Famous urinal now 84 years old
June 20, 2001 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Famous urinal now 84 years old "When did it stop being true that an artist is somebody who can do something more or less well which the rest of us can only do badly or not at all?" -- Tom Stoppard
posted by drunkkeith (13 comments total)
As smart as Tom Stoppard is as a playwright, remarks like that indicate that he's totally clueless when it comes to what Duchamp was all about.
posted by MrBaliHai at 10:47 AM on June 20, 2001

...and I probably should actually finish reading the article before I make kneejerk comments like that. I don't think he's all that far off the mark when the quote is taken in context.
posted by MrBaliHai at 10:53 AM on June 20, 2001

Glad you made the mistake, or I wouldn't have bothered reading the article myself. The conservative old codger in me has to agree with his comments on Hirst's polka dots.

A copy of the TLS actually arrived in the post today (some kind of free offer for the person who lived here before) - maybe I should read it (though I'm more an LRB kind of guy myself).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:13 AM on June 20, 2001

I think that when we compare, say, Greek sculpture to DuChamp to ancient tribal artifacts, we simply end up with many definitions of the word art, and this shouldn't pose as much of a problem as it does. Where is it written that "art" is and has to be only one thing? We would do well to expand our vocabularies. For instance, if Japanese ukiyo-e prints are art, why can't billboards be the same?

Nevermind -- ask me after I've finished next semester's Philosophy and the Arts class...
posted by tweebiscuit at 12:12 PM on June 20, 2001

Kind of reminds me of what Wolfe said in The Painted Word. At some point, you'll walk into a gallery and instead of finding any actual objects -- created or found -- you'll just see the artist's aesthetic theories written neatly on index cards pinned to the walls. The objects themselves become irrelevant.

This hasn't happened. Don't think it will happen. But Wolfe's image is one that sticks, I guess.
posted by bilco at 12:14 PM on June 20, 2001

I must admit that while strolling through MOMA the other day, I laughed at a piece of cardboard spray-painted silver with three circles cut out of it. Now, if my niece had done that I think that I would have been quite proud. But is it really something that should be on display in a museum? I think the quote from Stoppard that drunkkeith posted encapsulizes what I've been wondering for quite awhile.
posted by witchstone at 1:29 PM on June 20, 2001

your co-branded metafilter / amazon agent personally recommends arthur c. danto's transfiguration of the commonplace.
posted by msippey at 1:49 PM on June 20, 2001

your co-branded metafilter / amazon agent personally recommends arthur c. danto's transfiguration of the commonplace.

Sorry, I'm not allowed to read any books with reviews that have the word "ontology" in them. Doctor's orders.
posted by bilco at 2:15 PM on June 20, 2001

Stoppard's play The Real Thing contains a similar rant by the protagonist (an author) lamenting another author who found it sufficient to write about something "significant" without bothering to actually write well. While Stoppard's and Wolfe's points are well taken, I'll take a brilliant idea over soulless craftsmanship any day.
posted by whuppy at 2:16 PM on June 20, 2001

I'll take a brilliant idea over soulless craftsmanship any day.

Agreed. But thankfully they're not mutually exclusive. Theory and craft, that is.
posted by bilco at 2:35 PM on June 20, 2001

The original urinal no longer exists. Amusingly, the one in Tate Modern is a reconstruction based upon photographs, making it a work of mimetic art, whereas Duchamp's was significant because it was, I suppose, a mimesis of art itself.

It's a subject that I've actually been writing about today, in the context of eighteenth-century aesthetics, and Northrop Frye's notes on sensibility. The point being that "subjective" art, as Stoppard calls it, emphasises process over product: the art object is considered valuable to the extent that it

a) records a process;
b) provokes the audience;
c) ostensibly inspires something akin to the process that inspired its own creation. (a good analogy is that the art object is like a PGP public key, whereas the underlying process is like the secret key.)

What's interesting about the eighteenth-century context is that you have writers who, given the aesthetic nod to "express themselves" however their inspiration sees fit, spend all their time procrastinating, and worrying about the precise nature of that mandate. Total artistic freedom, in short, is a killer.
posted by holgate at 2:45 PM on June 20, 2001

Hmmm...Holgate's scratched some ideas from my head.

For me, the final work is infinitely more rewarding than the process that created it. I'm very humble when it comes to the finished result, because while the process excites me, and I assuredly can blather about it all the damn day long, it means nothing if the finished work can't stand on its own merits. I can cram all the film geek lore about, say, Stanley Kubrick into my head, but that doesn't affect the quality of his films.

Personally, I've always been rather skittish about knowing too much about how something was made. I like the fact that no one really knows all that much about Shakespeare's life. The greatest voice in English literature (perhaps all literature) is a cipher. It's beautiful! So all we have are these wondrous plays, and we're not distracted by how they were made. (Ironic that this thought was prompted by a discussion of Tom Stoppard, who wrote a screenplay on just these speculations.)

As for "provoking," it seems that's all an artist wants to do these days. The work is secondary to the notoriety or reputation that comes about because of it. The painting is a gesture that serves the artist's ego, a reversal of what I believe the "right way" to create art is. The Warhol effect, in other words.

Since I don't know too much about PGP, I'll just shut my mouth on that last one. ;) But I'd like to believe that it's not the process that inspires a person, it's the art. But hey, that's arguable. Well, it's all arguable...

And total artistic freedom is a killer. There's something to be said for restrictions. Example: (which will contradict my earlier point about not wanting to know too much about an artist's process, but this is hardly logical) I was listening to A Hard Day's Night the other week, be-bopping along, and I smiled when I remembered that the soundtrack album was basically banged out. The title track, "If I Fell," "I Should Have Known Better," "And I Love Her," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Things We Said Today" - all these great, classic rock songs were written to order. Besides creating great envy of Lennon and McCartney's songwriting abilities, it affirmed that having pressure and restrictions can channel one's energies into useful ways. Compare that album with the White Album and you'll see what I mean.

Okay, I'm babbling now.
posted by solistrato at 7:13 PM on June 20, 2001

In place of a reasoned arguement I have only pithy comments. Perhaps that’s good enough to get me published in the TLS, as it describes Stoppard’s essay. I think he’s brilliant (absolute master of the mise-en-scène), but this little think piece is not one of his shining moments.

“[T]he real point was that the artist made us see things we wouldn’t otherwise see ... and that what I called a fault line was the realization that this could be achieved differently, not by being good at making something, but perhaps by relocating a familiar object in an unfamiliar context...”

Tom, I’d like you to meet Marcel. He and a few friends had this little art movement called dada in which they — “[since] Duchamp’s urinal 84 years ago, we have come to put a value on repudiation.” Oh, you’ve heard of him.

Well then, this is illuminating:

“Milestone: Sir, you will have the goodness to make a distinction between the picturesque and the beautiful.

Mr. Gall: I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.

Milestone: Pray, sir, by what name do you distinguish this character when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?”

Very perceptive. I suppose Chaz Saatchi knows this already, since he owns most of the “shock art” politicians get so riled over. Saatchi’s collection is huge. It has to be to stay relevant. Images based mostly on visceral reactions — invariably described as “testing society’s acceptable bounds” — have one chance to throw a knockout blow. After the shock wears off, these pieces are just embrassingly trite, as Stoppard points out earlier in his essay. After the shock, there is no craftsmanship to enjoy, no method to learn, no subtext to mull.

I agree with him that there seems to be an awful lot of shock recently, or at least media seems intent on boostering it. Superficially, they are made for one another. The news at eleven was really boring until they had footage of the Virgin Mary covered with vaginas and elephant poo.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 12:54 AM on June 21, 2001

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