Chapter Ten: Anti-Art
Contemporary fine artists, like artists of all periods and places, work within a set of assumptions and in a dialogue with a canon of exemplary works. Those assumptions were formulated by philosophers of the Romantic age, who described the genius who breaks established rules, displays originality, and resist the compromises of commerce (Kant); and who captures the spirit of the age, while reaching for the transcendental (Hegel). An older tradition of criticism held that excellence revealed character, so some fine artists believe they should express themselves in their work.
One constant of the contemporary canon has been the work of Marcel Duchamp (fig. 10.1). Duchamp appeared to pose a challenge to the thesis of The Truth about Art, which holds that artists imitate not nature but their predecessors, and that they respond to the world about them via the prompts of Quality, the good-or-bad. Both these views were rejected by Duchamp, who claimed that quality is taste, a habitual preference; that ‘when people like Seurat [in the 1880s] started to do something, they really just wiped the past right out’; and that the ‘horrible idea’ of judgment should at all costs be avoided. Instead Duchamp sought ‘the beauty of indifference’.
This chapter tests Duchamp’s words against his actions. It notes the hurt and humiliation the young Duchamp felt when fellow artists rejected his magnificent Nude descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), and his insistence that he chose a urinal for exhibition in 1917 as an object with no aesthetic qualities whatsoever. Furthermore it finds evidence that a youthful love of puns accounts for his early ‘readymades’ (see Case Studies > Contemporary Fine Art). Despite his attacks on quality, and his repeated attempts to produce works without ‘retinal’ beauty, it turns out that Duchamp was bound to the world by Quality just like the rest of us.