Part 3: Commerce Nullifies Art…Again
What fun Duchamp is having, what masterful play. What nerve Duchamp had in submitting a common urinal as a piece of art! Or painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa! What adjustments the strait-laced observer must make to avoid being drawn into the play of it. How am I to react to this? Am I being mocked? No, I am in on the joke, it’s all those other snobs who have become rigid in their concepts of art and beauty. The genius is that the contest-mongers were desperate to have him join their game, but he was always several steps ahead. And so, in an artistic manipulation of chance and rude brandish of dada aesthetic, Duchamp the trickster discovered and brought the readymade into the world. In his own words:
As early as 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.
A few months later I bought a cheap reproduction of a winter evening landscape, which I called Pharmacy after adding two small dots, one red and one yellow, in the horizon.
In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote in advance of the broken arm.
It was around that time that the word ‘ready-made’ came to my mind to designate this form of manifestation.
A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘ready-mades’ was never dictated by aesthetic delectation.
The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with a total absence of good or bad taste…in fact a complete anaesthesia.
One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the ‘ready-made.’
That sentence, instead of describing the object like a title, was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions, more verbal.
Can people be shaken from their rigidity on a mass scale? Can such provocative ‘art’ alter the course of human affairs? The realm in which dada attempts to stimulate this change is the realm of play, and no one was able to play—or to provoke resistance to play—better than Duchamp. He was fully detached from the idea that there is any purpose to life that would make it necessary for him to believe in something. Thus, as a very pure nihilist, he holds a most objective mirror up to us. Because he presents no agenda or program, our reactions to Duchamp’s creations are very much our own, and thus he goads us to take responsibility for our own beliefs and actions.
And, like the Trickster, like Bugs Bunny, Duchamp bent his gender, springing a cross-dressing second identity on the world as Rose (and later Rrose) Sélavy in 1920. This alter ego would sign some of Duchamp’s pieces, flirt with folks of all sexes, and stimulate various capers and frolics. She disappeared just as suddenly in1941. Rose is an anagram for eros, and Sélavy a phonetic for C’est la Vie . . . Eros, that’s Life.
His The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (most often called The Large Glass) confounds the viewer: is it the 20th century’s most profound statement on the relationship of men to women and humans to machines, or is it, as Short comments, “An immensely elaborate joke, a game which throws doubt on the seriousness of all human endeavor….”Duchamp abhorred the notion that his creations would be put back into any box, analyzed and compared, and considered art with a capital “A”. His courage and his genius were to lay traps in his art that would snare such classifiers. Because he would rather play. Duchamp lived in a world of playfulness, and from that ether grasped the central theme of the 20thcentury, reconciling the contradictions and confluences of sex and technology.
And nihilism and empty style have been the persistent threads of modern art since World War I, since Surrealism. In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe humorously describes modern art’s detours and retreats from its activist origins. When the dada challenge—for disruptive play to alter our very definitions of what is art, to dare ask, what is the matrix that confines our daily life?—went unmet, art veered into two cul-de-sacs. One was social realism, a more harmless form that commented on political struggle rather than engaged in it, i.e., propaganda. The other was art for art’s sake, and the silly debates and theories of what can and can’t happen in painting and sculpture. Overlooked or dismissed is the great dada alliance between writers and artists and the revolutionary potential of disruptive play. The next dynamic association was two generations away, between writers, poets and musicians.
Impressionism reinterpreted light leading to artists’ reinterpreting reality, leading to dada and artists questioning reality, which then divided itself over nihilism and style, leaving social engagement behind. Thus defanged, modern art proceeded upon a course of breaking reality down into more and more abstract forms. Its experts follow a theoretical strand whose only relation to people is to illustrate existential isolation.
A good example of this cul-de-sac, this endgame, is the explosions of chance in the yellows and blacks, the vibrant reds and blues and greys, the fantastic drip artwork of Jackson Pollock, beauty in the abstract. For this discussion, it is evidence of the fully emasculated artist. The revolution that never occurred in society is fought out on the canvas. It’s even possible that Pollock’s pained life and premature death was borne of the frustrating chasm that had opened up between art and the impact it could possibly have upon life. As an artist fully connected to the lineage that emerged from France at the turn of the century, Pollock bore this weight.
The price the trickster pays: when the divinity of play is rejected, it hurts. Society exiles trickster-types to a lonely place and busies itself with so-called serious matters.
Wolfe may have seen disruptive play as unimportant, and as a social conservative sought the purely sensual pleasure of viewing a painting that is pretty. But the social conditions and creative explosion of fin de siècle France challenged us to change our ways, to discard war and the love of power, to allow our lives to become works of art. Let art perform its ultimate function, which is to spiritualize daily life. Dispense with beauty as a relative term. To call something beautiful is to imply other things must be ugly. This was unacceptable to the dadas.
But what happened was that the marketplace took over, and artists awarded themselves the consolation prize of a new special status; theory; nihilism; and style hopelessly yoked to the ultimate commodity, fashion.
So play goes into hiding, takes refuge in philosophy, while political movements grow more serious and art more detached. The muse took flight, and it was not until the Fifties that it emerged again to spark a complex and international social movement in the Sixties. In this case, the art of the times—rock and roll—was again socially engaged, and the politics of the time—hippies, Yippies, European revolutionaries—were playful enough to incorporate beauty into their social vision. With the Beats playing the prelude analogous to the Impressionists and early Moderns, the game got bigger, the stakes higher, and the vision of a society that plays made one more step towards something more than a momentary realization.
The previous chapter recounts the death dance as dada left the political stage and entered the dream world of Surrealism. It’s worth noting that Jarry, who died seven years before dada’s birth, and Duchamp, who endured and thrived beyond its death, reveal play’s resilience. In their playfulness, they floated above the political scuffles that killed dada, killed play. Such escapes keep the play spirit alive and available for future generations to reinvent.
dada effectively dismantled art by challenging the foundations of its economic and social hierarchical structure, the dealer system that itself was less than forty years old. But ultimately it failed to achieve its vision because capitalist systems, like water, will simply seek other avenues when one is blocked, when the artist does not cooperate. So the system that perpetuated art as compartmentalized commodity ultimately ignored or absorbed dada, but the intentions of its creators cannot be forgotten, its reverberations on history, and the unfulfilled vision of a playful life indistinguishable from artistic creation lies before us still.
 Marcel Duchamp, in, art and anti-art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965, p. 89).
 Robert Short, Dada and Surrealism (Chartwell Books: Seacaucus, New Jersey, 1980, p. 27).
 Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975).