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Duchamp, A Biography by Calvin Tompkins

Duchamp, A Biography by Calvin Tompkins, published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996Duchamp, A Biography by Calvin Tompkins, published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996

I just finished reading the book Duchamp A Biography by Calvin Tompkins. It’s a book I would highly recommend to everyone. Some little known facts about Duchamp; He never had gallery representation. He never made a living from his art. He earned his living by selling other European modernists art that he had purchased. He was an art consultant and he gave French lessons. He also disliked the Abstract Expressionists overblown claims. Here’s one of many pithy quotes, “The entire art scene is on so low a level,”…” is so commercialized-art or anything to do with it is the lowest form of activity in this period. This Century is one of the lowest points in the history of art, even lower than the 18th Century when there was no great art, just frivolity. Twentieth Century art is a mere light pastime, as though we were living in a merry period, despite all the wars we’ve had as part of the decoration.” All artists since the time of Courbet had been “beasts,” he went on to say, and should be put in institutions for exaggerated egos. “ Why should artists, ego be allowed to overflow and poison the atmosphere? Can’t you just smell the stench in the air? - page 418

I went to art school in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia College of Art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art housed the Arensberg Collection which is without a doubt one of the greatest collections of European Modernist Art. It also holds most of Duchamp’s work including the Large Glass and Etant Donneé. This collection was put together by Duchamp for the Arensbergs. I had always thought that the collection was turned down by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. This is not true. It appears that the Philadelphia Museum of Art had the largest size galleries and were most able to present the whole collection that numbered over 800 pieces. In any case, I remember in Spring of 1969 wandering into the room that held Duchamps work. I had to do a report for my art history class. I also remember seeing Etant Donneé, a piece that had just been opened to the public view. True to Duchamp’s wishes there was no fanfare, no opening, no press releases. I felt as if I had stumbled into a strange world that was so entirely different from all the other works of art in the museum. I had no idea of knowing that in 1969. Duchamp was really not the great influence that he is today. I do know that when I went back to the painting class I had no desire to paint but immediately started doing assemblages using using discarded mannequins.

In these times of academic art, overheated art marketing and airport sized jumbo art institutions Duchamps’ human scale art is an almost perfect antidote. He didn’t believe that academicians, theorists, as well as critics had any more insight into art than did the artist. Here’s another quote,” Works of art could not be understood by the intellect, he maintained, nor could their effect be conveyed in words. The only valid approach to them was through an emotion that had “ some analogy with a religious faith or a sexual attraction---an aesthetic echo.” This echo, however, was heard and appreciated by very few people. It could not be learned---either you had it or you did not---and it had nothing whatsoever to do with taste, which was merely a parroting of established opinion. “Taste gives a sensuous feeling, not an aesthetic emotion,” Duchamp said. “ Taste presupposes a domineering onlooker who dictates what he likes and dislikes, and translates it into beautiful and ugly,” whereas the ‘victim’ of an aesthetic echo is in a position comparable to that of a man in love or a believer … when touched by aesthetic revelation, the same man, in an almost ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble.” – Page 368-369

Dandy Duchamp:Commonplace and Genius

Dandy Duchamp:Commonplace and Genius
by Françoise Coblence.

A type invented by George “Beau” Brummell in the final years of the eighteenth century that was turned into a literary character by such writers as Honoré de Balzac, Jules Barbey d’Aurévilly, and Charles Baudelaire, did the dandy still have a place in the twentieth century ? And if so, what changes did mass society make it undergo ? To these recurrent questions, Giovanna Zapperi offers a number of answers with the help of the figure of Marcel Duchamp.

As Alexandre Kojève wrote in 1969, “Brummell knew that, after Napoleon, one could no longer be a soldier.” Lord Byron, also comparing Brummell to Napoleon, stated that he would have preferred to be Brummell. In alluding to Duchamp’s celebrity with the help of testimony from Henri-Pierre Roché, who compared Duchamp’s celebrity to that of Napoleon and of Sarah Bernhardt, Zapperi is therefore situating herself straightaway, and is situating Duchamp, within the constellation of these stars, each of which dominated its own sky and fascinated people by their force of attraction. Pierre Cabane attributed to Roché the following words said to be spoken to Duchamp: “Your best work has been the employment of your time.” (1)

Duchamp is therefore a dandy on two different levels. If dandyism is to be described by the invention of one’s character, if its defining characteristic is to make of one’s person a work of art while extolling laziness and displaying a contempt for work, Duchamp really has that dandy impassivity, elegance, and inscrutability. Moreover, nonchalance does not exclude rigor; and Breton would underscore the systematic “method” of his inventions. (2) Yet Duchamp also created an œuvre—a paradoxical one certainly, though innovative nonetheless. This trait indeed reinforces his dandyism, while at the same time distancing him from it. For, with the invention of the readymade, what triumphs is indifference to taste, along with the production of the already seen, impersonality and contempt for one’s “hand,” which is deemed to be overcharged with emotion. Duchamp carried out the dandy’s program, but he carried it out also through his work, his œuvre; and while this œuvre radicalizes the subject’s coldness and impersonality, it ceases to present them on the level of one’s character alone. Pursuing on this score the Baudelairean program, Duchamp transferred dandyism from one’s character to the work. This gesture, which had already been broached by Romanticism, constituted at one and the same time a loss and a sort of betrayal of Brummell’s radicality, which bet everything on his person but also guaranteed the generalization and permanency of the phenomenon. Dandyism could endure only if it were to be transformed, achieving at once its own loss as pure exhibition of the individual and its transition over to the work, its becoming something. That is why the readymade and Le Grand Verre, which Breton named an “anti-chef d’œuvre,” are his loveliest triumphs.

With Duchamp, it is no longer a question “of the burning need to make oneself into an original,” of “the pleasure of surprising others and the prideful satisfaction of never being surprised” as Baudelaire would have it, (3) but of introducing reproduction and repetition into the work. As Zapperi recalls, the readymade embodies the dandy’s dehumanization as well as the dehumanization of the capitalist mode of production. He carries out the program of the commonplace [poncif] and makes the commonplace his own. “Creating something commonplace is genius,” noted Baudelaire in Fusées. Benjamin offers the following comment:

“But to impress a trademark upon his work was Baudelaire's avowed intention. . . . And perhaps, for Baudelaire, there is no higher honor than to have imitated, to have reproduced, with his work this state of affairs, one of the most profane of all in the commodity economy. Perhaps this is Baudelaire's greatest achievement, and certainly it is one of which he is conscious: to have aged so quickly while remaining so durable.” (4)

The commonplace—the trademark of modernity that testifies to the work’s inscription within time, to its solidity and its ageing—is even more characteristic of the readymade, Duchamp’s stroke of genius by which objects created entirely through the singular whim and arbitrariness of one’s choice are given distinction.

Yet it must be added, along with Zapperi, that Duchamp was able, as well, to embody dandyism in his character not only through his coldness, his nonchalance, and the originality of his clothing, but also through the exhibition of his person, the transformations he embodied, the transvestism he adopted, and the “spectacular femininity” he staged in the photos done by Man Ray, as well as through the play of sexual identity to which Rrose Sélavy bears witness.

In the nineteenth century, fashion [la mode] constituted, as Georg Simmel has written, all at once the imitation of a model, the need for a social support as well as a need for difference, and the tendency toward variation and distinction. (5) Women’s lack of social freedom drove them to take over this realm, so as to affirm their membership in a group as well as their individuality. It was the dandy who picked up on this strategy and diverted it for his own ends; it was he who then turned it into an essentially masculine path, thereby clouding the traditional social issues and confusing the division of genders.

The dandy, and Brummell first and foremost, in effect became the arbiter of masculine elegance, the genius of fashion, innovative, original, inimitable, and yet imitated, copied, and aped at every possible opportunity. Was Brummell for all that a star ? A diva, rather, a capricious and despotic one whose judgments, which were beyond appeal, were feared by everyone, the Regent of England above all others. From the diva, the dandy took the power of making a salon fashionable simply by his appearing there for a few minutes; he had the power to launch some unlikely fashion, like that of the tie so stiff that it prevented all movement, or, according to Barbey d’Aurévilly, that of the worn-out outfit. Yet with the star, Brummell shared the capacity to be in a position to create a myth. A star, wrote Malraux, “is a person capable of a minimum of theatrical talent whose face expresses, symbolizes, and embodies a collective moment.” And he mentioned in this respect the mythic Marlene Dietrich under the same heading as Phryne. The star is, according to Malraux, feminine, and, in the twentieth century, linked with the movies. She is the great actress who is capable of embodying different roles and capable of bringing scenarios to life and bringing them together. But as queens, courtesans, or spies, Garbo and Marlene fit into the tradition of the heros of pantomime: Pierrot as thief, drunkard, or lover. A man, too, can embody a myth, the perfect example of which was, for Malraux, Charlie Chaplin. For, as Malraux adds, “movies are aimed at the masses, and the masses love myth, for better or for worse.” (6)

While it is true that Brummell was a star, it was not his face, but the whole of his person, that embodied this quality. Yet the star is supposed to please the public, to be seductive, to figure as an object of desire. Now, the dandy, and no doubt Duchamp more than Brummell, did not seek to please people. He upset them; he loved bad taste and indulged in the aristocratic pleasure of not being liked. His sense of humor was purposefully caustic, and his spirit, unlike that of most stars, was blistering. When Baudelaire demanded that the dandy live and sleep in front of a mirror, that he be forever sublime, (7) he was laying out an ideal of sainthood, an ascetic rule he assigned to the dandy through which the latter would, for him, “border on Spiritualism and Stoicism.” (8) We are therefore far from the idea of a media image. As for Marcel Duchamp—who, according to Breton, had arrived “at the end of the whole historical process of the development of dandyism”—he was “surely the most intelligent and (for many) the most annoying man of this first part of the twentieth century.”(9)

Quite far from himself being a star, Duchamp was able to play at stardom. He denounced the stereotypes of the star in mass society—those of the femme fatale, but also those of the “culture industry” or of culture: Mona Lisa is a star, but L.H.O.O.Q. (10) She enters into the circulation of capital; she has to be able to be given a mustache, sold, and exchanged. In this sense, like the dandy of the nineteenth century, Duchamp questioned the art and culture of his time by presenting figures that radicalized the questions about them. Like the dandy, Duchamp poked fun at the Romantic genius and his pseudo-inspiration. He extolled artificiality, indifference, impassiveness, the reign of an ironic causality that prevents any recognition of identity. When originality is “adapted to the market,”(11) genius can give itself out only as commonplace. Baudelaire was the first to have this idea. Duchamp made it into a reality. Thus would Duchamp finish up as well as finish off dandyism.


1. Marcel Duchamp, Entretiens avec Pierre Cabane (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967), p. 135.
2. André Breton, Anthologie de l’humour noir (Paris: J. J. Pauvert, 1966; Le livre de poche), p. 355.
3. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard-Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976), vol. 2, p. 710.
4. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (from the Tiedemann German edition) (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard, 2004), p. 372 (translation slightly altered). [Translator: As explained in note 3 on p. 967, le poncif is “the banal, the trite; a conventional piece of writing, a cliché. Baudelaire writes in his notebook: ‘To create a new place [poncif]—that is genius. I must create a new commonplace.’” My thanks to the historian of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group Stephen Hastings King for having located these Benjamin references for me in English.]
5. Georg Simmel, “La mode,” Philosophie de la modernité (Paris: Payot, 1989), p. 168. [Translator: See the chapter on Fashion in Georg Simmel, On Individuality & Social Forms; Selected Writings, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).]
6. André Malraux, “Esquisse d’une psychologie du cinéma” (1946), in Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard-Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2004), vol. 4, pp. 14-15.
7. Charles Baudelaire, “Mon cœur mis à nu,” Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 678
8. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” p. 710.
9. André Breton, ibid.
10. Translator’s Note: Apropos of Duchamp’s assisted readymade with the French title La Jaconde aux Moustaches. L.H.O.O.Q (Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard), Kristina Seekamp, on her website Unmaking the Museum: Marcel Duchamp's Readymades in Context explains, “The title is essentially a phonetic game. As Duchamp himself noted in a 1966 interview, ‘I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen’ (Cabanne 63). When read quickly in French, the title L.H.O.O.Q. sounds like a sentence translating to ‘She has a hot bum/ass.’ This is the most commonly [c]ited meaning of the phrase, but many other ideas also surround this intriguing group of letters. Duchamp gave a ‘loose’ translation of L.H.O.O.Q. as ‘there is fire down below’ in a late interview (Schwarz 203). Steefel points out that, when spoken in English, L.H.O.O.Q. sounds like ‘LOOK’ (50). Thus the piece could have a further function as a commentary on the relationship between artist and viewer, which Duchamp was admittedly very interested in.’ (‘Laugh’ 111)” .
11. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 333

Seminar of Febrary 11th 2005

Françoise Coblence is a professor of aesthetics at the Jules Verne University of Picardie and head of the Jules Verne University of Picardie’s Center for Research in the Arts. She has published Le Dandysme, obligation d’incertitude (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), Freud 1886-1897 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), Les Attraits du visible (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005), as well as articles on Baudelaire and dandyism, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas (in particular in the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse), and edited Les Fables du visible et l’esthétique fictionnelle de Gilbert Lascault (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 2003). Her current work bears on the articulation between aesthetics and psychoanalysis, especially around the question of empathy.

Super Dandy + Mediated Body

Interesting reading of Duchamp as super dandy. Am I reading that correctly? Anyway I think of Mr. M.D. as the originator of the body as mediated art work or maybe a sign in a media flux. There's also that notion of stardom brought on by mass media that has a flip side of propaganda.