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« "The Lady Is A Tramp" | Main | Rachel Sweet »

March 28, 2008

The Most Damaging Artist

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What is Art?

Pretty nearly everything, it seems. All it takes is a self-proclaimed "artist" or his gallery guy or a copy-hungry reporter or art critic to announce to the world that this assemblage or that hardware store object is Art.

I think this is nonsense. It has become a prime case of "If everything is Xxxxx, then nothing is Xxxxx."

My own modest proposal is to call Art pretty much whatever was considered Art in 1900.

What's been added since then strikes me as being mostly "art" -- and much of it doesn't even rise to that level.

As a corollary to my modest proposal, those things now called "Art" but that were not Art in 1900 ought to be called Other Stuff. There is so much Other Stuff around, I'm tempted to write the powers-that-be at London's Tate Modern humbly requesting it be re-branded the Tate Other Stuff.

And who is to blame for getting us into this fine kettle of Other Stuff? The man who I consider the artist who caused the most damage to Art: Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp is known for such Other Stuff works as designating a urinal as a piece of sculpture and painting a mustache and beard on a print of the Mona Lisa. His "readymades," including that urinal and a bottle rack along with his other art-world pranks blazed the path for what all too many Post-Modernists have been doing since around 1960.

I wonder about all this talk of contemporary "artistic creativity" when it should be obvious that Big Dada did it first.

End of rant. Have fun in Comments.



posted by Donald at March 28, 2008


Frankly, I think Pollock did a job on it too. Throwing cans of paint on a canvas he's walking around doesn't show any real forethought as how the splatters will land. There is some, I will admit, and there is creative force in the concept, it artistic or marketing talent at work.

Posted by: susan on March 28, 2008 9:11 AM

What is the purpose of Art? Is it self-expression? Is it to communicate ideas or feelings to others? Is it to demonstrate technical facility? If we go back to what was considered Art in 1900 for those answers, what do we move from the category of Art to the category of Other Stuff?

We can start by eliminating all photography, both still and film, from the realm of Art. And any painting or sculpture that does not attempt to faithfully render the natural world in realistic ways becomes Other Stuff. Do we call Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko ... all Other Stuff? Tinguely, Calder, Moore, Caro ... all Other Stuff?

While I have my issues with those curators who seem overly seduced by Art that seems "new" for no other reason than for the sake of being new, to look back a century for a definition of Art seems even less desirable. I have argued with curators whose rejection of a work or artist boiled down to "It's been done before." My own belief is that this is a foolish and narrow-minded way of approaching Art. Just as I think it is foolish and narrow-minded to want Art to remain forever a technical exercise in rendering nature in paint or stone.

Now, that said, Donald and I probably agree that there are plenty of PoMo artists whose P.R. would have them as creative geniuses who have merely updated Duchamp ... without the humor and the context that made Duchamp's work innovative.

Posted by: Chris White on March 28, 2008 9:39 AM

I've wrestled with this problem in the field of music for many years. As a performer, one of my specialties was contemporary music which was interesting and challenging to play. Alas, it was also, from most auditors' perspective, pointless. So from being an uncritical promoter of new music, I became a critic of it. As Chris says, it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have no problem saying that we probably don't have to pay attention to much Pierre Boulez. Or Milton Babbitt. But what about Stravinsky? I can't see ignoring the Symphony of Psalms. Nor most Shostakovich. I know that I am drifting away from the topic, but I think it needs to be reframed. It is not the novelty of art since 1900 per se, but rather the failure to create beauty. That's a huge 'nother question, of course. But cinema, to take one example, sometimes raises to the level of genuine art and it wasn't around in 1900 to any extent. So it is not the novelty, but the pointless novelty that should be attacked. The classic goal of art was the creation of beauty. Despite the best efforts of contemporary artists, that hasn't changed. There are many beautiful modern works. And many other ones that are pointlessly ugly. Let's just sort them out.

Posted by: bryan on March 28, 2008 11:04 AM

Fun. I have a friend -- a painter who works in a kind of Ab-Ex style, as it happens -- who likes to say that the main prob with most modernist (and modernist-derived) art is "too much Duchamp, not enough Cezanne." Ie., too many jokes and conceptual hijinks, not enough looking and painting.

All that said, I have maybe a slightly different take on this. I don't actually mind Duchamp, or his art. I think some of his art is pretty funny, in an adolescent-prankish kind of way. And I think it's a hoot he got away with it. My grievance is with what's been made of him and it. The critics and intellectuals who get overfascinated and make too much of it; the profs who find it more exciting to teach "philosophy" and "conceptualism" than to make the kids buckle down to more traditional work; the artists who see in Duchamp license to get away with murder while claiming you're deep ... All that stinks, IMHO. I mean, Duchamp is one of those artists whose work doesn't really need repeating or elaborating. You get the joke, you move on. It's weird and regrettable how a whole school and/or approach has developed in its wake. But I don't think of that as Duchamp's fault. He was just a dandy being mischievous and hoping to put it over on the world.

MBlowhard larger hunch, or at least something I often say to myself: The problem is often less with the thing itself than with what we make of it.

I have no idea whether there's really anything to this little formula, btw. But it seems to do me good to repeat it every now and then.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on March 28, 2008 11:32 AM

If the purpose of "art" (whatever that is now) is self-expression, then your typical cell phone call can be called "art".

Of course, that's nonsense. Art has always meant that this "self-expression" is extraordianarily well done when compared to other examples of self-expression. It is artfully done, showing great skill and insight.

Since the early part of the 20th century, the art world has been less about creating beauty than about finding new ways to shove yourself out in front of people, garner attention, and then selling this advertising prop to vain people who want to think that they are smarter than their peers.

Yes--"the failure to create beauty"--that says it all.

Posted by: BTM on March 28, 2008 12:59 PM

I just returned to the office from NY Armory Show on 94th Pier.

Funny to read your opinion of Marcel Duchamp (that I happen to [secretly] share) right after a song in his honor performed for us by a Show's mangaer, Mr. Paul Morris.

I can't begin relaying my impression of everything I saw there. In short - you're absolutely right. What a lodda stinking crap!!!

Posted by: Tatyana on March 28, 2008 4:26 PM

art is about the artist. if the artist is great then his or her art will reflect that.

Posted by: dromd on March 29, 2008 6:42 PM

For me art is more than mere self-expression, it is more than just -- getting a reaction, any reaction. Instead it is about beauty and unity in self-expression, making explicit patterns and harmonies implicit in creation. Or as Auden put it-- every bit of art that works is a work of praise, even if the artist doesn't want it to be. Real art is where the artist transcends him or herself. Which perhaps is why sh*ts can be so good at making it, -- there's all that more to transcend!

What amazes me is the superficiality of most "Other Stuff," which I guess is now considered a virtue. But it -is- disposable and as such, fragments time. Fragmented time equals fragmented self-- and hence a schizotypical culture.

So violence, one of the two ultimate attention grabbers and the easier one, often replaces beauty, the other big one that is harder to hit just right. It also feels like we are more scared of beauty than of violence. We end up conditioned by culture to comfortably accept and work with violence as image -- thou the mirror cells in our minds do not understand that this is merely image. But beauty has become foreign, we do not know what to do with it, how to work with it.

Are we are addicted to violence? We know what we are getting there. It's predictably stimulating. Beauty is the unknown bringing forth feelings we have no confidence we can deal with, because contemporary art is not currently being marketed that gives us practice at it.

Is that perhaps what art -is- for. Helping us learn how to deal with the sublimity of beauty, both within and without ourselves. Giving us an aesthetic discipline to increase our capacity to feel and organize our feelings? Have I just stumbled on a theory of art?

Thanks for giving me a place to think out loud with others.

Am I just rewording a theory what has been said before? Most truish(versus truthy) things have been said before. But by whom and when? And how can it be re-enstated in meaningful, persuasive, contemporary language?

Posted by: ThriceBroad on March 31, 2008 11:07 AM


I'm glad to see that your heart doesn't belong to Dada.

And yes, I think Duchamp was the villain who more than anyone kicked off the branch of modern art (which doesn't by any means include all modern art) that's based on irony, mockery, attention-seeking, ugliness, and suckering trendy critics and rich collectors with no taste.

Duchamp deserves all the more contempt because, as anyone who has seen his "Nude Descending a Staircase" in Philadelphia knows, he actually was capable of serious imaginative work. Throwing away talent in favor of childish pranks is an offense against God. And for helping to spawn campiness and cheap rebellion, he should be forced to watch John Waters films without a break for a millennium. And after his release, required to report to his parole officer, Sir Joshua Reynolds, if Reynolds could be persuaded to accept the position.

Posted by: Rick Darby on April 1, 2008 12:48 PM

i dont see how the duchamp urinal isnt plagerism, the name in the gallery should the name of the actual designer of the urinal.

Posted by: poncho on April 2, 2008 1:20 AM

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