Many millions of words have been written about the art of Marcel Duchamp – I wrote my Master thesis about Duchamp’s readymades. I was wrote it in the unlikely setting of Philosophy Department of La Trobe University. I was interested in the impact of philosophy on Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades impact on the philosophy of art. Anyway that was decades ago and this blog post isn’t about my thesis – it is about the extensive influence of Duchamp on my life.
Many people still regard Duchamp as the anti-Christ of art, others as the godfather of contemporary art. David W. Galenson ranks Marcel Duchamp as the 3rd most important artist in the 20th Century by mean illustrations in a sample of texts on the history of 20th Century art. Duchamp is such a large an influential on contemporary art because he was a major influence on Man Ray, John Cage and many other artists. Duchamp is so influential on contemporary art and myself that at the top of my word.doc for drafts of this blog I have this admonition: “I will not use any excuse to mention Marcel Duchamp.”
Duchamp was at first interesting to me when I was an undergraduate studying aesthetics and other philosophical issues concerned with art because he created difficult examples for any theory. His art was about ideas and so was easily transmitted in art history books. It wasn’t until years after I became interested in Duchamp that I encounter my first actual Duchamp readymade, Hat Rack (1917) in the collection of Australian Nation Gallery Canberra and by then I knew that this was one of an edition of 8 that Duchamp made in 1964. The examples of Duchamp’s art that I have encountered are like curious relics. I really enjoyed playing with a reproduction of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel because I could touch it and see the pattern of light created by the spokes.
When I came to writing my thesis Duchamp’s readymades lead me to the writings of the philosophers Arthur Danto and Max Stirner as Stirner’s philosophy influenced Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades influenced Danto’s thinking about art. And both of these philosophers have continued to influence my thinking.
Studying Duchamp gives a good perspective on the art world and the many and varied roles in the art world. For most of his life, Duchamp wasn’t a full time artist there was a lot of chess playing and giving French lessons. When he was involved in the art world he was more often an art dealer (he represented Brancusi in the US), judging a panel for an art prize, and other exhibition organization work like catalogue design. And this is what most people forget, or don’t know, when they think about what Duchamp did – it’s like that internet meme, about what my mother thinks I do, what I think, what my friends think etc.
Duchamp reminds me that there are more positions on the chessboard of the art world than the mass of artist pawns working their way up the board to become Queens. Perhaps I am playing the position of the critical knight and art galleries as castles, bishops are collectors etc. to keep the metaphor going, even though I’ve largely played it out. Anyway the point of my metaphor is that you don’t have to be an artist in order to participate in the art world, most of the participants are not. They are the other player at the other end of the board.
Most of the participants in the art world are viewers, responders and Duchamp’s art depends on the minds of others, for the responder to join in and continue the game. (For more on Duchamp see MarcelDuchamp.Net.) It is his understanding that art exists in the minds of other people that invites people to respond to his art, to write millions of words about it or to create art inspired by him. Duchamp’s epitaph reads: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (Besides, it’s always the others who die.)