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Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art?

Roy Turner scorns the fact that after Duchamp, critics have questioned the status of ‘traditional’ Western art, making the act of designation the sole determinant of art.

In hearing the music of the young Mozart, an obscure eighteenth century composer is reported to have said, “This young man will cause us all to be forgotten.” In 1977, evaluating the influence of such works by Marcel Duchamp as a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and a urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’ and captioned ‘Fountain’, author and art critic Calvin Tomkins declared that Duchamp had “quietly undermined several centuries of Western art with his readymades.” Mozart’s contemporary was mostly right. Was Tomkins just plain wrong?

The Louvre and the Uffizi are alive and well: it was not traditional painting that took it on the chin after Duchamp, but the philosophy of art. This consequence of Duchamp’s readymades is hinted at in Tomkin’s further remark that “Duchamp seemed to be implying that... the artist was merely someone who signed things” (The World of Marcel Duchamp, 1966). And there was a momentous shift of interest in the discourse of aesthetic philosophers, from art itself – what draws viewers into the gallery – to considering some version of signing things as the primal artistic act. The new discourse was founded on the necessity of finding a way of defining art which would permit the readymades to live comfortably side by side with Rembrandt’s portraits and Constable’s landscapes. Thus, at the very moment when sceptical inquiry was clearly in order, a new current in the philosophy of art began to build a theoretical edifice that surrendered the opportunity to reflect fruitfully upon the startling implications of the readymade.

It is clear that Duchamp’s submission of the urinal to a New York exhibition in 1917 was a profoundly witty gesture. As a gesture it had an enormous capacity to disturb those described by Nietzsche as ‘cultured philistines’, and identified by the complacency and smugness they brought to their understanding of art, in particular of the ‘old masters’. As a gesture, Fountain had neither the capacity to undermine Western art nor to provoke a crisis in its definition: it is surely obvious that it is essential for the success of the gesture as a witty and provocative act that the object precisely not be an art object. What is to be appreciated is not the object itself, but the provocation of placing it in an environment normally reserved for painting and sculpture. Duchamp himself denied aesthetic properties to the readymades, even going so far as to say that they need not even be seen. Could he have been any clearer? (Later it became equally unnecessary to ‘hear’ John Cage’s 4’33” – four and a half minutes of silence ‘played’ on a piano.)

Taking The Urinal

The philosophy of art capitulated when it failed to see that its task was to ask “Is the unexamined ‘work of art’ worth viewing?” or to reflect upon the significance and consequences of submitting bicycle wheels and urinals to art exhibitions. Scepticism yielded to dogmatic closure, following a line of spurious reasoning: if a urinal appeared in a collection of art objects, it must be an art object – despite the fact that it possessed no such status outside of the gallery. (By contrast, Manet ’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe would still have been an art object had it been hung above a urinal in the men’s room.) As Nigel Warburton puts it, “The idea that all works of art must be the product of the artist’s hand, or that they must be aesthetically beautiful or emotionally profound, is hard to sustain once works like Fountain have been accepted into the mainstream” (The Art Question, 2003). In that case, what made it an art object must be, as Tomkins had it, because “the artist was merely someone who signed things.” Hence whatever the artist signed, or submitted for exhibition, was ipso facto art. In short, the philosophy of art now proclaimed an astonishing doctrine: no qualities or attributes of the object need be consulted, nor were there any criteria for evaluating things designated as art. The obvious consequence was spelled out by Donald Kuspit: “Anyone can become a ‘serious artist’, for there are no longer serious criteria for determining seriousness in art.” Did Picasso ‘designate’ Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a work of art? Well, yes, insofar as he submitted it for exhibition. But first he painted it.

What a healthy sceptical response might look like is suggested by Ian Ground’s comment on Carl Andre’s set of ‘unworked fire bricks’, which, Ground declared, “was not a work of art in the same way that a glass of water or someone’s auntie or a pile of old newspapers lying in a cupboard are not works of art. Such things are not works of art in the same way that animals are not astronomical events and cauliflowers are not kings” (Art or Bunk?, 1989). This is not the final word, of course, but it should not be ignored. It has the merit of speaking for common sense; and if common sense is to be overcome, surely it is necessary to provide a winning argument against it.

Nevertheless, the amorphous ‘institutionalist’ school of philosophers of art, chiefly Arthur Danto and George Dickie, greeted the work of Duchamp and his heirs with considerable unquestioning enthusiasm. People might have been puzzled or made suspicious by commonplace objects masquerading as bona fide residents of galleries and exhibitions; but those who might have been expected to lead the inquiry into these concerns instead appeared to have become lobbyists for conceptual art. Danto could not get on board the Duchamp bandwagon fast enough: if there were problems with the diaspora of bathroom and kitchen art objects, those problems rested not with the object or the would-be artist, but with the viewer, who lacked theoretical savvy. “What makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box,” Danto tells us, “is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is ” (in Stephen David Ross (Ed), Art and Its Significance, 1994). Danto is content to issue the Brillo box a passport to permit it to migrate to the gallery, where, perhaps, one might rent the theory along with the audio-guide. And the theory is no more to be questioned than the Brillo box. Unlike the practice of other domains – science, for example – the theory’s consequences need not be taken into account in assessing its persuasiveness. One consequence of accepting such monopolising theorising is the infamous Tate awards.

Arguably, the institutional theory of art, in all its variations, has created a new class of cultured philistines. Too hip to bother with the old masters, this new generation of complacent gallery-goers prides itself on ‘getting it’ when confronted by dead sharks, unmade beds or bicycle wheels. They have been instructed that ‘their’ art is essentially cerebral, that the appropriate response to, say, the Tate’s annual Turner Prize exhibit, is a knowing smile. As Jed Perl has succinctly put it, viewers contemporary with the Duchamp legacy have “grown up regarding this as standard fare [and are] going to believe that they should take art in quickly, instantaneously, all at once.” The fact that much contemporary art, in Perl’s words, “has not exactly encouraged anybody to look long or hard” is hardly surprising in light of Danto’s remark that “the suggestion [is] almost irresistible that philosophy and art are one, and the reason there is a philosophy of art is because philosophy has always been interested in itself” (Eyewitness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis, 2000). What’s to look at?

Gesture Politics

Danto clearly wants the Brillo box to attain the status of art, seeing in its appearance a highly desirable change in the connection between philosophy and art following on the readymades – a change which occurred when “art itself evolved in such a way that the philosophical question of its status has become almost the very essence of art itself” (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981). It seems to follow that whatever other interest in or knowledge of art the philosopher may possess can be shelved when he approaches art chiefly as a domain posing interesting philosophical questions as to its own logic. It isn’t hard to see that one could join the ‘debate’ provoked by Dickie and company without having any knowledge of or interest in art: all one needs is to have read the literature and have a taste for polemic. Art’s focus on definition and boundary-drawing has attracted philosophers for whom these technical and procedural matters are simply transferable from one field of philosophy to another.

Unnoticed by these philosophers is that the forming and promulgating of definitions is itself an institutional practice, with little power or meaning beyond the institution. A current example: the idea of same-sex marriage has spawned many attempts to define marriage, supposedly to resolve conflict by demonstrating that marriage properly defined either provides a barrier against the inclusion of gays or makes their belonging self-evident. But whether or not gay marriage is accepted doesn’t turn on these definitions: the definitions are weapons in the battle between those whose minds have already been made up in either direction. And nobody worries much about defining marriage outside of this context.

Definitions don’t – or rarely – rule the roost. Bureaucratic contexts provide an exception. For purposes of paying duty, for example, customs agencies typically define antiques as objects at least a hundred years old – not a definition antique stores abide by, to no one’s confusion. Tax codes are full of definitions that have bite, as we all know. Science, too, makes necessary use of definitions. But it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that until it was thought desirable to treat the readymades as art objects, there was little concern with defining art, least of all amongst those to whom art was most important. Post-Duchampian philosophers of art, it seems, like proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage, are propelled by a deeply polemical impulse which distracts them from the real issues of the domain which is the focus of their philosophical investigations.

Art Without Philosophy

Francis Sparshott gives us a glimpse of quite another tack which the philosophical approach taken by Danto and company utterly ignores, and which we might call the hermeneutic.

Sparshott tells us that it is essential to the work of art as understood by the tradition that it “is inherently interpretable; its typical perfection is a perfection of richness that lends itself to commentary” (The Theory of the Arts, 1982). Interpretation is always ‘open’, since, in Sparshott’s words, “in a painting anything that may ever become detectable may become relevant... Even the painter cannot specify beforehand exactly what will be discoverable in his painting.” Sparshott is pointing here not only to the particularity of art, but also, by implication, to the particularity of the experience of art. Central here is not the shadowy figure posited by the institutionalists – the ‘member of the art world’ who is empowered to designate whatever his eye falls on as a work of art; or the philosopher whose endless definitional disputes proceed far from the presence of art; but the denizens of the Louvre and the Uffizi – those viewers who come to art with varying degrees of knowledge and sophistication, and who constitute the heart of the art world. What is spoken of as ‘traditional art’ when post-Duchampian art is exalted, is after all a reference to what is to be found in most public galleries. Crudely put, for this world, both painters, sculptors, and the viewers of their works can perfectly well exist in the absence of the philosophy of art.

Recognition of the centrality of the viewer requires us to acknowledge what the joyless theoreticians have nothing to say about: the sheer enjoyable character of the encounter with paintings – not with painting: the kind of experience which leads us to seek it out repeatedly, as part of the good life. An aspect of the particularity of this experience is this: we simply cannot give a fully explicit account of our experience of, for example, Oedipus Rex, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, to include other arts too. Our inability to give such accounts does not lessen the degree to which we are moved or experience pleasure – indeed, the opposite is true. Nor does it signify shallowness in the approach to art. A visitor to the Musee d’Orsay, confronting two Cezanne still-lifes hung side by side may find one pleasurable and satisfying, while the other is intensely moving. Not only does the viewer not possess a theory to account for these experiences, but it is equally true that in no significant sense is such a theory missing.

One whose engagement with art springs from a desire to explore the ‘perfection of richness’ praised by Sparshott is unlikely to be swayed by the assertion that radical modern artists, in Warburton’s words, “see their predecessors as implying a theory of art that they neatly refute with a well-chosen counterexample.” (Is the salon de refusés to be replaced by a salon de refutés?) Grant that the ‘predecessors’ and their viewers have been refuted. What then? The paintings remain. Art is not refuted. What could it mean to ‘refute’ a Cezanne still-life?

Outside the Box

The philosopher of art of the institutional school is surely right to say, as Danto puts it, that “What makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is.” But to expose the irrelevance of this idea when attributed to the tradition, we have only to ask what ‘real object’, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe ‘collapses into’ when the ‘implicit theory’ which supported it is refuted.

In short the Brillo box needs the life-support provided by the institutional school, whereas Le déjeuner, like Constable’s landscapes and Cezanne’s still-lifes, retains its richness and vitality whatever becomes of the ‘implicit theory’ said to have grounded it as art. Perhaps this suggests that it is time for the philosopher to take a fresh look at art ’s complex connections with the particularity of the world in which it makes its appearance, rather than endorsing the elevation of that world’s most banal objects at the expense of the plenitude of aesthetic experience. This would permit us to recognise that there is more vitality in the original Duchampian gesture than there is in the edifice of theory inflating its significance, and that we can mercifully ignore the claim that the readymades have “quietly undermined several centuries of Western art.”

© Roy Turner 2008

Roy Turner is Professor of Sociology Emeritus, University of British Columbia. He has published numerous articles in professional journals and edited Ethnomethodology, published by Penguin.

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