming.' 12 [my italics].

Art is vain

Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades as vanitas symbols – it is a perspective worth considering; for his bottle rack reminds us that we are mortal in our thinking and what we prescribe as absolute values are only subjective ones which applied in relation to the social context and social meanings that lead to the way values are defined.

Art is system

Nevertheless, the art of the Academy – no matter what style it favoured – would always be seen as ‘real art’ – even so these days when so much installation art seems in vogue with the present-day establishment. An avante-garde does not necessarily have to do what is opposite to the status quo but I don’t think too often that’s its notions correspond with the establishment. Yet, what appears ‘avante-garde’ today seems more like a marketing tool feature or as Matthew Collings puts it:

"I think the only hope for anything creative or genuinely expressive, is that there has to be some sort of cultural underground."  And, "In terms of avant-gardism – well, avant-gardism doesn’t work now, because the avant-garde we have is an official one and therefore a pseudo one. You can’t be against the system if you are the system." 13

Art is cultural space

Thus, as even what was considered to be ahead of its time at the turn of the century Duchamp went one step forward by questioning the whole expectation of what the abstract notion of art really was. He really was the avante-garde by throwing away the canvas and leaving us with only empty space that was left to meditate on; a radical shift in the notion of ‘cultural space’ which has an increasing relevance in this day of cyberspace. Art has to re-orientate itself again to a new way of ‘seeing’. Within cyberspace space is eternal (every website a found object), with many new dimensions which may take humanity a very long time to explore and discover which may involve another mental shift in human consciousness; furthermore, like so often in the past artists again have to respond to yet another new technological leap. Yet, through the avenue of the ‘ordinary’ through the known world as a starting point; to re-contextualise the ‘here and now’ within an awareness of a multi-dimensional universe; through the mental friction that can occur through such a juxtaposition between the known and the possibilities of yet emerging ‘new knowns’ can new human – perhaps even more ‘eternal’ – visions arise. Marcel Duchamp’s concept – the ability and the validity – to prepare the human mind to ‘see’ the unseen helps to prepare us for the visions – whether they be before us in this ‘hands on world’ or in a ‘cyber world’ - or in our minds – to define and understand reality in yet unfathomable ways. At the same time there must also be a questioning and a re-questioning in this ‘post-post modern world of the status quo –especially when it seems more like the world that preferred to worship Mammon rather than truly venture into leading towards a further maturation of the human spirit.

 Art is social capital

With this sort of mentally conscious re-examination of the ‘high principles’ of western culture in mind (...whatever those elusive values maybe...and which seem to change with the changing topsy-turvy times...greed was good in the eighties but in the first years of the twenty-first century - despite a global financial crisis and the human disaster that is the Iraq war - capitalism has to now try to take on a heart warming ‘socially aware’ human face...) consider how there has been a sort of re-incarnation of the ‘mass culture readymade’ with the advent of Pop Art; with its ironic use of the everyday especially of mass market advertising symbols that had become incorporated into the everyday. No longer the bottle rack but rather sixties silkscreen print versions of it such as Andy Warhol’s Campbells soup cans. The line between ‘elitist’ high art and ‘populist’ low art becomes not so much blurred as totally disappearing.

Art is machine

A mass produced art for a mass produced age.  

Art is communal

Capitalism creates alienation in an individualistic orientated society; there is a need to put into place a more communal approach to human relationships and to have an art that is also less alienating; more approachable, ‘readable’ art forms that people can readily identify with (and bring them together – not as ‘atoms’ but as communicative beings) while at the same time expressing and encouraging a ‘maturation’ of the human consciousness is essential.

Art is fire

One must always ask – as it had to be asked from prehistoric times onwards - is whether an ‘artwork’ is serving a shamanistic role which provides contemporary explanation as well as giving far reaching insight to this world or is it simply serving a mundane decorative role in much the same way as rows of colour charts give one ‘insight’ in a discount paint shop.  Yet, there is human meaning in the paint shop too and Duchamp would remind us of that and thus through his re-contextualisation of found objects and of our relationship between them and the rest of our world there is the foundation of what it does mean to be a human being and of the purpose of what the discovery of such meaning is to our mortal selves. God can exist and in the mystery of the whirring bicycle wheel which fascinated Duchamp – like the way the flickering flames of fire have fascinated humanity since the dawn of time – we can also imaginatively trust and ‘fire’ our human soul.



* I consider this article to be a ‘first draft’ which reflects my personal response to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘art’; reviewing it I do notice that the material could be better organised and perhaps further edited so maybe considered as a ‘work in progress’. I should reveal to the reader that I have a double Fine Arts major in my B.A. degree and so cultural theory and art history very much interests me.

** To paraphrase the former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who had once stated: “the party is where I am.”  Gough Whitlam is a charismatic figure in Australian political history who on the matter of the arts had the brilliant foresight to purchase Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

*** With such an engaging interest in architectural space Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is ever so more intriguing due to its lack of any architectural reference – a work more akin to Rembrandt’s style. Regarding Vermeer’s use of camera obscura it is worth referring to Vermeer’s Camera by Philip Steadman. Oxford University Press. 2001.

**** It is cruelly ironic that Lenin who was said not to have had much humour most probably went to a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich; this wretched man who masqueraded as a socialist would soon initiate his own monstrous catastrophe on the people of Russia in the name of human liberation. In some ways it is incredulous that the name ‘Lenin’ is still not yet as infamous as those other two tyrants ‘Stalin’ and ‘Hitler’.  I recommend having a look at A People's Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes.  Johnathan Cape. London. 1996.


1.  Page 128. DUTCH PAINTING by R.H. WILENSKI. FABER AND FABER. First printed in Mcmxxix.

2. Page 103. Ways of Seeing by John Berger. BBC and Penguin Books. First printed in 1972.

3. Still Life Painting in the Baroque at:

4. Ibid

5. What is Art by Leo Tolstoy. Google What is Art by Leo Tolstoy or try:

6. Page 95-96. DUTCH PAINTING by R.H. WILENSKI. FABER AND FABER. First printed in Mcmxxix.

7. Page 98. Ibid.

8. Page 112. Ways of Seeing by John Berger. BBC and Penguin Books. First printed in 1972.

9. Page 6. Breaking the Rules. The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937. Edited by Stephen  

    Bury. THE British Library. 2007.

10. Source lost but this quote attributed to Marcel Duchamp possibly in The Complete Works of Marcel

      Duchamp by Arturo Schwarz. Delano Greenidge Editions New York. 2000.

11. Page 6. DADA AND SURREALISM by Dawn Ades. Thames and Hudson. 1974.

12. Page 43. Golding, John. Duchamp The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even Art in Context. Edited by John Fleming

        and Hugh Honour. Allen lane The Penguin Press. 1973.

13. Mary Adam Review of This is Modern Art by Matthew Collings.mht at:


Further Reading

There are many books and websites on Marcel Duchamp and DADA which the reader may wish to consider and even Wikipedia - which is as source of knowledge that would have bemused Marcel Duchamp - is a quick source for most topics mentioned here such as looking at Cartesian theory, installation art through to vanitas. The reader may also wish to consider googling websites dealing with modern cultural theory and popular culture. A book I briefly perused that maybe of interest to the reader is Art & Discontent Theory at the Millenium by Thomas McEvilley. DOCUMENTEXT.  McPherson and Company. 1991.

However an excellent easily comprehensible introduction to Marcel Duchamp is the following website: Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp at:

Also here are a handful of books that maybe considered as a starting point to looking at Marcel Duchamp and DADA as well as considering modernism etcetera. (I do not repeat the books mentioned in the Notes but they are also very much worth a look; and just for something a bit left-of-centre Joseph Heller’s novel Picture This is also worth a look which deals with Rembrandt’s time and the Ancient Greeks; it is an excellent read. Furthermore, onpedia on the web has an adequate article Marcel Duchamp and it is also worth having a look at the Philadelphia’s Museum of Art website which houses Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass. The reader maybe bemused that while having a look at one website on Marcel Duchamp that when I clicked onto the title of his famous work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even a pop up ad for Russian brides came up - Duchamp would have found that very amusing indeed).

Bailly, Jean-Christophe. DUCHAMP. Fernand Hazan Paris. 1984.

Bigsby. C.W.E. Dada and Surrealism. The Critical Idiom. General Editor: John D. Jump. Methuen & Co Ltd. 1972.

Blythe S.A & Powers,  E.D. Looking at DADA. Museum of Modern Art. 2006.

Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. A Source Book by Artists and Critics With Contributions by Peter Selz and Joshua C.Taylor. University of California Press. 1968.

Dickerman, Leah with essays by Brigid Doherty; Dorothea Dietrich; Sabine T. Kriebel; Michael R. Taylor; Janine Mileaf. Matthew S. Witkovsky. DADA Zurich. Berlin. Hannover. Cologne. New York. Paris. National Gallery of Art. Washington. 2006.

Gablik Suzi. Has Modernism Failed? Thames and Hudson. 1984.

Lemone, Serge DADA. Art Dada. 1987.

Mink, Janis. DUCHAMP. Taschen.

MARCEL DUCHAMP. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Edited by Anne D’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. 1975.

Artifacts dada exhibition catalogue. The University of Iowa Museum of Art. Iowa City Iowa. March 31-may 7. 1978.

Rethinking Popular Culture Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson, editors. University of California Press. July 1991.

The Story of Painting 1. Michael Cavendish Ltd Learning System. Cultural Heritage. 1970.




Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel  Sydney Biennale 2008. AGNSW


I leave the reader with thiis final remark by Thomas McEvilly which comes from his book Art & Discontent*:


'...Dada vulgarised the iconic and Pop [ as Neo-Dada] iconized the vulgar.'


*Page 94. See above for full details of this book. Thank you.




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