A conversation with Marcel Duchamp

Jean Antoine: When you started out, you painted like everyone else; you created art. Then you became the man whom Andre Breton called “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century”. So, does that mean, since you have given up painting, that you associate painting with stupidity?

Marcel Duchamp: No, not stupidity. First of all, I want to defend myself a little against the charge of being the most intelligent man in the world. It’s fairly easy for someone to call you that, but it’s fairly difficult to convince yourself that you are. And I find it hard to believe, because first of all you have to understand the word “intelligent” in the way he meant it and I’m not sure that I know what he meant; and there are any number of ways of being intelligent. I accept it because it was said by Breton whose opinions I respect greatly, but that’s all.

But you haven’t answered my question about the problem of painting and stupidity?

No, no, not at all. No, stupidity has got nothing to do with it. It’s simply an activity which has been a little overestimated and is regarded as something of major importance. Personally, I don’t believe it is all it’s cracked up to be. It’s one of those human activities that is not crucially important. That’s what I mean; especially now, when it has become completely esoteric and everyone paints, everyone buys it and everyone talks about it. I wonder if it counts for anything at all when it comes to expressing more profound thought.

When you gave up painting, did you believe that painting was dead?

No. First, you know, I haven’t given up painting; if I get an idea for a painting tomorrow, I’ll do it. I didn’t make any hard and fast resolutions at all, of any kind. I simply stopped because I didn’t have anything more to say at the time. I had run out of ideas; ideas don’t come as easily as all that. As I have never been in the habit of working at my easel every morning from eight am, I only feel inclined to work when something stirs me in some way. Then I try to find a way of expressing the idea and there isn’t one. There hasn’t been one for a long time and that’s all I can say. But I didn’t make any hard and fast decisions about giving up painting at all.

Tell me something about your urinal which you sent to the Independents Exhibition, signed R. Mutt?

That was a bit of an exception, as it was sent to the first Independents Exhibition in New York and, as is the case with all the Independents Exhibitions, there was no hanging committee. The whole point of the Independents Exhibition was to enable artists to satisfy their need to exhibit without having to submit their work to a hanging committee. So I sent that piece under the impression that there would be no problem having it accepted and that afterwards we would see how the public reacted to it. But the organisers, or the hanging committee, decided against exhibiting it. It was too shocking, I suppose, even though it was not obscene or pornographic, or even erotic. As the organisers couldn’t find any reason to suppress it or reject it, they dumped the piece behind screens where it could no longer be seen and we lost sight of it for the whole exhibition. We didn’t know where it was and it was only at the end of the exhibition, when everything was being dismantled, that we found the piece hidden away and realised what had happened.

What is more, I was on the organising committee, so I resigned and I never again exhibited at the Independents Exhibition.

And what about the ready-mades you created afterwards?

Basically, they grew out of a thought process which was perhaps a little too logical, but logical all the same, relating to works made with your hands: you can cut off the artist’s hands and still end up with something that is a product of the artist’s choice since, on the whole, when an artist paints using a palette he is choosing the colours. So choice is the crucial factor in a work of art. Paintings, colours, forms, even ideas are an expression of the artist’s choice. So you can take this even further if you want, by saying: why go to the trouble of using your hands at all? So the idea of making something that is not physically created by the artist, that simply stems from choices he has made, that is, something already created like the ready-mades, was valid—personally speaking, at any rate. But remember, I definitely do not want to create a school of the ready-made; far from it.

As a matter of fact, doesn’t your concept of ready-mades preclude the idea of a school?

Yes, to some extent, but not entirely. But, ultimately, I know there is an inherent danger in the ready-made, and that is the ease with which it can be produced. So, if you were to create tens of thousands of ready-mades per year, that would become extremely monotonous and irritating. So I would recommend restraint in the production of ready-mades.

You yourself provided detailed pointers to the inner workings of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, in The Green Box, which is a sort of instruction manual, and there have also been numerous commentaries by critics.

Do you think that the work is accessible to the general public?

Yes and no, because everything is accessible, you know! The analyses that have been put forward are not necessarily of any value, since I have not offered any explanation myself. That is, I have done something, but I don’t analyse myself and above all I don’t judge what I have done. What I intended is of no interest; what is interesting is the effect the work has on the spectator, on the public who will decide if the work is important enough to survive. If not, if the public decides against it, if they are unmoved by it, then the Glass will be broken and people will stop talking about it, which could quite easily happen in 20 years or 10 years, or even sooner. So, it’s nothing to do with me; I have nothing to say. I created something and it’s up to the public—they decide whether the work survives or disappears.

You don’t trust the judgement of art critics at all?

No. I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do. That is, it lives from the time it’s conceived and created, for some 50 or 60 years, it varies, and then the work dies. And that is when it becomes art history. So, art history only begins after the death of the work, but as long as the work lives, or at least in the first 50 years of its life, it communicates with people living in the same period who have accepted it or rejected it and who have talked about it. These people die and the work dies with them. And that is where the history of art begins.

In that sense, I believe that the history of art is extremely random. I am convinced that the works on view in the museums and those we consider to be exceptional do not represent the finest achievements in the world. Many geniuses have foundered due to their lack of direction; ultimately they could not find a way of remaining geniuses throughout their life. A simple error of judgement was tantamount to artistic suicide. Their works have disappeared as a result, and there are many more interesting things that have been consigned to oblivion. In other words, this is my understanding of mediocrity. Basically, only the mediocre works created in the past have survived, while the most beautiful works, the finest works, have vanished. This is something I really believe, but I’m not forcing anyone else to believe it too.

Do you hold any specific beliefs about what might be called beauty?

No. Beauty doesn’t come into it, because I am not terribly interested in words like “beauty” and “truth”. These are concepts which are not exactly weak, but they lack substance; they are words and words are extremely dangerous. When you try to analyse a painting using words, you can only manage a very questionable approximation, worse than questionable, because, after all, painting and art in general, especially visual art, is a language in itself, a visual language instead of a spoken language. So it’s already like a Chinese poem that has been translated into English—it doesn’t mean anything any more.

Generally speaking, are you wary of words?

Very much so. I only recognise the poetic meaning of words, that is, the sound of words, their music, which has nothing to do with their meaning. The meaning of words changes every 50 years. The same word, used at the time of Louis XIV, no longer has the same meaning today.

Have you ever been aware of belonging to a movement, a school?

No. I belonged to them in the sense that when I was interested in something I tried to understand it as far as possible and, of course, even tried to make use of it. But the word “school” only leads to the word “group” and, ultimately, only individual works are produced, such as the works of a certain Leonardo da Vinci. It’s down to the individual to emerge from any school or so-called school. The idea of a school in itself is basically of no interest to me at all.

You were, however, closely linked with the Dadaists and then the Surrealists?

Yes, but I probably tried to create my own personal brand of Dadaism, just as each of them had their own brand of Dadaism based on the same ideas but expressed in an intensely personal way.

Do you think that your work would have been possible if these movements had not existed?

Absolutely not. I followed the ideas of various schools at various times, with my own reservations of course, but I was strongly influenced by each school, each time, like everyone else. No-one can escape the influences surrounding them.

Do you think that our century will be the age of Surrealism?

Yes, probably, but I don’t know for sure. Deep down, I believe that our century will not be very interesting compared to other centuries. I think we will be regarded as being rather limited. Ours isn’t a century like the 18th century which is impossible to love but which has its own integrity, an identity. I believe that we will be regarded as a slightly frivolous century, and that we will not be showered with the sort of praise that we have blithely been giving ourselves.

Playing games is an important element in everything you do, I believe. You have played chess all your life and I think that, in the same way, you have always approached your work as a player?

Absolutely. I am extremely playful in that sense and I believe it’s the only form of fun possible in a world which isn’t always much fun. I am inclined to be witty. I regard humour as one of life’s vital ingredients. Sorrow and pain, on the other hand, are not at all essential; there is no good reason for them and people seem to feel obliged to cry much more often than they laugh.

Doesn’t that imply that you don’t take things seriously?

No, not at all; it’s a witty seriousness, black humour, or whatever you want to call it. It’s such a necessary part of life that I don’t even question it.

I would like to talk to you now about what is being done today, which has often been inspired by you. What is your opinion, for example, of Pop Art?

I have a very high opinion of Pop Art; I regard it primarily as a phenomenon that stands apart from everything else this century. Turning its back on influences such as the distortion of art, systematic distortion, anti-photography and anti-perspective, the work of the Pop artists represents a restoration, a reintegration of ideas that are of great interest to me and that perhaps appear extraordinary. Yet their work also represents a very important process, unlike any of the preceding “-isms”, which were always a continuation: Impressionism started the ball rolling, was continued by Fauvism, which was a distortion of it, followed by Cubism, again a distortion but still “retinal”, because the importance of the visual experience was always the decisive factor. With Pop Art, this all changed.

What do you think about the Nouveau Realistes, the creators of the Surrealist Object, whose work takes the idea of the object as its point of departure?

I think it’s very interesting since half the century has been concerned with this question of objects. The word “object” amuses me because no-one talked about objects in the 18th century. This particular interpretation of the word “object” was invented as if to make it virtually some sort of fetish, serving as a basis for an entire movement; and that is what is interesting: found objects, this object, that object. It isn’t sculpture, and yet it is three-dimensional. It has a completely unique quality and is obviously one of the distinguishing features of our century.

But you don’t seem to be advocating it as a way forward?

On the contrary, it may not last but it represents perhaps one way to move away from traditional easel painting, for example. That has lasted for five centuries, which is long enough; especially oil painting, which certainly doesn’t last forever, and may possibly disappear completely. Once, there were frescoes, mosaics and other techniques that were dropped in favour of oil painting.

But, in my opinion, oil painting is far from perfect: it darkens, it needs to be restored, any painting on show has generally been restored countless times and is no longer the painting that the artist originally created.

You have lived on both sides of the Atlantic—you have lived in France and you have lived in the US for many years—and now you are going back there. Have you ever felt as though you don’t belong in either place?

Yes, but I was quite happy to feel like that, precisely because I was afraid of being influenced by my roots. I wanted to get away from that. When I was in the US, I had no roots at all because I was born in Europe. So it was easy, I was bathing in a calm sea where I could swim freely; you can’t swim freely when you get tangled up in roots.

So, European traditions were a sort of net in which you might have got caught?

Exactly. Traditions are inevitably deep-rooted; distance enables you to see more clearly.

You have taken up American citizenship. Should we regard you as an American artist?

Absolutely! Officially speaking anyway, just as I have a passport. But that doesn’t mean a thing in any other way. Biological functions don’t give a damn about nationality; your arm works without knowing if it’s French or American. Officially, since you have to have an official existence, you have a nationality of which you are either proud or fond.

And you are fond of this nationality?

Yes, I’m fond of it. America’s a nice place to live; I have more friends over there than I do here and basically, as far as I’m concerned, nations do not exist; they are a place where you have friends, that’s all.

Do you feel that people understand you better there?

Perhaps. But, most importantly, its just that I have made more friends there. I have not necessarily been understood, because they don’t always try to understand, but the feeling of warmth is either there or it isn’t and that’s the only difference that counts.

If, when you attended the major retrospective of your works that recently took place at the Tate Gallery, someone had asked you: Marcel Duchamp, what have you done with your life? What would you say was your greatest achievement?

Using painting, using art, to create a modus vivendi, a way of understanding life; that is, for the time being, of trying to make my life into a work of art itself, instead of spending my life creating works of art in the form of paintings or sculptures. I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak. These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was 20 or 15, but I realise, after many years, that this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do.

The Art Newspaper No. 27, April 1993

Interview by Jean Antoine, translation copyright: Sue Rose, 1993