by Julia Dür

2. "There is only one -ism and that is idiotism"(1)
                                                                      attempt to de-categorise marcel       

Paul Cézanne, frequently referred to as the father of Modern Art, once mentioned the line "The great artist is defined by the character he imparts everything he touches."(2) These words almost ascribe a certain sacredness to the artist. Duchamp's early oil paintings, in particular the Portrait of the artist's father or The chess game were apparently influenced by Cézanne. However, as he later self-confidently recalled, those "were only the first attempts at swimming."(3) At the age of about 25, Duchamp found his own way of self-expression. He more and more distanced himself from what he called "retinal painting" where colour and form of an artwork were overvalued. Oil painting, to his mind, could no longer claim perpetuity. Duchamp believed that true art could only be found in the conceptual space of human mind rather than on the surface of the canvas. This idea reminded me of Kandinsky, who, in his famous Essays on Art and Artists(4), similarly wrote that it is not so much the form of a work of art which is of significance, but the spirit behind it. Duchamp was one of the first artists who made every effort to desacrifice the common notion of art.

Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp

Who is this Marcel Duchamp?

"He neither talks nor looks, nor acts like an artist. It may be in the accepted sense of the word he is not an artist."(5)

I think of Duchamp (Fig. 1) primarily as an intelligent deceiver. Most of the time he led us believe he was not doing art, as when he was playing chess. Cage commented on him: "All he did was go underground. He didn't wish to be disturbed when he was working."(6) In his 'professional life' Duchamp wanted to make his own way, accepting a certain isolation. It seems that he often enclosed himself in the solitude of his studio, not telling anybody of his artistic activities. In this way he made a real distinction between his life as artist and his social life. Duchamp wished to be an 'invisible' artist as he constantly pretended art did not play a crucial role in his life. He gave up art for chess, experimented with language, eluded us and well kept his mystery. Duchamp's enigmatic silence led us to questioning and next to the analysis. His silence, among other things, caused curiosity and made him such an interesting character for the public.  Joseph Beuys, however, interpreted his silence as 'silence is absent'(7) and thus criticised Duchamp's anti-art concept. He believed that Duchamp's silence was overrated. Beuys' statement probably also adverts to his giving up art for chess and writing. On the other hand, Beuys' artistic goal had much in common with Duchamp's--he also felt that the action of the artist was more important than the final product. Beuys, by using everyday materials such as fat and felt, also pivotally contributed to the blurring of the distinctions between art and life.

"It's very important for me not to be engaged with any group. I want to be free, I want to be free from myself, almost."(8)-Marcel Duchamp


Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp, Note of 1913

A note, written in 1913, (Fig. 2) reveals an interesting thought, which, in my mind turned out to be central in Duchamp's artistic life: "Can one make works of art which are not works of art?"(9) As is known, he did make works of art which were up to that point not considered as such--however, he revolutionized the art concept at least for himself. Duchamp wanted art to be intelligent instead of aesthetic. It seems as if he wanted to escape art as practiced in his environment. Duchamp always distanced himself from mainstream artists or what he called "society painters."(10) However, as we well know, his small, but controversial output exerted a strong influence on the development of the 20th century avant-garde art.

Duchamp was not only interested in art--but in many different areas such as literature, music, mathematics and physics which he tried to incorporate in his art. The fact that he was worrying about problems aside from art, in my mind made him a philosopher. And sometimes history teaches us that a philosopher is more successful than an artist who concentrates too much on art itself. Paradoxical as it may seem, Duchamp did not give up life for art but instead made his life a work of art by living and practicing anti-art. He was probably the first anti- respectively non-artist in history. In an interview he once remarked: "I am anti-artistic. I am anti-nothing. I am against making formulas."(11) He denied himself as an artist. Some years later he interestingly revised his thoughts by saying that he

  "became a non-artist, not an anti-artist...The anti-artist is like an atheist--he believes negatively. I don't believe in art. Science is the important thing today. There are rockets to the moon, so naturally you go to the moon. You don't sit home and dream about it. Art was a dream that became unnecessary."(12)

Anti- or non-artist--in view of Duchamp's often contradicting statements this question is beside the point. He questioned art as an institution. As Cage mentioned in his 26 Statements Re Duchamp, he "collected dust"(13) while other artists concentrated on being artists. Duchamp refused to lead a painter's life as he refused to exhibit his works of art. In a letter to an artist fellow, he ironically responded (on the question if he wanted to take part in a public exhibition): "I have nothing to exhibit and, in any case the verb exposer (French word for exhibit) sounds too much like the verb épouser (to marry)."(14) Paradoxically, he did take part in numerous exhibitions of his time...duchamp the intelligent deceiver...Duchamp could obviously live comfortable without creating artworks, but never ceased to be an artist of the mind.

Duchamp's characteristic anti-position was not only expressed in art. Cage, in relation to this, commented: "Marcel was opposed to politics. He was opposed to private property. He was opposed to religion as is Zen. However, he was for sex and for humour."(15) It seems that what Duchamp refused to do often carried as much significance as what he actually did.

"I am a réspirateur (breather). I enjoy it tremendously."(16) -Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp had an ironic way of referring to himself in terms as lazy--as a réspirateur or breather--but in fact he was very efficient. In the interview with Cabanne he noted that he preferred breathing to working.  When asked how artists manage to make their living, he answered "they don't have to live. They simply breathe."(17) According to Duchamp, every breath is itself an artwork without being visually recognizable. He did nothing against the rumour that he had stopped being an artist since the forties--while he was secretly working on Etant Donnés, his last masterpiece, for two decades. Apparently, Duchamp did not even induct his friends into his artistic secrets. Cage commented: "Of course, he was referring to the Etant Donnés, without my knowing that the work existed. He had two studios in New York, the one people knew about, and one next door to it, where he did his work, which no one knew about. That's why people were able to visit his studio and see nothing going on."(18) Duchamp managed well to deceive us.

At first sight, Duchamp seemed to be a confirmed anti-materialist. He rarely took a job as he viewed the bourgeois business of having a job and making money as a waste of time. In Paris he worked as a librarian for about two years only to escape from the artistic life there. When he came to America, he gave French lessons in order to bring in enough money to live on. Among his friends, Duchamp was well known for his economy regarding his garments. Cage, in this respect mentioned that Duchamp "was opposed to private property" and recalled the following story:

  "Before he married Teeny, he went to visit her on Long Island. Bernard Monnier, her future son-in-law, went to meet Marcel at the station. He said. 'Where is your luggage?' Marcel reached into his overcoat pocket and took out his toothbrush and said. 'This is my robe de chambre.' Then he showed Bernard that he was wearing three shirts, one on top of the other. He had come for a long weekend."(19)

Art should not be mixed up with commerce(20), he said--although he could have easily made a fortune from Cubistic paintings. This attitude, however, did not prevent him from buying and selling works of art as a means to earn a living. After having read  some of Duchamp's letters in Affectionately Marcel, I got the impression that he was much more than just an art dealer because of existential reasons. His often dry diplomatic letters to Katherine Dreier and the Arensberg family do not sound much like Duchamp, the réspirateur and anti-materialist. "Budget. Enclose the figures on separate sheet: On one side what I received, on the other side the expenses (I have already paid many things or deposited advances). You will see that on account of the new price of the port-folios, I will be lacking 1221 francs in the end."(21) Cage, in relation to this said that Duchamp was actually

  "extremely interested in money. At the same time he never really used his art to make money. And yet he lived in a period when artists were making enormous amounts of money. He couldn't understand how they did it. I think he thought of himself as a poor businessman (...)  He couldn't understand why, for instance Rauschenberg and Johns should make so much money and why he should not. But then he took an entirely different life role, so to speak. He never took a job."(22)

Cage's statement reveals interesting insights in view to Duchamp's anti-materialistic attitude (which was of course not truly anti-materialistic) in view to art. Cage indirectly suggested Duchamp's jealousy of other artists of his time. Without my aiming to give a pseudo-psychological comment, Duchamp apparently resigned making money from art as it did not work out for him. This (well pretended) notion of the anti-materialist fits perfectly into his role as the anti-artist and his withdrawal from painting and the art-world in general, and seems as if he once again managed well to deceive us. Duchamp's self-contradiction must not confuse us, for it is as much one of his trademarks as deception.

Duchamp tried to break with the traditional aesthetic predominance through provocation and irony. He thought that painting as a manual activity increasingly covered the true nature of art by overvaluing retinal aspects. With the invention of his readymades, Duchamp completely changed the direction of modern art. By declaring banal, everyday objects as works of art, he did not only desacrifice art in general, but also the artist himself. "Good taste is repetitive and means nothing else than the rumination of traditional forms of taste."(23) This certainly meant a provocation for artists who felt related to an art movement such as the Cubists or Abstract Expressionists. Duchamp chose his readymades "on the basis of a visual indifference, and at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste."(24) They were no longer created by the artistic skill, but by the mind and decision of the artist.

Duchamp wanted to break with art as a movement or constitution by turning away from naturalistic modes of expression and inventing his own symbols. Duchamp did not yearn to reach a large audience. Moreover, Marcel was prepared to be misunderstood by the public. He wished to make his own way, accepting a certain isolation: "In 1912 it was a decision for being alone and not knowing where I was going. The artist should be alone...Everyone for himself, as in a shipwreck."(25) Duchamp, much in contrast to Cage, was never fond of working in a team. He preferred to be an outsider. This outsider role in view to his 'job' as an artist, however, must not be confused with the role he took in social life. Duchamp was often described as sociable by his artist fellows, and interviewers "marvelled at how easy it was to talk with Duchamp."(26)

After a three-months stay in Munich in 1912, Duchamp noted:

  "I was finished with Cubism and with movement--at least movement mixed up with oil paint. The whole trend of painting was something I didn't care to continue. After ten years of painting I was bored with it--in fact I was always bored with it when I did paint, except at the very beginning when there was that feeling of opening the eyes to something new. There was no essential satisfaction for me in painting ever...anyway, from 1912 on I decided to stop being a painter in the professional sense. I tried to look for another, personal way, and of course I couldn't expect anyone to be interested in what I was doing."(27)

Apparently, Duchamp tried somehow to escape the traditional notion of being an artist. When Duchamp speaks of  trend  in relation to art, it sounds unusual as it is frequently associated with fashion. The public art world must have become too superficial and materialistic for him.  He was not interested in art in the social sense. Duchamp felt more attracted to the individual mind as such, as he believed most artists were simply repeating themselves. He worked conceptually, putting art "in the service of the mind"(28), as he would say.

Cabanne: "You were a man predestined for America."

Duchamp: "So to speak, yes."(29)

Things had to change. Duchamp, in a letter to his American friend Walter Pach expressed his dislike for the Parisian art milieu. "I absolutely wanted to leave. Where to? New York was my only choice, because I hope to be able to avoid an artistic life there, possibly with a job that would keep me very busy (...) I am afraid to end up being in need to sell canvases, in other words, to be a society painter."(30) These lines express crucial reasons for his giving up life as an artist in the professional sense. Duchamp felt incompatible with the French art milieu and wished to escape the prison of tradition where the artist ended up in 'producing' paintings in order to earn his living. He felt a strong disapproval of meeting up with other artists. Paris bored him and represented everything he associated with tradition. Duchamp, at this point did not only break with the artistic ties but also with those of his home country. He fled to a country where "they didn't give a damn about Shakespeare."(31) His arrival in New York in 1915--Duchamp was 28 at that time--would prove the beginning of a new Duchampian era. By that time, he was already known in America, as his painting Nude descending a staircase caused a scandal at the famous New York Armory Show, an international exhibition of Modern art two years earlier. New York, in contrast to Paris, offered him a "feeling of freedom" and as he said he "loved the rhythm of this town."(32) Duchamp and America turned out to be the perfect couple.

Duchamp obviously never felt part of an artistic group such as the Dadaists. Moreover, he constantly expressed his dislike for categorisation. From the very outset, he never aimed to describe objects or comment on painting. The more paradox I found the fact that, in most encyclopaedias, Duchamp is either associated with the Cubists or Dadaists. We must rethink the common notion of art in order to get involved with Duchamp. We must free ourselves from convention, categorisation and from -Isms. The following mesostic written by Cage expresses very well Duchamp's ultimate artistic intention. He wrote it shortly after he had died.

The iMpossibility of

the loss of memoRy:
To reaCh

Two's a goaL (33)

For those of you who nevertheless feel they have to look up Duchamp's encyclopaedic biography--I am not keeping the secret ;) See next page.

To refer back to the title: "There is only one -ism and that is idiotism: John Gillard, a friend, published postcards with his thoughts--one of them read "There is only one -ism and that's a prism." The idea to change it to 'idiotism' came after I was inspired by Kandinsky's Essays on art and artists. Kandinsky, like Duchamp often was in the centre of interest in art criticism. One German art critic called him the founder of a new art movement called "idiotism."

Duchamp, Marcel
(1887-1968), French Dada artist, whose small but controversial output exerted a strong influence on the development of 20th-century avant-garde art.

Born on July 28, 1887, in Blainville, brother of the artist Raymond Duchamp-Villon and half brother of the painter Jacques Villon, Duchamp began to paint in 1908. After producing several canvases in the current mode of Fauvism, he turned toward experimentation and the avant-garde, producing his most famous work, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) in 1912; portraying continuous movement through a chain of overlapping cubistic figures, the painting caused a furor at New York City's famous Armory Show in 1913. He painted very little after 1915, although he continued until 1923 to work on his masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1923, Philadelphia Museum of Art), an abstract work, also known as The Large Glass, composed in oil and wire on glass, that was enthusiastically received by the surrealists.

In sculpture, Duchamp pioneered two of the main innovations of the 20th century--kinetic art and ready-made art. His "ready-mades" consisted simply of everyday objects, such as a urinal and a bottle rack. His Bicycle Wheel (1913, original lost; 3rd version, 1951, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), an early example of kinetic art, was mounted on a kitchen stool.

After his short creative period, Duchamp was content to let others develop the themes he had originated; his pervasive influence was crucial to the development of surrealism, Dada, and pop art. Duchamp became an American citizen in 1955. He died in Paris on October 1, 1968.(34)


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2. I read Cézanne's quotation on this year's Harenberg tear-off calender (8th September). I found his thoughts quite interesting in contrast to Duchamp's idea of desacrificing art.

3. Tomkins 42.

4. Original title: Wassily Kandinsky, Essays über Kunst und Künstler (Zürich: Benteli, 1955). Kandinsky's book inspired me a great deal before I started my readings on Cage and Duchamp. He expressed many ideas which strongly reminded me of Cage's and Duchamp's philosophy. I can imagine that in view to the books' popularity (it first appeared in 1911) both artists must have sooner or later come across it.

5. Roth, "Marcel Duchamp in America," in Difference/Indifference 22.

6. Roth, "John Cage on Marcel Duchamp" 76.

7. Wouter Kotte, Marcel Duchamp als Zeitmaschine (Köln: Walther König, 1987) 36/37.

8. Wolfgang Fetz, Kunst in der Stadt 2 (Bregenz: Teutsch, 1998) x -no page reference.

9. Tomkins 116.

10. Ibid. 142.

11. Stauffer, Marcel Duchamp 45/46.

12. Tomkins 408.

13. Cage, A year from Monday 70. Cage obviously referred to a joint work by Duchamp and Man Ray called Dust Breeding--"A glass panel which had been lying flat on sawhorses collecting dust. The resulting image was like a lunar landscape (...) Duchamp later fixed the dust with varnish on the sieves." (Tomkins p. 229) --another, probably even more relevant explanation could be Duchamp's "story of his 2 studios." Cage recalled, "He had 2 studios. One was the one he was working in and the other was the one where he had stopped working. So that if anyone came to visit him they went into the studio where he wasn't working, and there everything was covered with dust. So the idea was spread around that he was no longer working. And you had proof of it! --dust collected where he worked (laughs)." (Joan Retallack, Musicage p. 111)

14. Tomkins 236.

15. Roth, "John Cage on Marcel Duchamp" 82.

16. Stauffer 85.

17. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (London: Paperback, 1988) 8.

18. Roth, "John Cage on Marcel Duchamp" 76.

19. Roth 82.

20. Tomkins 270.

21. Francis N. Naumann ed., Affectionately Marcel: The selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp (Ghent: Ludion Press, 2000) 212.

22. Roth 77.

23. Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp 67.

24. Tomkins 157.

25. Ibid. 93.

26. Ibid. 15.

27. Tomkins 113.

28. Roth 23.

29. Ibid. 17.

30. Tomkins 141/142.

31. Tomkins 143.

32. Ibid. 152.

33. This 'mesostic' about Duchamp was published in Cage's M--writings '67-'72 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973) 34.

34. "Duchamp, Marcel," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation. 


Figs. 1-2
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.