Duchamp and Defining Art
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
Diving into the deep end here for Post #2, scratching my head as I try to remember my art history classes. In thinking about the question "how ought we make films?" I want to widen the perspective. Answering this question will necessitate us talking about art in general, and it shall not be futile to look at the artistic world beyond film in search of examples that pertain to our interest.
The art world spent much of the 20th Century attempting to answer the question "What is art?" This question was not simply an academic exercise for art critics but a constant thematic question for the artists themselves. There may be no work which so embodies this question as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. Fountain is a work that seeks to stretch the bounds of how art can be defined, and to a great extent, actually succeeds in arguing for a very broad definition of the word "art" in a formal setting. However I do not think I am alone in finding a great discomfort with affording this work and others like it, the respect to the same degree that we would the work of a more classical master. In fact I will be so bold as to assert that for any viewer who is unfamiliar with the very specific context and intent of Duchamp, it shall appear to be nothing more than a bad joke, and the art world, a realm of gullible, pretentious nonsense. Of course those who are familiar with Duchamp will assert that there is far more going on than that, and in this they are probably quite right. However I think this is where the conversation often stops, right in the midst of a great divide between popular and scholarly opinion. I am convinced that we should not be satisfied with this divide. If art is to remain both an intellectual pursuit and a positive influence within culture, this common place reaction to such a work needs to be understood and reckoned with, rather than being dismissed as the simple uninformed position of the artistic laity.
If I take a pine cone, I remove it from nature, and place it on my mantelpiece, does the pine cone become art? This is in essence the question Duchamp asks with his infamous toilet, the Fountain, an otherwise entirely normal urinal which he placed on a platform and exhibited as though it were a sculpture he created. The question is that of context. Is the content what defines art, or the context? For those who would assert the more obvious position that it is the content that matters, consider the following. How does the pine cone on a mantelpiece differ from a photograph of a sunset?
You might protest that a photograph had to pass through the collative eye of the photographer, it was a moment, one out of an infinite number, that was selected by the skilled and trained eye of the photographer, and captured in a fraction of a second that shall never come again; a totally unique work that cannot be replicated. But then, if we think more about the pine cone we shall find again that this particular pine cone is entirely unique, and it also required a specific eye to find it, to select it; one out of many, as preferential above all others and worthy of display. Like a photo, the pine cone may have sentimental value attached. It could be from a day when its selector climbed a certain hill and met his significant other. The pine cone could also serve as a symbol of growth or any number of interpretations once its selector has pulled it out of its natural setting and chosen to place it deliberately within a new one.
In practice we find that it is quite hard to show logically how the pine cone differs from the photo. Yet none of this shall prevent me from scoffing at the "Fountain" of Duchamp. But while I find myself needing to concede Duchamp's point, I also find myself raising my fist at him. This conversation about what can be defined as art continues in a similar manner across the 20th Century. Another high water mark for this conversation is the John Cage composition 4:33, in which the performance of a "musical composition" consists of no notes, only a pianist sitting at a bench silently for four minutes and thirty three seconds. The piece consists of the sounds of the audience breathing, the AC of the concert hall, and whatever other ambient sounds are present. In 1952, that was considered the music of genius.
A few decades later we find that we perceive a great decline in interest of contemporary classical music, painting, literature. In both work and in the realm of critique the discussion seems to have ground to a halt. There is no more avante-garde in our age of artistic pluralism. To my knowledge, contemporary works are not selling or entering the popular lexicon to the degree that we are familiar with works of the 20th Century, even decades later. There are of course exceptions to this but I don't want to be dragged down into a debate in the weeds of whataboutisms. I assert this decline on the basis of my general awareness of culture, I concede that my awareness is limited and your opinions may different from mine, but you will fail to convince me that there is a living equivalent to Rachmaninoff, or to Vincent Van Gogh. This decline should not surprise us when works like Fountain and 4:33 come to be celebrated by the supposed artistic elite.
I don't think anyone has quite come up with such a definition of art that satisfies everyone, but permit me to suggest my own, despite it being neither first, nor final:
Art is a morally neutral thing that has nonetheless attained a moral aspect through its selection or creation by an intellect.
I admit this is a very vague and general definition, and you will see that it would necessarily include works like Duchamp's Fountain, and Cage's 4:33. It would even include paint splattered on a canvas by an oblivious elephant. What this definition does not, and cannot do is tell us if these works are good or bad. Indeed, the question "what is art?" does not go any length to tell us what works are worth our time and what works have less value than a child scribbling on a wall. What this definition does require is that art has value. Good or bad, it has a significance to us. We can be morally repulsed by it just as much as we can be uplifted by a different work. Art bears meaning.
By this definition, Fountain is art, yes. But it could be bad art. It could be morally and artistically detrimental to the human psyche. The totality of the work might cause the lay person to close down emotionally or stunt their receptivity toward other works of art. It could be conceited, alienating, and narcissistic. I might argue that Fountain is guilty on all of these counts. It would take me another essay to fully expound upon why. What is important is that, whether or not one might agree with me, the discussion that would follow would be a discourse on the actual merit of the work or its lack thereof. This is precisely the discussion worth having, not an endless quibble over what is or isn't art. Like so much of public discourse today, a discussion of this sort ends up dancing around the real conflict and devolving into a battle of pure rhetoric.
We need to appreciate our gut reaction to art. Bad work is off putting to us. It isn't important for us to argue over whether or not a work constitutes an artistic pursuit. What is important is how we react to it, how it affects us. We have been so preoccupied in dealing with the question "what is art?" that we have forgotten the more important question, "what is good art?"