Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, called it "Fountain," put it in an art show and then defended his action on the grounds that as he was an artist and he said the urinal was art, then it was.
This is just the sort of thing that has given modern art a bad name. But why should it have? Why should that urinal not be art?
Understanding the answer to that question - whether one believes that that urinal was art or not - allows one to understand both the Dadaist movement and much of what has happened in the four generations of modern art since.
In an interview conducted for this paper, Karen Finley, a conceptual artist who was one of the infamous NEA Four, talked about the importance of that urinal.
On the one hand, me, personally, I don't like the piece because it's got all the hallmarks of you've-got-to-have-a-penis-to-be-an-artist all over it. You notice he didn't choose a bidet.
But on a different level, I think that it was an immensely important statement. Lots of people look at it and say that Duchamp and the other Dadaists were thumbing their noses at the public, that they were trying to insult the public by acting like the public was so stupid that they would accept any piece of garbage as art.
But that's not what Duchamp was doing. What he was doing was thumbing his nose at a system of patronage that said that it wasn't the public and it wasn't the artist who got to decide what art is but rather the patron, the person with the money.
What Duchamp did was to say enough it enough to all of that. He said that anyone could be an artist if they had something to say, and that they could deliver their message using whatever they had at hand. It was a fundamentally democratic gesture.
People criticize modern art - they criticize my work - by saying that a child could do it. And, you know, that's the way it should be. Everyone who wants to should be able to be an artist. And if people like what you have to say, great, then maybe you can support yourself as an artist. But if they don't like it, that doesn't mean that you're not an artist. Each one of us should get to decide about the meaning of our own work.
Duchamp's own motivations were perhaps not quite as altruistic as Finley describes them as being - there was also no small element of acting out simply because it's fun in his work - but she is correct in assessing the importance of the work of the Dadaists in changing the relationship of the artist and the audience to art and - in choosing to step beyond traditional art-making materials and techniques - to technology and machinery as well.
In order to understand why the Dadaists, and especially Duchamp, created the kind of work that they did we must look not only to the artistic but also political and cultural environment in which they were working.
Despite the long arm of its influence, Dadaism was actually a very short-lived movement, generally considered to have lasted from 1915 to 1923. It was very much a response to the horrors perpetuated on the innocent by the Great War - that war to end all wars that took away 10 million human souls from the earth and laid the grounds for the next, even greater war.
It sprang up first in neutral cities - New York, Barcelona, Zurich - and after the war spread to those cities directly affected by the festial violence - Berlin, Cologne, Paris. The Dadaist movement, which included as its other luminaries Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber, was a reaction to the efficiency of the machine age.
The new forms of technology that had created a rise in the standard of living and an explosion in consumer goods has also produced new forms of military technology that made all previous spasms of killing seem human and limited in contrast.
Thus at the heart of the Dadaist movement was a rejection of the power of machines, or at least a rejection of blind celebration of the wonders of the machine age and technology for its own sake. The Dadaists understood - as it would have been hard for any thinking person living through the terrors of the war not to understand - that technology can never be neutral. Guns do kill people.
One of the reasons that the Dadaist movement was so short lived is that it contained at its heart a philosophical contradiction that would sunder it into different artistic schools. Dadaists sought both to reclaim the machine for peaceful and artistic purposes and yet also to suppress its importance. They were more successful at the former than the latter. Dadaism may be seen in many ways as a desperate protest against the process of industrialization - a protest that was already being made too late.
People were too enamored of their machines to give them up - they were immune to the protests of the Dadaists that machines can be turned all too easily against their makers. The Dadaists understood that wartime allowed for people to be fed to machines, as German Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck wrote:
We had all left our countries as a result of the war. Ball and I came from Germany, Tzara and Janco from Rumania, Hans Arp from France. We were agreed that the war had been contrived by the various governments for the most autocratic, sordid, materialistic reasons; we Germans were familiar with the book "J' accuse," and even without it we would have had little confidence in the decency of the German Kaiser and his generals. Ball was a conscientious objector, and I had escaped by the skin of my teeth from the pursuit of the police myrmidions who, for their so-called patriotic purposes, were massing men in the trenches of Northern France and giving them shells to eat. None of us had much appreciation for the kind of courage it takes to get shot for the idea of a nation which at best a cartel of pelt merchants and profiteers in leather, at worst a cultural association of psychopaths who, like germans, marched off with a volume of Goethe in their knapsacks, to skewer Frenchmen and Russians on their bayonets.
And to a large extent we still believe what the critics of Dadaism argued, that overall technology is a good thing. We still generally believe that the Industrial Revolution was a good thing for humanity, that it has increased both our welfare and our happiness. And in many ways this is arguably true. In general we live longer now than our ancestors did before the Industrial Revolution, our children are much less likely to die in infancy, women are much less likely to die giving birth to those children.
We can now fight cancer, provide anesthetics, fight infections with antibiotics, replace failing hearts with those taken from other people or with robotics. We have the luxuries of refrigeration, quality-controlled pharmacies, municipal codes that prohibit the burning of noxious substances and ensure that homes and other buildings meet minimal safety standards, our children have the luxury of attending school into adulthood so that they learn good habits and understand the basics of human health.
Eighty years beyond the Dadaists, we can perhaps see more clearly that the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution have meant increased life spans, lower infant mortality, better medicines, safer workplaces, cleaner water, less famine and more leisure and more things to do with that leisure time. These benefits have become even more clear as the ravages of early-stage industrialization have been in some measure abated by our move into late industrialization, something that the members of Dadaism, trapped in the misery of the years between the wars, could not yet see.
In the end, the Industrial Revolution was most beneficial to the people whom it first affected most heavily - the poor worker. While there was never (and would never be) enough land under agriculturalism to provide every peasant with land of his or her own to work, within the context of the Industrial Revolution everyone could become a skilled worker. Industrialism made skills truly portable for the first time and freed peasants from the tyrannies of feudal land systems. Because of this empowerment of each individual and the rewarding of individual initiative, skill, and labor - coupled with the fact that industrialization tended to increase state oversight of the workplace, education, and health - it may be said that overall industrialization was overall a liberalizing influence on society.
But this is all hindsight, and maybe simply justification at a moment in history when all hope is past for a reversal of industrialization. But during the last decade of the 19th century and the first few decades of the…
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