The Crazy Wisdom of R. Mutt

In the first of this series of posts, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, I spoke of Picasso’s leap of vision and imagination in 1942, when he sculpted a bull’s head by swapping the usual positions of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Nowadays we call such creations “found object sculptures,” but Picasso and other artists of his time called them, “readymades,” a name coined by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp 1952 (Photo by Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though Picasso gained more notoriety, Duchamp was the more revolutionary artist, and shaped the course of 20th century art more profoundly. “By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first ‘readymades’ sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today…Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual Art.” (1)

Duchamp, who was even better at mathematics in school than art, rapidly lost interest in art that appealed to the eyes only. “Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” (2)  

From 1904-1905, Duchamp studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris, but “preferred playing billiards to attending classes.” (2) He began his compulsory military service in 1905, working with a printer, from whom he learned typography and printing. After his discharge, he moved to Paris where his two older brothers enjoyed artistic success, which opened the door for him to exhibit at several important Salons. The brothers hosted a Cubist discussion group in their home, but Marcel considered them “too serious,” and rejected their focus on visual issues to the exclusion of other concerns.

In 1912, Duchamp submitted his best known painting, Nude Descending a Staircase to the Salon des Indépendants, provoking consternation among the Cubists, who asked his brothers to persuade him to take it down. While Cubists wrestled with new ways of depicting a three dimensional world on a two dimensional plane, Duchamp sought to add the 4th dimension, time. His rejection by this “avant guard” marked a turning point. “After that, I had little use for groups,” he said.

“Nude Descending a Staircase #2,” Marcel Duchamp, 1912.

In 1913, Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel upside down on a bench in his studio. This was the first of his “readymades,” a name he used for mass produced, rather than handcrafted goods. He never submitted this first piece to an show. “I enjoyed looking at it just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace,” he said.

Bicycle Wheel, 1913

When war broke out in 1914, a heart murmur kept him from being recalled to military service. With his brothers and most of his friends in the army, Paris felt uncomfortable. Duchamp discovered that “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” which he had sent to the “Armory Show” in New York in 1913 – the first American exhibition of work by the European avant-garde art – had made him a celebrity, and all four of the paintings he submitted had sold.

With money for passage, he decided to emigrate to New York. Upon arrival, he found himself a celebrity, and was befriended by members and patrons of the avant-garde.

Initially, he supported himself by teaching French and working in a library in New Jersey. When a prominent gallery offered him $10,000 a year for all his annual output, he refused. In a similar manner, he only made 13 readymades, not wanting to repeat himself. His stated purpose for these sculptures was “to question the very notion of Art, and the adoration of art, which [he] found ‘unnecessary.'” (2)

Marcel Duchamp’s most famous – and infamous – readymade, Fountain, 1917, was a urinal, purchased at the Mott Steel Works, which he displayed on it’s back on a pedestal and signed “R. Mutt.” Fountain was rejected at the Society of Independent Artists show in 1917, though the rules stated that works by all artists who paid the fee would be accepted. Alfred Stieglitz photographed the piece, and displayed it in his gallery.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917. Replica, as the original is lost

In 2004, a group of 500 artists and historians named “Fountain” the “Most influential artwork of the 20th century.” (2) (3)  Significantly, Andy Warhol’s Marylin Diptych, 1962, was voted third most influential work by the same group. It is hard to overestimate the influence of Duchamp on Warhol’s work.

At least since the time of Aristotle, western artists and their audiences had considered “art” as something “out there,” a quality residing in a small number of special objects. At the start of the 20th century, western psychoanalysts, led by Freud and Jung, described the mechanism of projection, whereby we attribute to people, objects, and situations, contents of our own psyche. Duchamp showed us a parallel in art. In doing so, he turned 2500 years of western aesthetic theory on it’s head.

Duchamp’s readymades tell us that “Art” is not a quality inherent in an object, but a product of our personal and cultural conventions, bias, and predilections. The moment “Fountain,” was placed in an art gallery, it became art, despite lacking the qualities that we normally associate with art – conventional beauty, symbolic or spiritual meaning, or the personal touch of the artist.

“You cannot define electricity,” Duchamp said. “The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something that needs no definition.” (4)

Marcel Duchamp stopped making art in 1923. Though he stayed in touch with the art community and participated in organizing exhibits, he did no more personal work. His passion, for the rest of his life, was tournament chess.

In just over a decade, he had become one of the towering figures who opened the floodgates to the culture of a new century, where old habits and conventions, in all spheres of life, were no longer adequate. Almost two decades into a new century, when the habits and conventions of the 20th are painfully and obviously inadequate to the world we now inhabit, Duchamp remains a vital example of the power of one individual’s ability to question the status quo and imagine new possibilities.

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