Person of Interest – Marcel Duchamp

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.)


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “Person of Interest – Marcel Duchamp

  • Rachel Jolley

    Hi there. I love this post! I have been fascinated with Duchamp ever since I begun my studies in the history of Art. I tried to take on another topic to focus on for my masters thesis, but I couldn’t resist picking my main man! I think I’ll look at Duchamp and his readymades and the influence on Koons and others! Any advice would be great! Thanks

  • Mark Holsworth

    Hi Rachel, I would advice reading Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces before you settle on a topic. Try to make your topic as narrow as possible, for example look at the Rrose Selavy readymades and the identity of the artist. The reason to make the topic as narrow as possible is because there is so much to read about Duchamp. The best thing about doing a master’s thesis is reading widely – I read a lot of great books during that time and very few of them contributed to my thesis. Best wishes on your thesis.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Rachel, I couldn’t resist thinking of thesis topics about Duchamp and Koons and the most wicked idea was too irresistible not to mention. Duchamp and Koons: the nude male in Eden. Duchamp appeared as Adam in Picabia’s Cine Sketch (1924) and Koons “Jeff in the Position of Adam” (1990).

  • Rachel Jolley

    Hi there, for some reason I didn’t get a notification that you’d replied but thought id re read this again regardless! Thanks for getting back to me, really appreciate it! Love the idea of focusing on Rrose Selavy, however given the Duchamp obsessed woman I am, I’ve already got credit for essays done on that topic last semester so have to stay clear! I did however have an idea for focussing on the humour apparent within the readymades. Either having a question that reconciles humour with seriousness in the readymades, and how they are ironic and playful yet represent a real attack on status of art world. The other idea I had was perhaps ‘Humour and Irony in Duchamp’s Readymades: Exposing the Condition of the Possibility of Art’. Would this be specific enough do you think? Thanks so much :)

  • Mark Holsworth

    Yes, for a start, but don’t hesitate to narrow it further. The reconciliation between humour and seriousness gets to the heart of the Dada. ‘Serious art’ is sometimes used instead of ‘high art’ without considering the oxymoron of ‘serious humorous art’. I haven’t read much on Duchamp’s later “joke shop” readymades (Couple of Laundress’ Aprons, 1959) or his readymades in relation to tourist gimmicks: Wanted Poster and Paris Air.

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