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Tag Archives: Marcel Duchamp

Can we digitise a museum?

In the wake of the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil it has been suggested (in Wired and Sydney Business Insights) that a digital version of museums collections could replace the need for actual public access. This assumes that the fetichism of the original, a kind of contact magic, is the principle reason for the continued practice. As an atheist I do not believe in contact magic but I don’t go to museums for that reason.

NGV Ian Potter

Although the National Gallery of Victoria has described itself as “custodian of the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”. There are other reasons, aside from guarding the horde, for a state museum or art gallery.

Firstly, museums provide unmediated contact with an analogue item is a natural interface. We can look it closer or stand back without any digital interface or restrictions from the technology. The average museum visitor only spends a few seconds on average looking at an exhibit and this would quickly become exhausting if mediated by clicking or swiping.

Secondly, not all people going to a museum are there to contact the original. I am not always looking at the original. Be it Richard Hamilton’s replica of Duchamp’s Large Glass or a working replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel that I could play with. The working replica of Bicycle Wheel was much better than any authorised edition because I could see the often mentioned op art effect of light through the rotating spokes as I turned the wheel.

Finally, it is not the object but the journey and it is not the object but the place. This makes the reasons for a museum much more complex than a storehouse. Museums, art galleries and libraries are public spaces, places where there is the possibility of all kinds of interactions that has to happen in an actual space. Not only that they are public spaces located in an actual and complex world; a world where destination architecture is also a local building.

For me, the best part of going to see the art of the Belgium Surrealists was not contact with the relics of that art movement (which is distinctly different from the French Surrealists). The best part was that it lead me to Mons and the Ducasse de Mons or Doudou festival; an accidental encounter with a parade, a dragon and street festival. It was a lot of fun straight out of Fraser’s The Golden Bough with lots of Belgium beer. (I must have been having fun all I have is a terrible shot of the parade and a photo of me and local drinking beer.)

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The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.


Art or arts?

‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.

‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.

The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.

The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.

‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.

For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.

Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.


Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade

Turning and spinning are themes that Sean Gladwell’s art revolves around; as in his video Storm Sequence where he spins around on his skateboard. So it is not surprising that his VR art, Reversed Readymade makes heads turn.

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In fact you can turn a full 360 degrees in a VR of an actual warehouse studio while seated in an office chair. It makes you feel very much in control of the VR experience, even if you are stuck in one spot, because you can turn your back on things.

Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade is a beautiful use of VR technology with a big reference to Marcel Duchamp. This is both the most direct and complete Duchamp reference that I have ever seen (I did my Master’s thesis on Duchamp so I have seen a lot). Gladwell takes Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel and makes it his own.

Gladwell actually makes it his own, making his own bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and then rides it around, spinning around in a circle in the studio. The six minute VR experience depicts this along with some bicycle riding.

Marcel Duchamp had the idea of a reverse readymade. It was a reciprocal arrangement to his readymades, where an existing work of art would be used as an ordinary object. “A Rembrandt used as an ironing board” was Duchamp’s suggestion but Bicycle Wheel is more deserving. It also works better for Gladwell who has more experience with wheels than domestic appliances.

Nor should we forget Duchamp’s interest in optical and mechanical art and that the bicycle wheel was his first attempt at optical art. Duchamp made Bicycle Wheel, in part, to be able to watch the pattern of shadows from a spinning spokes for more than a few seconds.

I’d like to think that Duchamp would have been very impressed with Gladwell’s work for its visual, optical and conceptual elements; he would have also probably felt a bit dizzy from the VR experience, I was.

Sean Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade 2016 is part of the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University.


Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei @ NGV

“Why do people think artists are special? It is just another job.” Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again, p.160)

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The pairing of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the NGV produces an exhibition with more vitality than cultic history. The art of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei is like social media; it is about selfies, photo of what we ate for lunch, music, videos and ideas but why is it art?

Firstly, seriously consider where you see most art and that the answer is online.

Secondly, contemporary society needs to have a big talk about popularity, in art, in politics, in religion, in consumerism… in everything but especially populism in politics, currently the most dangerous force in the world.

We need to remember the difference between being popular and a populist. Popularity is measured by how many people like you whereas populism is design to attract the uninformed and unthinking public. It is the element of design and manipulation, that aesthetic preoccupations in the populism that makes it so attractive.

Part of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei’s popularity is because they are not populists. They are popular because they are working for and with people, not just the majority of people but any and all people. Warhol considers the democratisation of fame, what if everyone was equally famous, fabulous and fantastic for at least 15 minutes. What if everyone could be an artist.
When Lego refusing to supply Ai Weiwei with brick for an installation on the grounds that his art is political. Ai Weiwei gots around this with an online call for donations for Lego bricks to be deposited through the partially open sun roof of a car. (Actually he used another type of brick but never let the truth get in the way of good art.) Using the internet and the public to get around officialdom is a similar strategy to Ai Weiwei’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Online volunteers circumventing the official blocks and censorship is modelled with the many repeating plastic blocks.

“Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” The French art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this in the final line in a short essay about Duchamp’s early paintings. In the essay Apollinaire wrote: “Duchamp has abandoned the cult of appearance” and that he “goes to the limit, and is not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” (Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne d’Harnoncourt, Kynaston McShine, Prestal, 1989, p.180)

It is hard to believe that Apollinaire could write this in Paris in 1912 before Duchamp even made his first readymade but the advent of still photography anticipated both moving images and social media. Duchamp’s two successors Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei make clear Apollinaire’s prognostication about “abandoned the cult of appearance” and “reconcile art and the people.” Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are popular and like Duchamp are “not afraid of being criticised as esoteric or unintelligible.” The increase in the reproduction of images increases their display value (the number of times and places where it can be displayed) brought on in the age of digital reproduction destroys the cult of the original (the idea of a uniquely beautiful object created by special person). From the Velvet Underground rehearsing in the Factory to Ai Weiwei dancing Gangnam style aesthetic preoccupations are no long the primary considerations of the art, but its relationship with the people.

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There are some great selfie opportunities at the exhibition.


Logic and Art

Given: the waterfall and the illuminating gas

We assume that there is a logic to beauty and art. If x is art and y is equal to x then y must also be art. If you think that x#1 is beautiful then it would be reasonable to assume that you would agree that x#2 is beautiful. If not; then why not?

Artist painting at Flinders Street

Artists propose these questions all the time. If one Elvis is desirable then why not have more than one concluded Andy Warhol. If puppy dogs and flowers are beautiful therefore a giant puppy made of flowers must be beautiful concluded Jeff Koons.

The word art is used as both a category and a quality and this duality confuses many discourses about the nature of art.

If art is a quality with a certain cut off point, a bench mark of quality, then there is no such thing as bad or poor art. Are we talking about what qualifies to be entered into the category or about the quality? The idea that art is a category or a quality has led some people think that there is a rule book for art (sent down by God at the same time as the 10 Commandments) and become disillusioned when they discover that artists aren’t playing by this imaginary rule book. That the image wasn’t drawn freehand, that other people worked on it, that it was done to make money…

The distinction between the category and the quality of art is often raised in discussions about the defence of work accused of obscenity or pornography people will bemoan that they wish that it was a great work of art, as if, only great works of art are worth defending.

If art is a category then there should therefore be parameters that define the category. However, any attempts to find such parameters will be proved incorrect with counter-examples and excluding all counter-examples to the category of things that are called ‘art’ but aren’t becomes a curmudgeonly position because art is part of a continuing culture and not part of a narrowing category.

The idea of a category of art has emerged after many of its contents were created; as ‘art’, whatever it is, is an idea that has been made up by people as they went along and there are several different versions of ‘art’ in the last five hundred years.

However, art is not a category that can be empirically defined, such as a particular wave length of light. It is not a football code, there is no rule book that defines art. The more stringent the code that is thought to define it, ersatz art and the ossification of the art. The more that the logic of a rule book is applied to art the more that it becomes a tired, stale version of its former incarnations.

Art is sequential and each work is part of a very long series, a series that we keep on adding prequels as well as sequels too. The items in the series have a family resemblance because they are members of the series rather than that they can be a defined category because of particular qualities. Examining the items out of sequence makes no sense and nor is it possible to predict through logic too far ahead in the sequence.

Since Duchamp other artists have humourlessly followed the same logic that he successfully employed but as they have a different position in the sequence their desire is different; not to collapse the boarders of art but to extend them.


Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.

Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.

Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.

Jan #1 – Desmond Morris

Feb #2 – Andy Warhol

March #3 – Salvador Dali

April #4 – Marcel Duchamp

May #5 – Laurie Anderson

July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground 

July #7 – Keith Haring

August #8 – William Burroughs

September #9 – Philosophers

December #10  – Hunter S. Thompson

It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.

“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s  only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”  p.29)

 


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