Ah, Marcel Duchamp! It seems he's not the messiah, but a very naughty boy.
"To a large extent, the art world today represents the institutionalization of Duchamp’s early-twentieth-century pranks. The great irony is that Duchamp intended not to extend the boundaries of art but to short-circuit the entire project of aesthetic delectation. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into to their faces as a challenge,” he noted contemptuously, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” Duchamp had the courage of his contempt. He gave up on art entirely and devoted himself to chess."The New Criterion has a pretty conservative (and, in this case, slightly misleading) take on art, but when, as increasingly does seem to be the case, the cynics and nihilists find themselves running the show and acting as gatekeepers -- deciding who gets to join the private In-Crowd party where exhibitions, book deals and funding are given away -- it's probably time for a little conservatism.
From: The New Criterion, Volume 32 March 2014, "But is it Art?"
After all, you can only really go in for épater la bourgeoisie so long as you are scrupulous about keeping your own snout out of the bourgeois trough. It's like parricidal sniping from the sidelines (such a satisfying activity when you're young): it has to stop, when you find you are the only father-figure left standing in the room.
When I was a young man, I invented (or came across) a formula that I considered very profound. It went:
Nothing matters, therefore everything matters. Everything matters, therefore nothing matters.It's a delightfully ironic position, one where absurdity meets eternity, and the choice is always open between doing the right thing and staying in bed. Far out! When you're young, and life is a bewildering and exciting maze of choices, and you're standing at the entrance with your crisp, new, unclipped ticket, wondering which way to go, it's not a bad stance to take. No hurry...
Forty years later, lost deep in the maze, and fully conscious that there really is only one way out of here, you find you're only too aware that choices have consequences, but also of the paradox that you are where you are because of the choices you have made and yet -- whatever choices you had made -- you would always have ended up here, and never there. Perhaps it's time to sit down on a bench in the sun, fish that old mantra out of a deep pocket, and contemplate it again.
Mind you, I think Duchamp knew, or sensed, more than he was letting on. Here's a story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps' collection of Zen teaching stories:
Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: ‘What is the most valuable thing in the world?’As they say, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
The master replied: ‘The head of a dead cat.’
‘Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?’ inquired the student.
Sozan replied: ‘Because no one can name its price.’