The revolution continues

“I don’t care about the word ‘art’ because it has been so discredited,” says the elderly man, puffing gently on a cigar. “I want to get rid of it.” But hasn’t he himself done his utmost to do the discrediting, asks his interlocutor? The elderly man doesn’t disagree. “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference.” A wry, teasing smile plays on his lips.

And that was how Marcel Duchamp, speaking to Joan Bakewell in a 1966 BBC interview, described his part in an artistic revolution that continues to reverberate to this day. In the clip, which can be seen on YouTube, he makes an unlikely insurrectionist: he is soft-spoken, urbane, charming. Perhaps he has a certain avuncular feeling towards this period, the middle of the 1960s, a turbulent and exciting time that cannot help but remind him of his own halcyon days.

Duchamp famously put a small bomb, or a whoopee cushion at least, under the art world when he presented his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase No 2” to New York’s Armory Show exactly 100 years ago. The painting, which the artist described as a fusion of cubism and futurism, caused a scandal. It was “an explosion in a shingle factory”, said the New York Times. President Theodore Roosevelt compared it unfavourably to a Navajo rug.

The controversy served only to inflame Duchamp’s mischievous instincts. His attempts to find his inner “indifference” led him to start treating, and presenting, ready-made objects as works of art. In 1917, he submitted what would become his most famous work, a porcelain urinal entitled “Fountain”, to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. It was rejected. The revolution was under way.

A series of exhibitions and performances at London’s Barbican Centre opening on Thursday revisits the chaotic aftershocks of Duchamp’s radical departure from artistic orthodoxy. Revered by contemporary artists as a godfather of conceptual art, Duchamp made playful, questioning works that are the height of fashion right now. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The Barbican season, “Dancing around Duchamp”, which travels to Britain from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, concentrates on the rediscovery of the artist by a younger generation of US cultural figures: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Their fascination with him cemented Duchamp’s reputation as one of the most important figures of 20th-century culture.

Highlights of the multidisciplinary programme, which has been “orchestrated” by the French artist and film-maker Philippe Parreno and continues until June, include performances of Cage’s music and Cunningham’s dances; work by Duchamp’s occasional chess partner Samuel Beckett; tributes to Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Luc Godard, and Laurel and Hardy. “Nude Descending” will also be there. Expect a headlong celebration of irony, absurdity and chance encounters. The spirit of Duchamp has never been more alive.

The connection between the four American artists and Duchamp serves as an echo of the Frenchman’s explosive impact earlier in the century. They felt hemmed in by the muscular tropes of abstract expressionism that had dominated the postwar scene and found the work of Duchamp, who was living in the US, a source of non-conformist inspiration.

“It is no accident that all four were gay,” says Duchamp scholar Paul B Franklin. “Duchamp offered them a way out of the hyper-masculine climate of the time. In 1949, he had said that the most sympathetic audience to modern art was a homosexual one. He said it directly to Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a homophobe.”

Duchamp’s ‘Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1917 at the Broadway Photo Shop in New York’

Duchamp’s very urbanity was part of the revolt against his predecessors, says Franklin. “He always made himself so available, and was incredibly civilised. He almost never publicly criticised another artist. He was the antithesis of the tortured artist.”

The exhibition’s curator Carlos Basualdo also emphasises Duchamp’s comradely nature. “He was always very fond of artists and it meant a lot to him that a new generation of artists felt this strong affinity with him. As they got to know each other, they became a tightly knit group of people.” He says the relationship between the four Americans and Duchamp was a subtle one. “They recognised elements of their own artistic thinking in him. Jasper Johns’s first [US] flag painting was a kind of ready-made, but he wasn’t particularly conscious of Duchamp at that time.”

‘Untitled (Late Kabal American Zephyr)’ (1985), by Robert Rauschenberg

The turn from the centuries-old heroic vision of the artist, to one that focused on his ludic and questioning role, had deep and lasting consequences. It led directly to Andy Warhol, another artist who liked to blur the distinctions between his art and life, and can be ultimately traced to the supremacy of conceptualism in current contemporary art.

That has not necessarily been seen as a good thing. Robert Hughes, in his 1980 book The Shock of the New, described Duchamp as a “poet of entropy” whose liberating force was trivial compared with the accomplishments of “heroic” modernism. “The freedom he offered was fairly gratuitous,” wrote Hughes. “It was the dandy’s right to perfect a gesture on as small a scale as you wanted.”

Basualdo says it is too crude to link the ironic game-playing of some of today’s artists with Duchamp, not least because of their differing views on the art market. “Duchamp was not a speculator,” he says. “He was very careful not to make big profits on works that he had collected and then sold. He had strict moral standards about the market. He was offered a contract after the Armory Show and was offended by it.”

Franklin says the Barbican’s focus on the four American figures shows “that they clearly understood right from the outset that Duchamp offered a way for them to do something new and different. They were very consciously not replicating Duchamp.

“The problem today is that everyone tries to be Duchamp. The proliferation of appropriation art, the rediscovery of the ready-made – the thing that younger artists need to learn is how to be influenced by somebody without replicating their work.”

He says it is unfair to blame the excesses of conceptual art – over-pleased with itself, mechanical, lacking in ambition – on Duchamp. “A lot of critics hold him accountable for it but what they don’t understand is that Duchamp was, in fact, a highly skilled craftsman. He was very particular about how things were made. For Duchamp, process was as important and gratifying as product. He held a very delicate balance between irony and humour, and extremely detailed craftsmanship. I would really resist categorising him as just a conceptual artist.”

Resisting easy categorisation was perhaps Duchamp’s greatest accomplishment. He didn’t get rid of the word “art” but he made sure that it would never be used in an uncomplicated way again. Meanings would become slippery, values subverted, spectatorship undermined. Duchamp made it heroic to ask mischievous questions rather than to thump out agonised statements. And the answers to those questions are still the subject of ferocious debate. “Bruce Nauman summed it up at the time of Duchamp’s retrospective in 1974,” says Basualdo. “Duchamp leads everywhere, and nowhere.”

‘Dancing around Duchamp’, a season of art, film, dance, music and theatre, Barbican Centre, runs February 14 to June 9,

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