Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Take Duchamp.  For me, he is the most exemplary of the artists we call intermedia artists, or, more accurately, artists-in-general.  An artist-in-general is not designated by his or her practice of a specific metier, but moves freely and promiscuously between all the forms in the Western canon.  (Rauschenberg is an artist-in-general; so too are Elaine Sturtevant and Warhol and Yves Klein and Marcel Broodthaers and Rodney Graham and Beuys.  But these are the first names that come to mind when I think of the category, and Duchamp is the best of them).

Duchamp overthrew the tyranny of the "crafty hand."  He proved, definitively in my view, that art can not only be made, but designated, or, in his phrase, "chosen."  This doesn't mean that a work like his Fountain (above) is aesthetically better, or of higher quality, than a handmade sculpture like Michaelangelo's David because it is selected and not made.  What it does mean is that there is no longer any morphological basis for excluding a work like Fountain from the category called "art."  After Duchamp, anything and everything is at least potentially a work of art.  I say "potentially" because a work of art, even one made of radio waves or canned shit must still satisfy, must still demonstrate its aesthetic quality by surviving rigorous comparison with a broad group of peers.  It is not hard to "come up for the count" as art these days, but it is still hard -- must still be hard -- to count as good art.

Is Duchamp's Fountain a sculpture?  Yes, nominally.  Is it successful because of its sculptural qualities?  Or in spite of them?

Some of Fountain's defenders invoked its sculptural qualities to defend it against the Society of Independent Artists' skeptical jury: nice shape, glossy enamel finish, yadda yadda yadda.  Duchamp never did.  All his defenses of Mr. Richard Mutt's peculiar object stressed its significance as an object of aesthetic designation.  "Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object."  Which is not to say that Fountain's sculptural qualities are unimportant, only that to focus on them to the exclusion of all else elides the "new title and point of view" that Duchamp tied to Mott Iron Works' urinal like a thought balloon.

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