- Marcel Duchamp and the Antimonies of Art Historical and Art Critical Discourse
Marcel Duchamp is known primarily for three works of art, and one’s sense of his importance for the history of twentieth-century art will depend upon which of these works one has in mind. Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) shows him to be a painter of modest talent who became the succès de scandale of the 1913 Armory Show, that vast exhibition of the entirety of modern art, a survey of every trend and newly opened possibility in painting and sculpture. Duchamp found himself the most notorious and admired ambassador of advanced, continental painting in America. Stylistically an amalgam of cubism and Futurism and a wedding of the erotic to a mecanomorphic aesthetic, this painting was not unique, even if it was ahead of the [End Page 153] curve. But it was certainly unlike anything seen in America to date, and it captured the imagination of American critics, both sympathetic and hostile; it was the most-discussed and most-caricatured work of the Armory Show. The Nude remained for years in America a synecdoche for modern art in general and for cubism in particular. It guaranteed Duchamp’s reputation in New York art circles.
This was a rich irony, since the Nude Descending a Staircase had been rejected by the hanging committee of the most academic cubist group, which included Duchamp’s own brothers, at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris the previous year. In all likelihood the very same retardataire elements that had gotten it rejected from the cubist room of the Indépendants—the narrative content and traditional subject matter implied by the title—recommended it to the hostile critics and caricaturists of America as an object that could be singled out for scorn from among the bewildering variety of assaults on artistic tradition and common decency being purveyed by the organizers of the Armory Show. One might not have any idea what these paint-daubers were up to, so the reasoning seemed to go, but one at least knew what a nude ought to look like, and Duchamp’s canvas insulted common sense. This rancorous attention in turn recommended the Nude as a banner for the defenders of modern art among the New York cognoscenti, who made Duchamp their champion.
The second Marcel Duchamp is the inventor of the readymade, the found object that the artist elevates to the empyrean of art by the simple performative utterance of calling it “art.” This second Duchamp was also the author of an elaborate hoax that led to a second, much less public scandal. In 1916, still highly regarded in New York art circles, Duchamp was made an executive member of the Society of Independent Artists, founded in that year with the express purpose of holding exhibitions for any artist who cared to exhibit something. There were no juries, and no work would be refused. Duchamp, acting under the pseudonym “Richard Mutt,” allegedly of Philadelphia, submitted a urinal, which he upended and titled Fountain, to the society’s first exhibition, held in April of 1917. The urinal was crudely signed “R. Mutt, 1917.” For the hanging committee, as Duchamp well knew, such a thing was clearly not a work of art and had no business being in an art exhibition; by allowing it they would let themselves be ridiculed and, worse, the legitimacy of their enterprise would be obviously and critically undermined. The only legitimacy they had as a society of artists and the only authority they could claim to stamp the imprimatur of “art” on the things they exhibited was what they had arrogated to themselves with their performative utterance of naming...