note: The following article consists of the first three chapters of
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is best known for a painting called Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912, a painting that helped to introduce Modern Art to New York with a bang in 1913. (Fig. 2) Almost as famous is his humorous act of putting a mustache and goatee on a reproduction of Leonardo's Mona Lisa in 1919. (Fig. 3)
Duchamp is widely thought of as the "Daddy of Dada," as that movement developed during World War I, and as the "Grandpa of Pop," as Pop Art developed during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the "Conceiver of Conceptual Art." He was all that and more. During the first half of the twentieth century, Picasso and Matisse usually were thought of as the most influential "Artists of the Century." That evaluation has now changed. Looking back over the last hundred years as a whole, Duchamp now is widely regarded as the most influential artist of the century.
With remarkable spontaneity and seemingly effortless ease, he put forth a lifelong series of revolutionary objects and attitudes including a remarkable non-attachment to fame or fortune. His modesty astonished everyone who knew him, while his ideas have inspired countless artists. Duchamp's influence, which started during the period of Dada & Surrealism, continued to grow during the Abstract Expressionist era of Pollock and de Kooning and the Neo-Dada era of Johns and Rauschenberg. It is often said that there are few major artists of the last fifty years who were not influenced by Duchamp in one way or another. His influence continues to expand in ever widening waves around the world today.
He gave new status to artists by saying art is whatever an artist says is art, not what critics say art is. In a world that had come to rely too much on reason, he emphasized the intuitive side of our brain by his explorations of chance and open-endedness, an open-endedness that said the viewer is the co-creator of every work of art. In short, he democratized art in a new way.
Duchamp also was fascinated by science, especially electromagnetism. What electromagnetic energy is, and how it moves through our bodies and throughout the universe, occupied much of his thinking. Any number of his works bring together left-brain science with right-brain visualizations, not as scientific statements but as playful parodies of science.
In another famous work called The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, (Fig. 4) 1915-1923 (or "The Large Glass," as it came to be called), the Bride and the Bachelors are divided and never touch, yet they are connected by "wireless" energy. He later used telephone lines to symbolize this flowing of love-energy back and forth, and reminded us that people, not communication systems, are the real "media."
He grew tired of art that appeals only to the eye, and worked to elevate contemporary art above the merely visual and physical to the level of the metaphysical. His philosophical statements are among the most profound in the history of art.
Nevertheless, his verbal and visual statements often are surrounded and penetrated by humor. His wisdom comes wrapped in a smile. By using a good many words with his images, and by leaving meanings open-ended, he required that we think and feel at the same time. There was method to this left-brain/right-brain approach to experience.
He based much of his work on the ideal of Androgyny (true male-female balance). Bringing together within ourselves the so-called "male" capacity to be rational and the so-called "female" capacity to be intuitive is the stated goal of the meditative traditions within Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This dynamic harmony is said to be a key to Enlightenment.
Enlightenment (as they understood it) became the objective of many modern artists in their non-religious quest for wholeness, their secular search for the sacred. However, few if any were able to attain this ideal. Various kinds of self-centeredness got in the way. Duchamp was not without shortcomings (especially in his early years) and may not have attained total selflessness, but he seems to have come closer than most. Whatever his limitations, Duchamp was widely regarded by major artists on both sides of the Atlantic ocean as a highly "evolved" human being - perhaps not fully enlightened, but more so than anyone else they were likely to meet.
In place of the usual (and often egocentric) insistence on self-expression in art, Duchamp pointed out that self-centeredness can be removed from the artistic process, or at least moved off-center. With his "ready-mades" (anonymous manufactured objects he selected and signed), he generated the idea of art-without-artists, and thus opened even further the opportunity for image-making to everyone. Selecting, he said, is a creative act. Moreover, by often replicating his earlier works as editions of multiples, his concept of "self" moved even further away from the object and opened out toward the not-self. The unification of self and not-self is the aim of traditional metaphysical philosophy.
While emphasizing concepts and deprecating the "retinal," he never lost respect for well-crafted quality. His objects were made with loving care, as were his relationships with others. Duchamp celebrated human nature in general and the erotic impulse in particular, advising above all loving and being loved. He also thought of the relationship between art and life as a kind of oneness. And all along the way he recommended laughter.
Many books and exhibition catalogues have been devoted to Duchamp. Some think there is nothing more to be said. However, there are neglected areas, for example, his metaphysical philosophy. In part, this is because formalist art history, which dominated most of the twentienth century, had no interest in metaphysics. As a rule, the philosophy of artists has been studied only by post-formalist art historians in recent decades.
This book is an exploration of the metaphysical realm of Duchamp's thought. At the core of this exploration is an analysis of the symbolism of "androgyny." Why? Because, as I hope to demonstrate, this underexplored theme was central to his work from the 1910s to the 1960s, and was a direct expression of his metaphysical thinking.
What is the meaning of "androgyny"? Several quite different definitions of "androgyny" are in use today. The most superficial definitions have been popularized by Hollywood films, where the term usually refers to "women who act like men," or "men who dress like women," or someone whose physical features make it unclear whether that person is male or female. A less superficial use of the term is used in the gay and lesbian community where people often call themselves "androgynes," feeling a special kinship with the ancient Greek world where homosexuality was common and considered natural.
The modern term "androgyne" comes from the Greek language and combines words meaning man [andros] and woman [gune]. Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and intersexual people celebrate a psychology which combines elements usually thought of as male with elements usually thought of as female.
In biology and botany, "androgyny" identifies plants and animals who have the capacity to change sex or to fertilize themselves. In the medical community, the term "androgyny" is used for people who are born with ambiguous genitalia, or (in very rare instances) are born with both a sexually functional penis and a sexually functional vagina. More often than not, such intersexual individuals are called hermaphrodites.
"Hermaphrodite" is another Greek term that combines the name of the god Hermes with the name of the goddess Aphrodite. It is an oddity of history that the Greeks worshipped deities who were double-sexed, as did many people around the world. However, if a Greek child was born with double genitalia s/he was killed as a monster. >>Next