It’s art, or not art, I don’t know, I don’t care. It’s not the thing I care about the most. I care if I can provide a new condition, a new perspective, and from that angle, see something completely new…for me and also for others. So that in the new condition people can look at the world differently and draw different conclusions.
-Ai Weiwei, 2013[i]
More than any other artist of the modern era, the work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) has shifted how art is understood. His views have altered not only the way art is made, but also the way it is presented to and experienced by the public. Fuller understanding of his perspective contributes to a deeper understanding of both modern art and the historical roots of current global culture. While the modern era in general was obsessed with avant-garde revolution, Duchamp was continually in the vanguard of questioning the artist’s role. Ways in which he broke new artistic ground include:
- Crossing traditional art media boundaries to create new experiential art forms
- Separating aesthetic experience from traditional art objects and spaces by bringing machine-made objects, tools, and other practical items into the aesthetic realm
- Uncoupling the identification between art and the unique object
- Going beyond sight to address all of the senses
- Including the sixth sense: the mind
- Engaging the mind by incorporating lettering and words into artworks, thus inviting sight and sound, sense and nonsense, into the “work” of art
- Challenging notions of artistic individuality and creative originality by regularly working in collaboration with others
- As artist-exhibition designer, creating experiential installations
- Questioning the validity and usefulness of critical judgment and aesthetic taste
- Analyzing the value of art by critiquing its relationship to commerce
- Personally rejecting conventional markers of art world success.
This is an impressive list that delineates an artistic lifetime of searching. But there’s one more
12. Duchamp realized the time-honored modernist goal of erasing the barrier between art and life.
When asked toward the end of his life what he thought his greatest achievement was, Duchamp said,
Using painting, using art, to create a modus vivendi, a way of understanding life; that is, for the time being, of trying to make my life into a work of art itself, instead of spending my life creating works of art in the form of paintings or sculptures. I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak. These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was twenty or fifteen, but I realize, after many years, that this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do.[ii]
What Duchamp seems to be saying is that he tried using art as a way to accommodate himself to life and in the process came to understand that life is art, or can be. Every choice we make about how to behave or respond is a component in the work of art we call our life.
Duchamp influenced countless artists, but his influence has not always been based on much understanding of what he was actually about. All those “found” objects transformed into pseudo “readymades,” for example. Duchamp’s goal was not simply to identify ordinary objects as art, but to replace sensual apprehension with cognitive apprehension (from the Latin cognit[us], “know”). In his “Specifications for ‘Readymades’,” Duchamp described his process as “a kind of rendezvous”—a meeting that is the result of intention on both sides.[iii] His choice of words implies an expanded notion of consciousness encompassing matter as well as mind.
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