How Is This Art: Duchamp

Just think of him as Syndrome in The Incredibles

I think modern art is like Marmite, you either love it (and kind of get it) or you hate it (and definitely do not get what they are trying to achieve). It’s probably a bit more violent than reactions to Marmite. Some people get truly furious when confronted with modern art, because why are these artists famous? Why are they rich? Why are they even honoured with the term ‘artist’? Take Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), for instance. It is a urinal. Yet, thousands of essays, journals and books have been published dedicated to this ‘piece’. Is it art? Or is it just a urinal?
Fountain (1917) 

Researching Duchamp recently, I keep asking myself these questions. When I first began my reading into Dadaism (the movement of which Duchamp was a pioneer), I was secure in my belief that it was a group of men creating rubbish who have been given far too much fame and inflated influence. They seem to get away with the fact they are terrible at art by saying their whole shtick is to create ‘non-art’ and anarchy against conventional art forms.

Well, that seems like a weak effort to just grab a urinal, label it a ‘ready-made’ and say you’re doing it to protest against art. Right?

Maybe… but maybe not.
In this situation it is important to think about the context of Dada. It emerged during and after WWI, when many young artists had been killed. They held ‘respectable society’ responsible for the state of Europe. These were the elite who visited galleries and sat on art boards and judged what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’. Artists like Duchamp wanted to attack them in the ways they knew how- by creating art that ridiculed the entire discipline.
In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915)

Of course, like every other art movement in history, they were also obsessed with being ‘new’ and coming at art from a revolutionary, untouched angle. In this case, they decided it should be about making normal, everyday objects into art. They were interested in how mechanical tools could symbolise the human body. (Yep, sounds pretty weird but stick with me…)

Duchamp declared that objects became works of art as soon as he said they were. As soon as he picked up something (like a coal-shovel) it ceased to be a mundane item and became a masterpiece. Just looking at it made it art. Yeah, that’s where In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915) comes in. It is a revolution against the old ideas of ‘Art’, because it flips all preconceptions of standards and talent on their head. By making everything art… nothing is art. Just think of Duchamp as Syndrome in The Incredibles
When everything is art, nothing is.

 Now we get more complicated with Duchamp’s other iconic DADA piece The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915). Also known as The Large Glass, the meanings behind it are pretty out there. In an effort to avoid standard paint and canvas, Duchamp represents bodies with items like a sieve and chocolate grinder. The ‘Bride’ in the upper corner is made with wire but is supposed to be undressing seductively. The nine ‘bachelors’ underneath try to get her attention. Gas (representing desire) flows from the bachelors around other objects. Duchamp was trying to humorously show machines falling in love.
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915)

It was accidentally shattered in 1927 while returning from an exhibition in Brooklyn. Because of the cult-like following behind Duchamp, myths emerged that he had always intended for the glass to break and the exact shatters to appear. He said it showed the flow of the relationship between men and women and declared the piece was finally finished. Not gonna lie, I call bull on that one. I don’t think you can say an entirely accidental breakage was always part of the plan, but it kind of shows how fluid the idea of ‘art’ had become in Dada, which is still quite an interesting idea.

Duchamp eventually gave up art in favour of becoming a professional chess player, which just adds to the whole joke of his career. Who knows, perhaps Duchamp really was taking the piss the entire time, seeing how long his jokes could enthral the snobs of the art world? If this is the case, it’s still working, because here I am writing about it, and here you are, reading about it.

I’m still trying to decide what side of the Marmite debate I fall on. Should Duchamp be listed in the same books as masters including Degas and Da Vinci? I think it’s ok to hate Duchamp’s work, I think he’d probably enjoy the fact we are still talking about it, 100 years later, trying to pin art terms onto objects he found around the house.

And, let’s all be honest, Vegemite beats Marmite anyway. 


  1. This is an argument that can go on and on. For me I want to look at art created by someone who has skills that I don't have. BTW - enough Oz propaganda. Marmite rules.
    Also BTW - great bit of blogging.

    1. Thank you anonymous bestie, my instinct tells me you make great quiche. And yes, this debate could continue as it inevitably will.


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