Art as an Act

Written December 2020

[Introduction only, please personally request a full paper]

“What is Art?”  Such is the beginning of any honest art historical survey that covers Modern and Contemporary artists.  Living and working in a new, rapidly changing era of art, art historians strive to stay up to date with the current theories and practices of artists.  Before the arrival of the Impressionists, the Western European definition of art stayed fairly consistent.  The subject matter varied between philosophers, religious or historical figures, landscapes and architecture, however a relatively naturalistic portrayal ran among them all.  Beginning with Manet, who worked less to hide his brushstrokes than those before him, the hand of the artist arose from the artwork.  Depicted reality became more personalized and subjective, and as scientific discovery reached an exponential rate, artist called reality into question entirely.  If a world of X-rays, atoms, and ether existed beyond their visual reality, then the world they could see seemed false and lacking.  In their work, forms began to dissolve, and perspective fully departed from the one-point perspective of the Renaissance.  The mode of representation also changed with time, opening to more than oil paint and marble.  Picasso and Braque introduced oil cloth and newspaper clippings to the mix, calling into question what materials designate art as “fine art.”  One artist, once finished working through the styles of Impressionism, Symbolism, and Cubism painting, dared to venture where no artist had gone before, the showroom of a plumbing shop.

Marcel Duchamp lived from 1887 to 1968, spending his life in Rouen, Paris, Munich, and New York City.[1]  He spent his life filling a variety of positions including artist, art critic, writer, exhibition designer, gallery director, and even an avid chess player.  His work as a whole explores themes of sexual desire, the role of art and artists in the world, the potential other realities such as the fourth dimension, and mechanical production.  His artistic mediums ranged from oil painting in his early years to glass, wire, dust, and manufactured objects later in life.  A prolific writer, he kept detailed notes on his ideas and theories behind his paintings.  By viewing Duchamp’s Fountain in context of his later speech “The Creative Act,” following his outline of the creative process in the actions surrounding the creation, submission, and response to the readymade object, Duchamp’s definition of art is revealed as an action or series of actions, rather than the product of those actions alone.  Duchamp’s discovery took place in the submission of Fountain to the Independents, where he fulfilled his defined identity as an artist, transformed the conceived notion of artistic matter, and uniquely utilized the role of the spectator. Duchamp’s work and redefinition of art altered the art world forever, leaving in its wake endless opportunities for new artists.  I will also examine David Hammond’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale, one such artwork, analyzing how Duchamp’s ideas transformed over time. 

Fountain is officially defined as an “assisted Readymade: porcelain urinal turned on its back”[2] in Arturo Schwarz’s complete catalogue of Duchamp’s works.  Duchamp sent this assisted readymade to the Grand Central Palace for the Society of Independent Artists’ show in April 1917.[3]  Placed behind a partition where the audience could not view it, Fountain’s rejection lead to both Duchamp and Arensberg’s resignations from the Independents Board of Directors.  The form of the object is simple.  Judging by the orientation of “R. Mutt 1917,” the only inscription on the urinal, viewers might infer that it was intended to be laid on its back.  All that remains of Fountain today is two photographs, one by Alfred Steiglitz taken in front of a painting by Marsden Hartley in his own studio,[4] and the other taken by an unknown photographer of it hanging in Duchamp’s studio.[5]  The original urinal no longer exists–it was stolen or destroyed sometime after its rejection.[6]  All documentation that remains is a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz and another taken of the porcelain object hanging from a door-frame in Duchamp’s studio. 

In East Village of Manhattan on a cold Sunday afternoon, David Hammons set up his Bliz-aard Ball Sale with a blanket and precise rows of snowballs.[7]  His makeshift stand blended into the surrounding marketplace, lost in the sea of vendors.  The snowballs ranged in size, arranged largest to smallest, all priced at one dollar.  Hammons was born in 1943 in Springfield Illinois,[8] in his words, “on the wrong side of the tracks.”[9]  He moved to Los Angeles in 1963 to pursue an art education.[10]  While there, he worked under Charles White the printmaker.  Hammons early prints are attributed in some parts to the apprenticeship.[11]  His body prints, made from grease and charcoal, carved a space for Hammons in the art world.  Eventually rejecting framed artwork,[12] Hammons left his body prints and shifted his emphasis to found objects and art acts, such as Bliz-aard Ball Sale.  Little is known about this specific event as there was no publicity and minimal documentation.[13]  So much mystery surrounds the sale that it is hard to pin down exactly what occurred on that Cooper Union Square corner.  Those who witnessed the event provide conflicting accounts, and Hammons has not provided much of an account either.[14]  In fact, the most solid source of information about the act is a series of photographs by Dawoud Bey, the only physical remaining evidence that it even happened.[15] 

  I will be examining Fountain only as it pertains to the original 1917 version submitted to the Independents.  Because “The Creative Act” centers around action, only minimal visual analysis of the objects and photographs will be included.  I have also made a choice not to include any other writings or quotes by Duchamp outside of “Apropos of Readymades” to avoid the controversial nature of Duchamp’s statements.  Enjoying keeping the world on its toes, Duchamp kept his ideas and theories complicated and confusing enough to avoid any and all categorization and defy definition.  I exempted “Apropos of Readymades” to be able to define Fountain as a readymade and explain the definition.  I will however avoid using any commentary from the document concerning the creative process to remain within my prior restrictions.  With this limitation, my theories only address the relationship of Fountain and “The Creative Act,” not the entirety of Duchamp’s theory.  My approach to Bliz-aard Ball Sale is similar, looking at the narrative in context of Duchamp’s essay.  Since the lack of concrete and confirmed facts is a key aspect to the interpretation of the artwork, all narratives are included, even and especially those that contradict.  I use the contradictions as a way to portray the act in its entirety, as the story surrounding it is seemingly more important than the event itself. 

Duchamp delivered “The Creative Act” in Houston, TX to an American Federation of the Arts meeting in April 1957,[16] forty years after his submission of Fountain.  He spoke from the perspective of a “mere artist.”[17]  The speech covers eight main topics- the two poles, the artist as a mediumistic being, the “inert matter,” the understanding of art, the “art coefficient,” transmutation, and the spectator’s contribution.  Duchamp builds on each topic as he continues to the next, developing a cohesive picture of art creation and dissemination.  Minimizing the importance of the product and emphasizing the process, he subtly shifts where the “art” is found in the grand scheme of production, allowing for the expansion of possible mediums and roles for the artists to assume in the creation of their artwork.

The Two Poles

“Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.”[18]

To begin his speech, Marcel Duchamp identifies the two factors that make art into art–the artist and their audience.  He references to them as the “two poles,” immediately placing them on a spectrum.  With one end being the artist and the other being the audience, the ideas and processes in the middle constitute “the creative act.”  The process becomes a dialogue between artist and spectator.  He notes that the spectator is one “who later becomes the posterity.”  The use of “posterity” places the creative process within an indefinite timeline, allowing both to live on beyond the creation and destruction of the actual artwork.  Key for an analysis of these artworks, the idea highlights a unique aspect of art living beyond the shelf life of its materials.  For Fountain and Bliz-aard Ball Sale, this is especially important as the original urinal was destroyed, Hammons’ snow melted, and the works only exist currently in replicas and photographs. 

Duchamp also creates a general expectation for artwork to outlive the artist and its initial audience.  Yet for paintings and sculptures never seen by the public eye, he subsequently deems life as a work of art impossible. Only if the artist can double as a spectator to their own work are the paintings and sculptures are safe, but Duchamp’s definition of the artist as a mediumistic being and the process of transmutation suggest he would argue otherwise. 

[1] Dawn Ades et al., Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 9, 11, 65, 84.

[2] Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. (London, Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1969) 648.

[3] See note 2 above

[4] Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself. (Ojai, CA: Dillingham Press, 1985) 30.

[5] William A. Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain: The Menil Collection, Houston (Houston, Tex: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989), 168.

[6] Camfield, Fountain, 30. 

[7] Filipovic, Elena. Bliz-Aard Ball Sale. (London, UK: Afterall Books: University of the Arts London, 2017) 16.

[8] Filipovic, Bliz-Aard Ball Sale, 48.

[9] Kellie Jones, “The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic,” in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 15-37, 16.

[10] Jones, “The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic,”16.

[11] Jones, 17.

[12] Jones, 24.

[13] Filipovic, Bliz-Aard Ball Sale, 16.

[14] Filipovic, Bliz-Aard Ball Sale, 16.

[15] Filipovic, 15.

[16] Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. 256.

[17] Michel Sanouillet, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 138.

[18] Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act” in Marchand du Sel: écrits de Marcel Duchamp (1956, repr., Paris, France: Le Terrain Vague 1958) 166.

[1]Dawn Ades et al., Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 9, 11, 65, 84.

[2]Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp.(London, Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1969) 648.

[3]See note 2 above

[4]Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself.(Ojai, CA: Dillingham Press, 1985) 30.

[5]William A. Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain: The Menil Collection, Houston (Houston, Tex: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989), 168.

[6]Camfield, Fountain. 30. 

[7]Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp.256.

[8]Michel Sanouillet, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 138.

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