Contemporary Art is Bad

And it's Marcel Duchamp's fault

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According to close and sympathetic observers, there's a lot wrong with contemporary art. In 1993 the Whitney Biennial -- the definitive showcase of American art -- was so dominated by unadorned literal references to well-known social and political dilemmas (a film of the Rodney King beating, for example) that some commentators, notably in a special issue of Chicago's New Art Examiner (April 1994), actually wondered whether beauty and craftsmanship ought to make a comeback.

This year avant-garde icon Marcel Duchamp is the lightning rod for discontent. In Adbusters (Summer 1995), Australian art critic John McDonald lets fly: 'Never in history has so much contemporary art been spiritless and materialistic, never has it been more shallow and cynical.' For McDonald, it's Duchamp--the onetime Dadaist who submitted a urinal to an exhibition; drew a little mustache on a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa and exhibited it; and in general promoted an ironic intellectualization of the art-making process -- whose example has been most dispiriting. The Duchamp deadpan lies behind today's self-consciously ambitionless 'loser art' as well as the antics of Jeff Koons, who has his kitschy works made for him. Even today's 'political' art, in McDonald's reckoning, is addicted to intellectual cleverness of a (debased) Duchampian kind. 'The Duchampian prefers civilized subversion to full-scale confrontation,' writes McDonald; i.e., semiotic head games instead of passionate commitment to craftand to social transformation.

Donald Kuspit, writing in the March issue of NEW ART EXAMINER, sees Duchamp as an insecure artist whose 'readymades' (those ordinary objects he simply bought and signed) were part of a sad mind-game he played with the viewer: 'Because the spectator emotionally invests in the inert matter of the readymade it becomes art, and because the artist emotionally depends on the spectator's investment he is convinced that he is a real artist.' For Kuspit, what such a neurotic-psychotic involvement leaves out, fatally, is the best quality of art: 'The making of fine art is a kind of model of healing, in that it shows that it is possible to transform raw, seemingly inert subjective matter into a sophisticated, strong, spirited self.'

For More Information

Donald Kuspit, 'Marcel Duchamp, Imposter Artist.' NEW ART EXAMINER (March 1995), pp. 17-21. Subscriptions: $35/yr (12 issues) available from 314 West Institute Place, Chicago, IL 60610; 312-649-9900;

Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Art Issues Press, 1993 ($15)

ArtFBI (Gopher site for art and artist advocacy; fights stereotyping of artists)

World Wide Web
BADART! Manifesto (a ringing defense of no standards in art)

Marcel Duchamp Website (bio and images of the artist)

Tom Hendricks
4/11/2009 12:52:31 PM

I encourage Utne to investigate the art revolution - which addresses all these issues.

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