Home » article » The Curious Case of Marcel Duchamp

The Curious Case of Marcel Duchamp

A two part series; Marcel Duchamp was made in the U.S.A., and now research on the Readymade yields an unexpected surprise.

Part 1 – Without Prejudice

Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, ca 1950 -by Naomi Savage

This view differs from previous Duchamp studies in having no commitment to the belief that he made great art. That paradigm shift remaps his place in art history and tears down discreet veils placed over his name by the academic curatorial complex. However, the good that Duchamp has done did not get interred with his bones; an oblique view provides a glimpse of his shadow, and the darkness of one’s shadow comes from the brightness of the light one walks in.

We sense Duchamp’s disappointment for being virtually unknown in France, even though a disdain for status was part of his brand; perhaps he was making a virtue of necessity when “a prophet has no honor in his own country.” (John ch4 v44). Richard Dorment wrote, “Tate Modern’s 2008 Duchamp exhibition demonstrates that he was not quite the isolated genius most of us had imagined. In placing his work beside that of his two friends, the Spaniard, Francis Picabia and the American, Man Ray, the show demonstrates that all three were operating on the same wavelength and pursuing similar goals”.(1)

The competition was intense, Donald Kuspit wrote of Matisse out-performing him(2) , although Duchamp was obviously a gifted painter far above the average, in fact exceptionally gifted.

“There are people who are born unlucky and who simply never ‘make it’. They’re not talked about. That was the case with me (till forty years later).”(3)  Duchamp was twenty-eight years old in 1915 when he arrived in New York. Walter Pach introduced him to his principal American patron, Walter C. Arensberg. Duchamp stayed a month at Arensberg’s; their friendship would last their lifetime.(4)  At Arensberg’s Duchamp met “everybody who was anybody in New York”(5), and while Duchamp lived in relative obscurity until the 1960s, Arensberg and other patrons purchased enough work to pay his living.(6) Duchamp’s resurgent fame came in the late 1960s through Motherwell, John Cage, and Jasper Johns; George Segal remarked that “Marcel Duchamp had a revived life through John Cage.”(7)

Questioning the Readymade

Duchamp’s best known artwork was the Readymade, a time-saver said equivalent to months of studio work. Until his time the arts were confined to a few media that took decades to master; Duchamp declared mastery irrelevant and painting dead. Now a question posed by Duchamp is gaining importance, one that needs consideration; Duchamp begs the question of whether the Readymade really is a work of art. “The curious thing about the Readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me.”(8) This allows that some deeper meaning may yet be found tucked in the mainstream art history narrative.

When asked how he came to choose the Readymade, Duchamp replied, “Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it … when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool … it was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason … or any intention of showing it, or describing anything.(9) The word ‘Readymade’ thrusts itself on me then. It seemed perfect for these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies.”(10) Duchamp’s refusal to have Readymades treated as works of art led him to claim that “for a period of thirty years nobody talked about them and neither did I.”(11)

We see Duchamp’s Dadaist humour and his intelligence operating simultaneously on multiple planes; Duchamp is here destroying the notion of the Readymade as a work of art.  We know Duchamp often said he wanted to destroy art.  Now the mind begins to spin.  Was the Readymade art and his words just destroyed that reality, or was the Readymade never art but at some point Duchamp allowed people to think it was? Or is everything art, in which case nothing is, since without limitations we dissolve in the boundless. And if nothing is art we have to shut down the academy, and Dada would win.

The only definition of “readymade” is in Breton and Eluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” The Museum of Modern Art’s Duchamp page has an inaccurate version wrongly attributed; it is not his. While published under the name of Marcel Duchamp (or his initials, “MD,” to be precise), André Gervais nevertheless asserts that Pierre Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry.(12) In Gamboni’s ‘The Destruction of Art’, Duchamp “at the end of his life explained to Otto Hahn that his Readymades had aimed at drawing ‘the attention of the people to the fact that art is a mirage even if ‘a solid one’, and concluded from the vagaries of taste that history was to be doubted.”(13)

As a Dadaist, Duchamp repeatedly denied art, called for its destruction and transformation to the conceptual plane. Calling art a mirage suggests people are fooled, as with a mirage; Duchamp denied art with a hint of what it could be were it to really exist. Today, peer-reviewed science corrects Duchamp’s assumptions;  aesthetics have been a crucial aspect of evolutionary development(14) and psychology says art is vital to mental health, meaning that art is not a mirage but an essential tangible process.  It is the Readymade that’s a mirage if a solid one, whose history is to be doubted. The vagaries of changing tastes validate art history rather than raising doubt, history being the record of such changes. We need to revise art history to show that for Duchamp the Readymade was not art, as he said “no term of art applies”.

Duchamp’s contribution was to reposition concept at the core of art. It’s likely his denial of senses was a psychological need to lessen the power of aesthetics in art in order to place idea as its core; he’d complained the pendulum had swung too far. Things differ today. Structuralism reminds us that in a study of form a concept will eventually arise, just as a study of concept must eventually take form. Notice in all these situations art is described as a ‘doing’. As Goethe suggested, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Marcel Duchamp Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp Villon in the garden of Villon’s studio, Puteaux,F rance, c.1913

Sol Lewitt’s later postulate that an idea is art is disproved in the etymology of the word itself. Wikipedia notes that an idea is science; a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.(15) Art is defined as an activity of creating and a product. When Dada aims at an art that cannot be consumed, and conceptual art aims for art that is not a product, such contradictions prove the rule that art evolved as a biological urge to individuation and cultural identity. Some argue that cosmetic body art was the earliest form of ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago from the African Middle Stone Age. The evidence for this comes in the form of utilized red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons, associated with the emergence of Homo Sapiens in Africa.(16) There’s documented evidence art is vital to evolutionary development.(17) Which means denying art may have harmful consequences.

At the time, Walter Benjamin wrote that authorship and aesthetics were outmoded concepts and the only valid use for art was political.(18) A few years after denying art and self worth Benjamin killed himself at a critical moment when he suffered a failure of morale, which often happens to Marxists when they are left alone for too long. Meanwhile, Dadaists with brilliant revolutionary and iconoclastic gestures rejected beauty and craftsmanship; what could be more Dada than to declare every object a work of art? In a fit of revolutionary fervor we over–leap logic with manifestos that prove we do not need to work anymore, everything is art, life is Dada, the bourgeoisie are confused, épater la bourgeoisie!(19)

Assumptions, however, must stand the test of time as applied ideas.  When Duchamp says the readymade is not an art object, then found-objects are not art but remain the everyday items they were before the artist “elevated them to the dignity of art”. While the National Gallery claims a pile of broken sticks as art, they remain in fact a sorry pile of broken sticks with curatorial pretensions. To claim them to be anything more and to call them art is a metacognitive insensitivity to the complex iteration of sensations and a failure to grasp a creative unconscious that psychology has documented and peer-reviewed. Broken sticks do function however as symbolic of a broken process, as an icon that means broken art.

In a 1986 BBC interview with Joan Blackwell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see, that he made it intellectual.(20) At a 1998 panel discussion entitled Vision and Visuality sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Krauss mentioned that (except for Mondrian and Seurat) Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work.(21) We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes; these are things to respect, not to despise.

Marcel Duchamp created his brand as an intellectual rejecting sensuality, visuality, and taste, in order to focus on ideas. But ideas belong to literature, ideas are for writing down, whereas vision is for seeing. If you remove sensation from vision you have a sight no longer sensible, and you’ve lost the incentive to make visual art. Jasper Johns wrote that Duchamp wanted to kill art “for himself”(22) and we know he destroyed his own ability to make art then retired to play chess.  Johns went on to say Duchamp tolerated, even encouraged the mythology around that ‘stopping’, “but it was not like that … He spoke of breaking a leg. ‘You didn’t mean to do it’ he said”.(23) Rejecting one’s sense is senseless because it denies one’s incentive by stopping information and feedback. By denying and disrupting his personal taste he harmed the motivational functions allowing personal creative choice. If you say art is not worth making and repeat it often enough, you will eventually believe yourself and lose interest in making art. We must now judge for ourselves if this is desirable; is it admirable for artists to lose interest in making art?

And now history whispers that Plato reproached Pericles because he did not “make the citizen better” and because the Athenians were even worse at the end of his career than before. (Gorgias 515) Art was the highest expression of a culture until Duchamp suggested iconoclasm, destruction, could be the highest expression of a culture … he clearly said he wanted to destroy art. Then for the next twenty years, in a small room behind his now empty studio, he poked at Étant donnés as if trying to revive a lost relationship..  His ideas had hurt him like a broken leg, and it took us a hundred years to notice.

T’um. Oil on canvas

Kristin Lee Dufour’s school assignment at Oxford deconstructs Duchamp’s  philosophy. “The pertinence of the artist is erased in favor of the pertinence of the concept. In Duchamp’s readymades, the involvement of the artist as a generative source is minimal … Thus, the value of the artist as a craftsman, mastering a particular media, is annihilated, as are values attached to any of these media.”(24)  Peter Bürger goes even further: “the central distinction between the art of ‘bourgeois autonomy’ and the avant-garde is that whereas bourgeois production is ‘the act of an individual genius,’ the avant-garde responds with the radical negation of the category of individual creation … all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked … it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art.”(25)  We eliminate the individual’s value and then eliminate the individual.

Bürger’s revolutionary language radically questions bourgeois society…  the B word signals his virtue and horror when an individual is considered the creator of a work of art. Bürger fails to clarify what horror occurs when the individual is considered the creator of a work of art, yet this abnegation would repeatedly infect the next hundred years. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347, 8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Hannah Arendt wrote as Goethe did, that “a life without speech and without action – and this is the only way of life that has renounced in earnest all appearance and all vanity in the biblical sense of the word – is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men and women.”(26)   We eliminate the individual’s value and then eliminate the individual.  Even now there’s articles on why Dada is still important, suggesting that scholarship can’t even, millenials can’t even, academia fails to show any responsibility for the consequence of their ideas.  Hannah Arendt says Duchamp’s philosophy is literally dead to the world; we see that truth and its consequence in Duchamp’s devolution.

The Dark Side

There’s such admiration for Duchamp that critique makes us defensive, threatens our intellectual investment, our comfort zone. Yet someone on Facebook said that when we can no longer explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets. If we fetishize heroes we lose sight of contextual influences; without that balance we become acolytes, not scholars.

Duchamp held himself at a distance from the mainstream. His father’s support meant that Duchamp did not face the financial anxiety most live with, that restricts their options.(27)  “Basically I’ve never worked for a living … Also I haven’t known the pain of producing, painting not having been an outlet for me, or having a pressing need to express myself. I’ve never had that kind of need – to draw morning, noon, and night…”(28) That explains why Donald Kuspit wrote of Matisse out-performing him. Duchamp dreaded marriage, children, bourgeois servitude to social expectations; “It wasn’t necessary to encumber one’s life with too much weight, with too many things to do, with what is called a wife and children, a country house, an automobile. And I understood this, fortunately, rather early. This allowed me to live for a long time as a bachelor.”(29)

Duchamp’s first marriage in 1927, lasted six months; “because I saw that marriage was as boring as anything, I was really much more of a bachelor than I thought. So, after six months, my wife very kindly agreed to a divorce … That’s it. The family that forces you to abandon your real ideas, to swap them for the things family believes in, society and all that paraphernalia.” He spoke of “a negation of woman in the social sense of the word, of the woman-wife, the mother, the children, etc. I carefully avoided all that, until I was sixty-seven. Then (1954) I married a woman (Alexina Teeny Sattler) who, because of her age, couldn’t have children.” Both were avid chess players.(30)  The tale of Duchamp’s first marriage tells that in 1927 Marcel Duchamp married a young heiress called Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor. The honeymoon did not go well; the artist’s close friend Man Ray recalls that “Duchamp spent the one week they lived together studying chess problems and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.” They were divorced a few months later.(31)

Duchamp was obviously open minded about sexuality in his response to Frank Lloyd Wright’s question, posed to him at the Western Round Table on Modern Art in 1949. Wright, “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly in debt to homosexualism [sic]?” Duchamp replied: “I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest for modern art than the heterosexual public.”(32)

A curious answer with a wink to Arensberg?

Duchamp may or may not have been ambisexual but he queered the arts creatively and personally. Alex Robertson Textor attests that Duchamp “posed for Man Ray in drag, displaying exaggerated feminine mannerisms, though not passing particularly well as a woman. Considered from a range of feminist perspectives, Duchamp’s tendency to see Rose Sélavy as his ‘muse’ represents an assimilation of an abstract ‘feminine’ as a territory for the critically transgressive. But since he was openly disdainful of feminism, this move is clearly problematic. ”(33)

Miklos Legrady

[in part 2, Aesthetics and the Meaning of Art, Legrady deals with Motherwell, Cabane and Duchamp’s aim to tilt at the establishment and the title ‘artist’ at one and the same time]

A new voice in art criticism, Legrady is a visual artist, scholar, anti-hero and protagonist who’s expecting trouble. He steps out of the art world’s blind spot, deconstructing myths and fictions. Emerging as a hybrid between technical wizard, ad buster, and poli-sci commentator, he moves through a world of political, social, and cultural intrigue, trends, and events. Legrady disrupts patterns and shrugs off the status quo to forge art’s future at the intersection of aesthetics, inspiration and reality. Like the Energizer Bunny, Legrady just keeps on going and going.




1-Richard Dorment, Marcel Duchamp: Art changed for ever, www.telegraph.co.uk  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671455/Marcel-Duchamp-Art-changed-for-ever.html

2- Francis M. Naumann and Donald Kuspit, Duchamp: An Exchange, Artnet http://www.artnet.com/magazine/FEATURES/naumann/naumann6-15-11.asp

3- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, I like Breathing Better Than Working, p86, Da Capo Press.

4-Ibid, p60.

5-Ibid, p45.

6-Ibid, p57

7- Segal, cited in Wouter Kotte, Marcel Duchamp als Zeitmaschine/Marcel Duchamp als Tijdmachine, Köln, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 1987: p. 86, n. 236. Cited in Sylvère Lotringer, Becoming Duchamp, The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal,  http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_2/Articles/lotringer.html#N_1_top

8-Calvin Tomkins: Duchamp: A Biography, page 159. Holt Paperbacks https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readymades_of_Marcel_Duchamp

9- Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press.


11- Marcel Duchamp Talking about Readymades, Interview by Phillipe Collins. p.40, Hatje Cantz.

12- Pierre Breton and Paul Eluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, p23, 1938. https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Readymades%20of%20Marcel%20Duchamp&item_type=topic

13-Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, p260, Reaktion Books.

14-Dennis Dutton, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube. https://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty

15-Wikipedia, Science, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science

16-History of cosmetics. http://www.crystalinks.com/earlymakeup.html

17- Dennis Dutton, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, Ted Talk, youtube. https://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty

18-Walter Benjamin, preface, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproductionhttp://www.mikloslegrady.com/writing/benjamin.html

19-DADA Companion, http://www.dada-companion.com

20-Joan Blackwell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp Late Night Line-Up, 1968 BBC ARTS. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04826th

21 Rosalin Kraus, The Impulse To See, Vision and Visuality, 1988 Dia art foundation https://monoskop.org/images/3/39/Foster_Hal_ed_Vision_and_Visuality.pdf

22-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, An appreciation, p110, Da Capo Press.

23-Ibid, p109.

24- Kristin Lee Dufour. The Influence of Marcel Duchamp upon The Aesthetics of Modern Art, p3 12/2010, http://agence5970.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/LLMA_Dufour_Assignment2.pdf

25-Marjorie Perloff, Peter Bürger Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980, trans. 1984) https://web.stanford.edu/group/SHR/7-1/html/body_perloff.html#01

26-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The Disclosure Of The Agent In Speech And In Action p176 http://www.rainbow-season.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/action-Arendt-the_human_condition.pdf

27-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A Window Into Something Else, p33, Da Capo Press.

28-Ibid, p15

29-Ibid, p76.

30-Ibid, p76.

31-The Oxford Dictionary of art, ed. Ian Chilvers, Marcel Duchamp, p221, Oxford University Press

32-Douglas MacAgy, ed., “The Western Round Table on Modern Art” in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt’s Modern Artists in America (New York: Wittenborn Schulz, 1951), p. 30.

33-Alex Robertson Textor, Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures, p262, Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000


Check Also

Thoughts on a Personal Manifesto

Transcendence, transcendent, and transcendental are words that refer to an object (or a property of …


  1. Thank you Miklos for this brave piece! I am with you in this cultural fight against nihilism and decadence!

  2. Good! (I hadn’t heard the glued chess-pieces story before. :))

    Art is steeped in fraudulent institutional history.


  3. bbrace: I basically agree with you. I wonder whether it is fraud or simply blindness coupled with the herding instinct that the blind substitute for seeing for themselves, as far as institutional history goes. But the outcome is the same in either case: a freaking mess.

    Pierre: “Decadence” connotes indulgence in sensual pleasure. Duchamp, the confounding prankster, offered precious little of that, and neither do most of his followers. It is all about the intellect, by way of denying the senses what they legitimately expect. “Nihilism” – could not agree more, with respect to his followers. Duchamp himself, though, seemed more like he was trying to make some kind of statement in light of the fact he was not really competitive with the likes of Matisse and Picasso, as Miklos describes. Once we relieve Duchamp of the “burden” of artistic greatness that has been heaped upon him, it is much easier to find value in his pranks. Our fight, and I am with you on this, is with those who have enshrined those pranks with the mantle of major art, not the man himself, who was uniquely witty, and rather interesting in the ways he expressed it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You are only buying the e-version of the New Art Examiner. Subscribe for print version. Dismiss