Conceptual art will soon be one hundred years old and it is arguably viewed with as much suspicion now as it was in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp first submitted a signed urinal for inclusion in an art show in New York. Coincidentally, that artwork went missing; it is the conceptual cross to bear. But artists are always quick to confront the situation. Movements throughout the twentieth century challenged the veracity of the art work, creating art from raw ingredients, appropriating junk, and general scavenging skips in order to jeopardise perceptions of value.From the Italian movement Arte Povera -poor art-, to Carl Andre’s notorious firebricks bought by Tate in the late 1960s to Ceal Floyer’s empty bin bag, artists continue to offer us their idiosyncratic visions of beauty. That we sometimes cannot see it is not a reason to dismiss it as rubbish. The argument is more complex…
Duchamp’s financial documents both specify and generalize his overall artistic enterprise. Rather than addressing all institutions of the art world, they nail art down at one specific institution: the art market. Rather than questioning artistic worth, they address the general question of how value comes into being. As epitomes of the readymade, Duchamp’s financial documents defy general interpretations. They may be fingerprints of a charlatan, but it is impossible to deny their critical potential as readymades. Conversely their refined critique of the art market’s perversity can only be seen by ignoring Duchamp’s biography; it recounts how Duchamp was highly implicated in the market mechanisms the financial documents allegedly critique. ( Olav Velthuis )
Marcel Duchamps once issued a certificate in order to collect money for playing roulette at the casino of Monte-Carlo. It is decorated with a photograph of Duchamp, whose face is covered with shaving foam to make him look like some kind of winged messenger of the gods. The picture has been put exactly upon the wheel of the roulette; likely a clear statement of Duchamp’s sarcastic opinion about the role of the artist in our modern society, or at least advanced Western society.
The mask of the divine messenger or the inspired godlike artist is only a fiction that conceals what is behind, namely a mechanism of pure chance.Monte Carlo bonds point at the speculative nature of both gambling and the art world: success is based on luck rather than merit. As Duchamp argued in a letter to Jean Crotti: “Artists throughout history are like gamblers in Monte Carlo and in the blind lottery some are picked out while others are ruined… It all happens according to random chance. Artists who during their lifetime manage to get their stuff noticed are excellent traveling salesmen, but that does not guarantee a thing as far as the immortality of their work is concerned.” From Duchamp’s point of view, art is basically a social game. Hence the rules of the game cannot be determined by the artist alone.He is the ball in the roulette wheel, with no control over which number he will land on. He cannot even get control of the rules. The House decides. And in gambling the House always wins. He can only participate in the game as a gambler.
But, just like the other readymades Duchamp’s financial documents obviously criticize an art world where the signature certifies both artistic and economic value, where the authority of the artist and the authenticity of the work are seemingly all that counts. And if Duchamp had to face the fact that people ended up ascribing aesthetic value to his readymades whereas his choices were informed by aesthetic indifference, the financial documents were an effective remedy. Thus Duchamp’s readymades express the intent “to eliminate art as an institution.”
“The financial documents take Duchamp’s general critique of value one step further by not only questioning the distinction between art and non-art, but also exposing the congruency between the art world and the economy. The financial documents made artworks equivalent to monetary tokens, conflating the categories of culture and finance in one object. To be sure, Duchamp was highly critical of art’s marriage to commerce in the modern art world. When asked why he had stopped painting, Duchamp answered, “I don’t want to copy myself, like all the others. Do you think they enjoy painting the same thing fifty or a hundred times? Not at all, they no longer make pictures; they make checks.” …. And to one of his American patrons, Katherine Dreier, he complained that economic success corrupted artists, while art lovers would only be able to value a work once it had a high price. ( Velthuis )
By detaching art from aesthetics, Duchamp set it spinning on a different course from the one it had followed since the Renaissance – and thereby ensured that almost all significant art made in the US and continental Europe after his death in 1968 would, at some level, be touched by his ideas. Though Duchamp led the way, he was not a lone genius in undermining the foundations of visual art. Duchamp’s two friends, the Spaniard Francis Picabia and the American Man Ray, also demonstrated that all three were operating on the same wavelength and pursuing similar goals. Each in his different way used humour to mock reason and taste, and all felt scorn for critics, dealers and collectors of conventional art.
The ready-made was born when he realised that something can change its meaning without changing its form. From this it follows that the context in which an object is seen is all-important, and that what we see depends on what we look for. The art of Duchamp, thus, differed very much from conventional expectations. Art ceased to be the expression of a self-possessed person , an attempt to assert a private language into the public sphere; but rather, a subversive act of commentary on “ready-made” systems of language. Art as was conceived by Duchamps , was not understandable as a specific use of language , it was at best, “about” language. In Duchamp’s work we can, therefore, legitimize Foucault’s thesis that “man is dead” and then if style is the “seal” of man as Foucault asserts, we can conclude that style can also be dead as well.
At the same time however, Duchamp was highly implicated in the mechanisms and institutions he critiqued in word and object. To begin with, he was extremely well connected in the art world. During the course of his life, Duchamp became friends with bourgeois art collectors like Jean Doucet, Katherine Dreier, and Walter and Lydia Arensberg; with (would-be) art dealers like Sidney Janis, Julien Levy and Arturo Schwarz; and with museum officials like Alfred Barr, Walter Hopps (Pasadena Museum of Art) and Fiske Kimball (Philadelphia Museum of Art). More than once he used this network to do favors for befriended artists. Furthermore Duchamp functioned as executor of the estates of Dreier and of Mary Reynolds, frequently gave assistance to galleries and was active organizing exhibitions and spotting new talents as co-founder of the Société Anonyme, a short-lived museum for contemporary art in New York. At the 1917 show of the Society of Independent Artists (where R. Mutt submitted his urinal) he played a double role, being an artist as well as president of the hanging committee. Duchamp was very keen on keeping his work together in the collections of Dreier and Arensberg, and seemed to be extremely pleased with the abundance of attention he got in the United States towards the end of his life.
The Guardian: It was reported in the Telegraph yesterday that a Damien Hirst, owned by Chris Evans, might have been accidentally taken to a charity shop. It is an appealing story, and not the first time art has been mistaken for junk. Last year an early Anish Kapoor sculpture made from polystyrene, resin and cement was chucked out by waste disposal experts.
Marc Quinn’s infamous frozen blood head was rumoured to have been defrosted in Saatchi’s freezer and staff at Tate Britain threw out a sculpture by Gustav Metzger, mistakenly thinking it was a bag of waste paper. The acceptable response to such stories appears to be one of horror and incredulity, not for the loss of the artwork, but for its original cost and the collector who bought it. Surely there is no greater evidence that the work was rubbish, than its accidental trashing. …
Brooke Lundquist: There are two theories about such a translational theory of art; the first says that the feeling or meaning of the work came first and the work was then created to represent that meaning. Somehow it produced a “thing” inside us which cannot be linguistically referred to. Here is where there is a parallel to Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Like a private language, art is a medium through which inner sensations are “named”. My point of contention with drawing such a parallel, however, is that a private language by definition is a linguistic concept, whereas aesthetics is not meant to be so. Although it will be proven that a private language cannot exist, I do not think that a non-linguistic aesthetic meaning also cannot exist. The other translational theory claims that meaning is inherent in a work of art and that a sensation is produced, but that sensation is not independent of the work itself. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that the meaning lies outside aesthetics using reasoning similar to that with which the Referential Theory of Language is rejected. In some way art must have ostensive definition.
The second way in which art can affect us is in a way that we cannot talk about. This idea is paradoxical and difficult to grasp because although it exists, it is not really comprehensible in terms of our minds.