We owe to our British cousins the term “piss take,” meaning mockery of, say, the pretentious, the self-venerating, the toxically earnest. But it was a Frenchman who delivered what might have been history’s all-time classic piss take, Fountain. Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal as a sculpture to the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 to see if they would live up to their vow to accept anything into their galleries. The society didn’t display the work and, for the last time ever, the art world was exposed as a haven of phonies and hypocrites.
A new documentary, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible (which can be streamed via iTunes and Amazon), is of interest for how it maps out the way the art scene has turned itself inside out over a century, its tastes the exact opposite of what they once were. The kinds of stuffed shirts and gatekeepers who were Duchamp’s satiric targets now count themselves as his most devout disciples. If Duchamp (1887–1968) got a look at this hagiography, he’d be as surprised as you would be if you woke up 100 years from now and discovered that the world’s leading religion was built around the worship of Seth Rogen.
Duchamp would, I think, particularly enjoy the scene in which art experts praise his overwrought and unfocused work Large Glass for about five slavering minutes before we learn that its creator himself stamped it “dumb” and “boring.” (He was correct to do so.) Listening to the gasbags from the world of curation and criticism discuss Duchamp’s supposed goals of “deforming science and reinventing the universe” or solemnly intoning that “the questions of dematerialization, conceptualization, of the ephemeral act behind art are enormously influential here,” Marcel D would have scoffed. This was the man who once took a print of the Mona Lisa, drew a mustache on it, and affixed upon it the title “L.H.O.O.Q.,” which when read aloud in French sounds like, “She has a hot ass.” The man was a human whoopie cushion turned avatar of “important” art. “He really got people to think about art as an endeavor that was as important as science,” some pretentious bozo says in the film. Nonsense, and Duchamp didn’t say this. I suspect that even the most pompous curator who falls ill would rather be transported to Metropolitan Hospital than the Metropolitan Museum. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Jonas Salk mattered a bit more than Jackson Pollock.
Duchamp loved to embarrass hypocrites and gatekeepers and give wedgies to the conventional wisdom. If he were around today he’d be mocking today’s pieties, not joining the chorus. He’d have a go at identity politics, collapsed standards, and the relentlessness of cliché — notably, calling everything “revolutionary” even if it’s a puddle of plastic vomit on the floor of the Whitney. Fountain was a work about puncturing pretensions. Today the nobs swear what it really meant was “Woo-hoo! Anything can be art!”
Only at the tail end of this documentary, after 90 minutes of deification of Duchamp and putting him on a pedestal, does one of its talking heads say, “This isn’t about a kind of deification of Duchamp, putting him on a pedestal. That’s the last thing he wanted. He wanted pedestals out of here.” Oh.
Duchamp once said, in a remark used as the epigraph of the film, “I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” He didn’t even stick to his own dogmas, much less position himself as a hero/savior of art. Late in life, Duchamp criticized the “unnecessary worship of art” and worked on a nude to be exhibited posthumously, Étant Donnés, that was designed to frustrate fans who thought he had blown up representational art by issuing all those “Readymades,” or random junk labeled as art objects, again for a laugh.
Despite amusing hints that Duchamp may yet find himself canceled by the sorts of people whose approval he never sought in the first place (one observer muses that his Mona Lisa stunt was “appropriation”), he remains the cynosure of various schools of art, more influential today than Picasso. Except for the part about being funny; that aspect of Duchamp has not survived him. Instead he is sold as one of those ghastly symbols of making the world a better place by blowing up bourgeois conventions. One fathead tells us in an interview that, thanks to Duchamp, “we will see artists of the future . . . breaking through the barriers that are set up by society because if you can’t destroy society in your art, you can’t change it or make it better.” Sounds a little ambitious for a guy who liked to make hot-ass jokes.