Sarasota Oasis, Duchampian Detour

who is marcel duchamp  

Separated at Birth: Marcel Duchamp and Justin Bieber

* * *

I was pleased to see the recent feature on The Ringling Museum of Art at Hyperallergic, a website that prides itself on being “sensitive to art and its discontents”. Having done a stint as a visiting instructor at The Ringling College of Art & Design, right down the road from the museum, I can vouch for its world class collection. The Ringling proved an oasis on days off, particularly for someone who’s made it his life’s mission to avoid beaches. Foul things, beaches.

Tom Winchester’s overview covers some of the highlights of the museum’s collection, but he missed a few noteworthy curiosities. That would include a handful of post-Impressionist, pre-Dadaist paintings by Marcel Duchamp. The museum’s online collection doesn’t feature the canvases. Odd, don’t you think? But even Duchamp, that not-so-closeted connoisseur, would understand why the Ringling would give the nod to Lorenzo Lotto over his own attempts at painting.

I’ve been thinking about Duchamp recently, particularly after viewing Why Beauty Matters, Roger Scruton’s insightful BBC meditation on the state of contemporary culture. The documentary includes television clips of Duchamp at the end of his years, expounding on the anti-aesthetic. They put me in mind of the attention I’ve paid to the man, his ethos and the cultural and commercial sweep of his progeny. How could an observer of the contemporary scene ignore him? Duchamp put into motion the tomfoolery that now passes for major art. His stature has achieved a scale unimaginable during his own lifetime.

But, as I wrote on the occasion of MOMA’s Dada exhibition in 2006:

“The ascension from gadfly to monument is something [Duchamp] would have viewed with amused contempt. ‘I threw the bottle-rack and urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty,’ he remarked late in his life. ‘Neo-Dada … is an easy way out.’

These are the statements of someone who knew the value of aesthetic quality, even if he didn’t have the gumption or talent to pursue it on its own terms. Duchamp’s followers ignore this particular foundation of his philosophy.”

Duchamp’s followers will continue in their willful ignorance so as long as anti-art makes the headlines and rakes in big bucks.

Art teachers ignore Duchamp at their own peril; the peril of their students, too. He’s a figure of considerable, if unfortunate, sociological significance. In that regard, he’s like, I don’t know, Justin Bieber. Think about it: both possess a cultural presence that is inescapable, encompassing, not without charm and, in the end, aesthetically nugatory.

But as a writer, artist and sentient being, I’ve no more time (or words) to spare on Duchamp’s trifling nihilism or its many and not-so-varied offshoots. The fact is that Duchamp’s ass, metaphorically speaking, was never as hot as that of Mona Lisa or, for that matter, those of Duchampian confidantes Constantin Brancusi and Florine Stettheimer. A talent as mild and evasive as Duchamp’s could never achieve those kind of heights. He knew it, too. Say this much for the man: He was canny enough to size up the competition and get out of the game in fairly quick order.

And with that left-handed commendation, I bid the old scamp adieu. Can’t say that I’ll miss him.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Gabrielle Jones  On July 31, 2011 at 7: 34 pm

    So glad to hear the voice of reason. You have a knack of tying all the threads together to make a beautiful flag, while others tie themselves in knots. I agree with Duchamp’s importance and I laugh at the established critical thoughts that paint him a master. More like an emperor with new clothes…

  • Patrick Neal  On January 9, 2012 at 9: 12 pm

    Looking at The Mona Lisa Curse; Robert Hughes words of wisdom on the occasion of the Damien Hirst shit storm about to descend:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: