Marcel Duchamp is considered one of the brightest artists of the 20th century. Not to me. I pretty much hate everything he did and wouldn’t pay a plugged nickel for any of it. But that’s okay because it’s my opinion. Art is subjective. If a piece of art doesn’t “speak” to you emotionally, it’s not worth a plugged nickel.
I learned that lesson from an English professor who taught a class in Renaissance English poetry. (It was the only English class that fit my schedule that semester.) At first, none of us wanted to voice our opinion on the poetry we were reading because we didn’t want to sound gauche or uninformed. Then the professor told us that any work of art, regardless of the medium used, only has value if it speaks to us emotionally. Without that emotional connection, art has no value.
Years later I was invited to a special exhibit in Dallas, Texas of the private collection of one of the city’s leading citizens. The collection was a mishmash of Benin sculptures, Anasazi pots, Mayan knickknacks, some random Asian artefacts and so on. It was a 30 or 40 year history lesson in art collecting based on what the avant-garde defined as “art.” The owner of the collection had buckets of money but apparently collected only what everyone else collected.
That brings me back to Duchamp. This guy is famous for displaying three panes of glass. When one pane of glass was broken during transit, Duchamp claimed he liked the piece even more. It’s still on display somewhere with one cracked pane.
Most famously Duchamp put a urinal on display. Viewers proclaimed that it had classic lines rather than pointing out that it was a bathroom fixture that should be returned to the men’s room down the hall. No one wanted to be mocked by the avant-garde crowd for lacking artistic sensibilities.
It’s amazing how much guff and abuse we are willing to take to remain part of the “in” crowd. Duchamp always reminds me of that human trait. He not only convinced people that panes of glass and a urinal were “art,” he induced them to pay huge sums of money to own one of his pieces. So I admire his chutzpah and think he was one of the greatest marketers of the 20th century. But, in my opinion, Duchamp was not an artist.
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