Art and Chess: Marcel Duchamp in Conversation
The Afternoon Interviews, however, is not prose, but a transcript of Duchamp’s answers to Tomkins’ questions, in which the artist reflects on how the nature of art-making and being an artist had changed during the course of his lifetime. Duchamp discusses in offhand and friendly fashion a variety of issues and attitudes toward art that theorists—the Frankfurt School, Pierre Bourdieu, Georg Lukács, and others—have of course grappled with at great length. What is charming about Duchamp’s responses is how they reveal that, for him, these were simply practical challenges that arose during his lifetime, in which he felt he had watched art-making move from a craft to a profession and art itself shift from something spurred by a personal creative impulse to something strategically designed for a for-profit art market.
Though Tomkins’ conversations with Duchamp took place in 1964, Duchamp refers often to his experiences in the early 20th century. (Most people assumed Duchamp was retired from art-making at the time of the conversations, though he would surprise everyone with “Étant donnés” just a couple years later.) Born in 1887, Duchamp brushed shoulders with the Cubists and Futurists in Europe, already at a young age repelled by their use of art as a means of consolidating cultural power. Duchamp, entirely unaware that the Cubists and Futurists had developed aesthetic dogma and considered themselves in opposition to one another, entered his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” in an “Independents” exhibition in 1912. When the Cubists saw the painting and worried it might not be a “Cubist” painting, they asked Duchamp to change its title. As Duchamp puts it, “I immediately went to the show and took the painting back home. It’s in the catalog of the Independents of 1912, but it never was shown. I didn’t discuss it with anyone, but it was really a turn in my life. I saw that I would never be very much interested in groups after that. I felt it was too much of a schooling and a school, to say you must do this and you must do that, very much of an academy attitude.”
Duchamp’s attitudes, if acted upon today, would amount to a rejection of most production in the field of contemporary art. “The profession of being an artist, of becoming an artist, was only left to a few, compared to what it is today, when a young man not having special aptitude for anything will say, ‘Well, I’ll try art.’ In my day, young people who didn’t know what to do tried medicine or studied to become a lawyer.” What emerges strongly in these conversations is Duchamp’s commitment to avoiding any kind of Fordist system of reproducibility to his creativity—commercialization and repetition were his enemies. He is at pains to explain that his famous “readymades” were made “not with the idea of producing thousands of them. It was really to get out of the exchangeability, I mean the monetization, one might say, of the work of art. I never intended to sell my readymades.” When Tomkins asks if he really didn’t sell any of them, Duchamp responds “Never. Never did I sell them. Not only that, never did I show them. Nobody saw them until twenty years ago.”
The beauty of re-reading a conversation from the 1960s is of restoring context and temporality to Duchamp’s career. A retrospective view of his work tends to collapse his life to a series of acts: he made this, and then these, and then this. That type of catalog view elides the long periods of silence between projects. Duchamp didn’t believe good art could be made quickly—the act of conceiving a project worth doing took its own amount of time, and often, in his work, involved the solution of material and process challenges. He lived lean, in a small apartment in Manhattan, and focused primarily on his chess game for many years with no concern that time spent on chess might somehow be taking away from his artistic productivity. “Probably the two things [art and chess] pleased me because they opposed one another—the two attitudes—as a form of completeness,” he says. “And I was not on one side any more than on the other side.”
One senses that Duchamp would be neither surprised nor outraged by contemporary artists who develop personas and projects specifically in order to profit from the cosmopolitan, international art markets—who “game” the field, as it were. Yet neither would Duchamp find delight in that kind of work, as it is only the latest version of artists integrating themselves into society so that they can then serve it, aesthetically. “Taste,” which Duchamp mentions more than once as being irrelevant, is just the market’s equivalent of academy art. “I wouldn’t want to copy an Impressionist painting, or use their tricks or their theories like the simultaneism of Seurat. That didn’t interest me. I wanted to find something to escape that prison of tradition. Tradition is the prison in which you live. How can you escape those pincers?” he asks.
Duchamp doesn’t offer solutions, only reflections on his own attempts, his own take on what it meant for him to try to continue being inventive and playful. He is perfectly aware that there is no such thing as a “solution” to the social context. “The education is so strong in every child,” he says. “It holds them like a chain. That’s what I wanted to avoid, and yet I didn’t completely get free.”
Alan Limnis recently reviewed the 65th anniversary edition of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.