Note: To protect the privacy of our members, e-mail addresses have been removed from the archived messages. As a result, some links may be broken.

Lesson Plans

What is Art & Duchamp

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Mark Brandau (
Thu, 18 Feb 1999 18:18:43 -0800

Okay, here goes:
What is art? I teach my students that art is an experience encompassed by
the human creation, presentation, and interpretation of form with the
intent to communicate thoughts or feelings. While this is still a
tremendously vague description, it seems to encompass most of what Western
civilization considers the elusive beast of "art." I stress to my
students that although creative self-expression can be a valid part of the
art experience, it cannot stand alone as art. Creative self-expression
might be wonderful for the expressor, but it tends to do very little for
everyone else. It is only once that expression is given specific form
(through image, sound, action, etc.) which communicates with others that it
falls under the Christo-sized umbrella of art.

As for Duchamp, we just had a great discussion of his early New York years
in my Mixed Media class. I had the students read an article from the New
Yorker called "Duchamp and New York" (November 25, 1996). Afterwards we
discussed the impact he had on the Modern art world with "Nude Descending a
Staircase, No. 2" and the invention of the readymade. I stressed the
context in which both were done, especially "Fountain." This piece was
originally submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibitions
(American artists response to the Armory Show). The idea behind the show
was that anyone could submit work if they paid the $6 entry fee. Duchamp
tested them by submitting the urinal under the name of Richard Mutt .
Several members of the board for the exhibition were appalled by the work
and refused to accept it. What happened to the urinal after that remains a
bit of a mystery - some rumor that William Glackens (especially appalled by
the object) smashed it on the floor, and Duchamp once claimed that Walter
Arensberg (who, along with Joseph Stella, was with Duchamp when he
purchased the urinal) bought it as an act to protest the board who refused
to take it seriously.
Duchamp was a lazy artist and he admitted that several times. His advent
of the readymade was something that happened to be the right thing, at the
right time, by the right person. Duchamp was already established and
questioned as an artist (bringing himself to the attention of the American
public with the curious controversy surrounding "Nude Descending a
Staircase") and he did what art has to do every now and then - push the
envelope of what is accepted. He did it as a challenge, probably with his
tongue planted firmly in his cheek (remember his snow shovel titled "In
Advance of a Broken Arm"). The form of the readymade was the next rational
step in the evolution of early Modern art. Yes, Duchamp was emphasizing
the idea over the object in art and forcing others to question their ideas
about art. He also did it as a lazy joke.
After discussing all of this with my students, most had a pretty good
understanding of the importance of the readymade in Modern art along with a
certain appreciation for Marcel Duchamp. No one even asked, "so if I turn
in a toilet with a fake name on it, would I get an A?" I even had one
student (especially bright) come up to me after class and explained that
she couldn't appreciate Modern art before this article and discussion. She
explained that about half-way through the reading, she underwent a
metamorphosis (her word) and came out with a new understanding of art. She
also pointed out to me that "this is pretty heavy stuff, isn't it?" She
made my week (if not semester!).

Mark Brandau
Art Department
Lake Oswego High School
Lake Oswego, Oregon 503.699.1430
"Never take art for granted, never take art too seriously."