The new Barbican exhibition, The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, is the complete antithesis of the Roy Lichtenstein show at Tate Modern. That, I suggested, is about an artist generally liked by the public but not so much by the critics. The Duchamp show, on the other hand, is about an artist whose critical standing just seems to go higher and higher. They can't get enough of him. His Fountain (the urinal) has been voted "the most influential artwork of the 20th century". The show reviews are uniformly positive, if not downright ecstatic. The Guardian:
There is so much to see, to hear and to watch. The exhibition takes us from early Duchamp paintings, including the lubricious intestinal mysteries of his 1912 Bride (from Philadelphia, far superior to the Tate's second version), to ghostly Disklavier piano performances of Cage's music, via knockout paintings and sculptures by Johns and Rauschenberg, and sections devoted to chess, chance, the readymade and the remade object, and live presentations of Cunningham's dances.
Never dull and never dead, it is also a show full of shadows and hauntings....
Lights brighten and dim. Voices traverse the space. Caught in the flow of light and sound, and between attention and distraction, I stand in the long shadows cast through Duchamp's Large Glass and realise I have been here a very long time, looking for a role among objects and ideas, words, images and things, and between friendships and love stories, the bride and the bachelors.
Andrew Graham-Dixon gives the show a 5-star review in the Telegraph. Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times (£): "A brilliant show at the Barbican about Marcel Duchamp and his followers reveals how — and why — he changed art for all time". And so on.
Meanwhile when I was there the place was oddly quiet - no queue to get in - and the other punters seemed to be of the young art-school type. And this was only a week or so after the exhibition opened. No need to book in advance for this one.
And it's dull. It is really dull. The only interest is in the captions and curatorial guff. The actual works of art are only to be glanced at before the main effort begins - explaining why they're so radical, so significant, so important.
Take the element of chance, for instance: the other of Duchamp's contributions, we are told, alongside the ready-made. Yes, it's interesting, no doubt. John Cage is the main man here. We see his series Strings, formed by dropping ink-soaked strings of different lengths onto pieces of paper from a step-ladder. But that's it. Surely the creation of an artwork must be subject to some kind of aesthetic evaluation, however much chance is allowed to effect the outcome, even if it's only at the level of: yes, this one works, no, this one doesn't. As it is these squiggly lines of colour - browns and greys mostly - are completely aesthetically inert. There's nothing to them. They have none of the dynamism of, say, a Jackson Pollock. Their only interest lies in their method of creation, and in the fact that it was a famous artist, John Cage, who made them. They're historical documents. Dead historical documents. Any joy, any excitement, that may have accompanied their making evaporated at the time they were made. This is dead art, displayed in a museum; or a mausoleum, more like.
And the whole show's like that. I've seen Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenbergs that I've liked, but not here. The only interest is a historical interest. You read the label, because the art works themselves retain no aesthetic charge. There's nothing deader than the avant garde art of yesterday. Here's the proof.
And, of course, there's that bloody urinal...
There's always an assumption, with these critics who so adore Duchamp and his influence, that those of us who are somewhat less enamoured are still repeating the same reactions of horror and outrage that greeted the first showing of the urinal back in 1917, holding our hands up to our mouths aghast at this blow against our bourgeois sensibilities. Where are the nice landscapes we came to see? And the pretty ladies? And the still-lifes? But it ain't so. I can see how wonderful it must have been, in that stuffy environment, to exhibit a signed urinal to the general horror of the stuffed-shirts. It's wickedly witty, and it's genuinely subversive (a word that's since become almost completely emptied of meaning by its artspeak over-use). But now? Almost 100 years later? Is that - what was really little more than a jeu d'esprit, a joke - still something we should be poring over in a gallery as perhaps the greatest art work of our time?
The unfortunate truth is that, Duchamp being French, and the art world being generally devoid of a sense of humour, it's all been inflated and philosophised out of proportion. Try this, from Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice:
Fountain is not hewn or made in any traditional sense. In effect, it is an unbegotten work, a kind of virgin birth, a cosmic coitus of imagination and intellect. Like a megalithic stone, Fountain is merely placed on view, pointed at as the locus of something intrinsic to art and as art itself. Duchamp's work relies on a leap of faith: that new thought structures can be formed based on things already in the world. Fountain is the aesthetic equivalent of the Word made Flesh: It is an incarnation of the invisible essence of art, an object in which the distance between image and prototype is narrowed to a scintillating sliver. Just as Christians perceive Christ as the invisible made visible, Jesus said "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father," so Fountain essentially says, "He that hath seen me hath also seen the idea of me."
Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to "de-deify" the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what's called an "acheropoietoi," an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger. Its presence is grace.
But yes, we get the idea. Duchamp freed us from the tyranny of craft, of artistic effort. What art is, ultimately, is whatever the artist decides it is. But that supposedly liberatory idea just shifts the problem. We used to judge an artist by the quality of the art they produced. So now, if the artist comes first as it were, how do we know who is an artist. What qualifies them to be members of this secular priesthood? Do you just call yourself an artist? - having, of course, been to art school first. There's certainly, as with so many professions, a whole jargon to learn. You can't just come along and say, right, here's my work of art, hope you like it. You have to contextualise it, give it a solid underpinning in artspeak. For instance:
This work brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth, imaginatively propelling them forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist's practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the 'original' source or referent that underlines the artist's oeuvre.
That's how to do it.
Or, as I've argued before in the case of Joseph Beuys, the whole enterprise ends up in a cult of the artist, where the artist acquires a kind of aura which is magically imparted to their works in a kind of laying on of hands, making everything they produce worthy of admiration, if not of worship.
The logical conclusion to this line of thinking would be that if anything can be art if its maker wishes it to be art, then anything or everything can be art - and we don't need artists any more. Curiously this is an argument that artists themselves seem reluctant to make.
So yes, the urinal was funny; yes, it was subversive; yes, it was probably the kind of kick-up-the-arse that the art establishment needed at the time. But can't we move on? It's not as if the art establishment now isn't in need of a kick up the arse. But it's not going to come from repeating the same old tricks of 100 years ago. The urinal lovers now are the art establishment.