Do Like Duchamp [on Two Artists Tuesday]

doorknobs copy

Roger used to say that Picasso’s paintings determine the shape of our cars. He meant that “seeing” is not passive. Just as audiences in a play wiggle in their seats at seven minutes into the play, the usual time for a commercial break on television, our visual sensibility is also patterned and mostly culturally uniform. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that eye has been conditioned.

One of the great moments of visual conditioning came in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp entered his “readymade” sculpture, FOUNTAIN, in an art exhibit. FOUNTAIN is a urinal. He signed his readymade scultpture R. Mutt. It is possible to spend many days of your life reading about FOUNTAIN, the symbolic meaning of a toilet, the then-new art term “readymade” and the challenges readymade-as-art posed to the art world, how Duchamp came to enter a urinal in an art exhibit. In that moment of time, a whole new genre was born: conceptual art. The idea behind the work is more important than the finished piece.

You can draw a straight line from Duchamp’s toilet to the recent banana duct taped to the wall by Maurizzio Cattelan. And, you might ask, just what was the idea behind the banana?

You can draw a straight line from Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN to Kerri’s out-door-voice-exclamations in a gallery, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” The idea behind the conceptual work generally needs a curator’s explanation. “I WANT TO EXPERIENCE IT, NOT HAVE IT EXPLAINED!” she gestures wildly, sending other patrons fleeing. In that moment, my wife becomes exquisite performance art.

You can draw a straight line from Duchamp’s urinal to my inability to walk through an antique store and not see elegant design worthy of Louise Nevelson. Racks of door knobs. Stacks of suitcases. A wall of bric-a-brac, the wall composition more meaningful and beautiful than any of the individual pieces displayed.

A statement from Captain Obvious: artists live in a time and the art they produce is an expression of that time. Duchamp put his toilet on a pedestal in 1917, the year the world was nearing the end of the first war to end all wars. It was a horror story. The manufacture of stuff was hitting its stride.  The Royal Academy had a lock on determining what was considered art and what was not. The rules of polite society felt dangerous and suppressive. Duchamp, like all change agents, pushed against the norm.

There is composition and design in the everyday. There is human-created beauty all around us. We learn in school that form follows function and form is design. We learn in school that one of the purposes of art is to create beauty. Another purpose is to shock people out of complacency, to see what is in front of them and not what they think is there. Beauty usually lives beyond what we think.

We live in very confusing times. We are asking fundamental questions about truth, about social norms and what is acceptable. We are asking questions about who we are and what we believe. You can draw a straight line from Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN to our current confusion. Is it art? Is it not? If the idea is more important than the final expression then what happens when all that is left to see and touch is absent of the idea? What happens when the curator is gone and only the urinal remains? Sense breaks down.

What happens to  the eye and ear that is shocked open but refuses to see what is right in front of them and, instead, retreat behind the fortress of what they think?  What happens when form no longer follows function but things flip the other way around? What happens when form IS function? Propaganda, mostly. A naked emperor and plenty of people passionately swearing that they see clothes. Readymade thought.

We live in those times. Sense breaks down. We tape bananas to walls and issue a certificate of authenticity.

 

read Kerri’s much-less random blog post about DOOR KNOBS

 

frontdoorknob website box copy