The Confusing Junk of Modernism: How Duchamp isn't an Artist


In Cabinet Magazine, issue 27, there is an article titled Readymade Remade about Pierre Pinoncelli who first made a big name for himself by pissing in Marcel Duchamp's readymade urinal. The article examines Pinoncelli's argument that he was bringing history and value to the urinal by doing so. While the French gov't did not agree with Pinoncelli at all, especially after Pinoncelli pissed in the same urinal again in 2006 -- the article decidedly agrees with Pinoncelli. The writer, Leland de la Durantaye, smartly cites Duchamp himself as the authority -- Duchamp, after "defacing" the Mona Lisa, claims that his Mona Lisa is not a readymade. Rather this remade Mona Lisa is an "assisted readymade". By taking mass produced art and introducing "a unique commentary", Duchamp means to bring this item back into the spectrum of art. With this, Durantaye implies that Pinoncelli is right in his claim that the French gov't is wrong -- but then after fining Pinoncelli, should the French gov't pay him the money? After all, Pinoncelli's "unique commentary" has increased the value of this French treasure by taking a mass produced readymade which has "lost [its] readymade authenticity, [its] unique identity, and [. . .] dynamically infus[ing] one of the replicas with [authenticity]".

Pinoncelli's Duchamp's Urinal Twice stained, thrice as valuable.

Look up Pierre Pinoncelli on the internet!

You'll see he's quite a pissant. HA HA HA!!


Besides the "unique critique" of Duchamp's work (of which Pinoncelli is a decidedly excited fan) there are three possible directions for contradictions:

1) Durantaye takes for granted the implication that what is valuable in art is expressed monetarily.

2) Benjamin's famous essay on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction equates uniqueness with art -- that mass produced copies only accentuate the value of "originals" which the elite can then possess as being art. By unifying Duchamp's readymade and his assisted readymade, Durantaye implies that Duchamp is not producing art at all -- if a readymade meant to be art can be in need of "assistance" to rejoin the status of art then Duchamp is not at all an artist for Duchamp is not producing art.

3) Simultaneously, as you can imagine, Pinoncelli's urine was cleaned from the "defaced" readymade. Nonetheless, Pinoncelli left, in the language of Lacan, an unseen stain, on that particular readymade. The British have recognized this readymade as being more intrinsically valuable. One of the subtexts of this article is that what is valuable is not necessarily tangible... that art itself has moved beyond the realm of pretty pictures and skillful techniques (for what kind of technique has Pinoncelli, besides the admirable ability to urinate in public before the eyes of others? -- no doubt a feat most of us could not accomplish).

Taken all at once, although somewhat contradictory, we come across a paradox. Art then, in the contemporary age, is what both unique, intangible and monetarily valuable. Of course no matter what the French gov't thought, they could not allow anyone pissing on any art. Imagine if they awarded Pinoncelli? What kind of people would go to the museums in the hopes of making "readymade" money? At once we see that art cannot be what is tangible. Of course, tangibility may be our best claim to any sort of possession of it. We go to museums to see art, but in fact run abut something else. So is art tangible?

If it is only tangible then Duchamp is not an artist. If it is intangible, then Duchamp and Pinoncelli are both artists. Durantaye sides with Pinoncelli and Pinoncelli with Duchamp.

But if art is not material, then what is art? If Duchamp is not an artist but a "materialist contextualist" then how are we to approach material context? We all understand that art can be horribly elitist, but is it so only in order to promote/protect its own value? Does this then make the lives of our celebrities art? What about expensive, corporate, buildings? What then happens to punk and the D.I.Y. culture? Is that no longer art but just noise (since anyone can punk)?

Again the direction seems to lie more with Deleuze and Guattari's how more than the what. While both of these thinkers equate art with concept, if we take this discussion seriously it seems that art lies more with social positioning than anything else: architecture must be valuable because of the resources taken to produce it, as are museum housed works -- and the millions of punk fans world-wide.

This bodes woe for fans of Kristeva, and all the art lovers around... as well as Deleuze and Guattari's book What is Philosophy. But that's the one book of theirs that I do not like. So that's fine by me.  (Any "commentary" I would like to share on that book?  I think not, at least, I can't comment if you're watching...)

Me, personally? I don't believe in any of what I just wrote anyhow.
Is that tangible enough for ya?



(from my blog)


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Comment by John McCreery on March 10, 2011 at 5:09am
Alexander, the apologies should be on my side. Responding to everything people say in a dead serious manner is a grievous sin. Mea culpa.
Comment by Alexander Lee on March 9, 2011 at 7:53am

No I haven't read that book. But it sounds good. Someone did give me another of his books 'Savage Detective' which I sadly, also have not read. It's sitting on one of my shelves.

Sorry if I misunderstood what you were saying. I don't believe in truth in the manner you are speaking of... nor do I believe that something needs a definition because there is a word for it. But to respond to some of what you are saying -- I do believe the issue of originality is problematic (which one counts for the 'first novel' -- Malory's Death of King Authur (I think?) or Prince Genji... one can never know intent). But all in all, I'd rather say that something like Jeff Koons can be art -- but I do think something like that is wasteful and probably shouldn't be made in the first place.. it's just my opinion.

Nonetheless, by posting this, I was hoping to incite giggles, not a discussion of what art was. I thought by making it needlessly erudite would be absurd enough to be silly. The original article in Cabinet was intended to explore Pinoncelli's work, not to expand on what is or is not art, so using it as a basis to discuss art would make for a poor discussion. I thought the article's reasoning in this took an understanding of art both embedding it within a mainstream discourse and taking that discourse for granted... so I thought to respond by writing something that would push that article's logic would be fun reading, although it doesn't particularly lead to a strong discussion since there are no outside referents or other examples.

At least, I had a fun time writing it. Sorry if it was misleading. I think I'll think more about 'what art is' and post something later. I should read that book you recommended first though, that would probably help since I assume you would be responding...
Comment by John McCreery on March 5, 2011 at 1:56am


First, just because I'm a nitpicker. I didn't say that art is art EITHER because it's original OR it's acclaimed. I said that works are recognized as art when they are original AND acclaimed. 

The more important difference between our views is, however, that, like most of us, you have a bee in your bonnet. There's a word that seems important to you—here it is "art"; in other contexts it might be "law," "religion" or "anthropology." The word exists, therefore, you believe, there must be something to which it points. You want to know what that something is. 

You are, of course, in good company. This is exactly the approach adopted by Plato and Aristotle. It is, however, the same approach in which you wind up with things like St. Anselm's proof of the existence of God, i.e., if we can imagine a perfect being, a perfect being must exist. The problem is, that isn't true at all. Have you ever imagined a unicorn? Can you show me one? Have you ever fallen in love with someone and then discovered that your starry-eyed image of them is false?


So, what's a fellow to do when confronted with a word whose referents turn out to be slippery, ambiguous, self-contradictory, possibly all of the above—the usual situation with "big" words that people have been debating about for centuries? You can join a crowd that claims that this or that interpretation is True with a capital T. That way, you'll at least have company. You can assert a new definition and, unless you attract others who come to agree with you, you'll wind up pretty lonely. Me? I like the approach that recognizes that people use a term in lots of different ways. Then I ask, who are these people? What are the situations in which this word gets used? Are there institutions involved in shaping the context in a way that favors one possible meaning over others? What can I see for myself? What are people telling me? I may never wind up with a single definition—I'd be awfully surprised if I did. Instead I wind up with a map of the territory. If it's a good map I can locate all of the different sense of the term I started with, I can see why people coming from different places wind up avoiding or fighting with each other. I can notice when new senses emerge and think about how that happened. 


If you've followed me this far, you may have now noticed that there is nothing remotely like taking a poll and settling on a majority opinion here. Would you take a customer into a house you are trying to sell, point in fifty random directions, walk out and say, "OK, we've seen 32 bits of white wall, one staircase, 3 hardwood floors....Looks like what you're buying is a white wall"? Of course not. Why, then, do you imagine that anyone would embrace a similar approach to something like art?

And going back to the unicorns, lovers and God I mentioned, why would anyone as smart as you are, assume that there is something really there just because we have a word for it?

Comment by Keith Hart on March 5, 2011 at 1:01am
Have you read Roberto Bolano's posthumous novel 2066? Duchamp gets a walk-on part in that. I think it's a wonderful novel, the most original I have read for ages. The Duchamps experiment in it (hanging out a geometry book on the washing line to see how science fares when confronted with nature) is at least funny, even if it isn't art.
Comment by Alexander Lee on March 4, 2011 at 11:16am



Unfortunately I have not gotten around to reading the book by Becker you recommended me, so I can't really address it on the same basis.  I had put this here, sort of tongue in cheek but you raise certainly valid concerns.  I think I would disagree though.


To say that something is art because someone says it is art... is certainly the basis for common usage of language and where culture originates.  But that's not a very interesting way to go.  It's kind of like saying that we need to cast a poll in order to decide whether or not 'anchor babies' should be American citizens.  Well, yes, democracy and all that, but if polls are the basis for everything then we risk losing our ability to guide ourselves ethically or morally (among other things) because there aren't any such thing as a 'principle' anymore.  As a society we adjudicate based often on the principles behind our founding forefathers.  But, we could just take a poll instead... Most corporations would probably agree with that methodology, even if certain ones like Apple would not (Steve Jobs seems to think everything should secretive and top-down based on idealisms like design..).


But then maybe principles are an out dated concept.  We could take a poll on that, I suppose.


The notion that something is art only because it is original... with the intention of being art... seems too reductive as well.  Many musicians, in the genre of 'noise core' explore new sounds.  It's perhaps 'avant-garde' music, but it also isn't something that is listenable.  (The closest I can get to noise core is the band Xiu Xiu.)  A close friend of mine is involved in the international 'conceptual writing' scene.  He runs a publishing company that is pretty well acclaimed.  He published the Oulipo in English for the first time in decades.  (There was only one writer alive at the time who wrote in English for the Oulipo.  There are more now though, thanks to his efforts).  In any case, for conceptual writing, poetry is considered a success if they sell 50 books a month.  He admits that much of what he publishes are 'art books' and not at all readable.  I have mixed feelings on this.  Somethings, I feel, are more interesting as a concept.  After a while, I think the 'joke' is more on the artist.  But for example, I find Jeff Koon's work to be completely decadent and lacking of value.  Couldn't 8 tons of solid steel be used for more constructive purposes than hanging it in a museum?  Couldn't that donated money be spent on the homeless?  I would like to challenge the values of novelty for novelty's sake. Pissing in a museum isn't necessarily the literal act of pissing.  Someone could shit, for example, or paint their body and rub against a statue in an interesting way (have sex with a statue)?  I don't know, the possibilities are near limitless.  You get what am I saying though.  Something like that can still be art, but I wonder if we have better things to do..


I know there are many activists who would disagree with me.  That someone always needs to be on the fringe, even if it's to throw their life away to make a statement.  And that has value in itself, even if the act/art in-itself does not have value (Koons insists there are no hidden meanings in his art... whatever that means). 


After writing all this, I think I do actually agree with you.  Although the idea of 'what is art' is much less interesting to me than taking a poke at Duchamp and Pinoncelli.

Comment by John McCreery on March 4, 2011 at 7:27am

Just for giggles, let's use a simple test. The question is not tangible or intangible or the amount of labor expended—it lies in the case of modern art in (1) originality— whether the thing or gesture in question has been made before and (2) acclaim — whether the people who care recognize it as art. 

Thus, the Duchamp is original. Putting a mass-produced urinal in an art museum had never been done before. Do lots of art-world folk recognize that gesture as art? Yes. Duchamp qualifies on both counts.


Pinoncelli? Original? Perhaps. Like Duchamps, he appears to have made an unprecedented gesture in an art museum. (We may also, perhaps, need to consider his intentions. Would a desperate tourist taking a leak behind a marble statue in the British Museum count as art? Probably not.) Accepted as art? Likely not. 

What is clear, however, is that whoever follows Pinoncelli in pissing on Duchamps' urinal is not making art. There is no originality here. There is only reproduction. 

What am I missing here?


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