By Elena Filipovic

ISBN 978-0-262-034821-1   MIT Press £29.95

 reviewed by Alan Dent

            In her introduction , Filipovic points to the Duchamp’s conventional beginnings as an artist. Had he continued as he began, she suggests, his name might well be more or less forgotten. It would be unworthy to suggest that such a principled artist  might have broken with his initial predictability in pursuit of fame, but might it be that the marginal activities of the title appealed to him partly because he knew the established art world is a milling machine which grinds out a majority of more or less indistinguishable artists and permits a very few to escape what E.P.Thompson called, in a different context, the condescension of posterity ?

            Nu descendant un escalier, his 1912 canvas rejected for exhibition by his fellow cubists is an accomplished  but derivative work. Notwithstanding Douglas Cooper’s division of Cubism into three phases, the latter enduring till 1921, by 1912, Picasso and Braque had completed the pioneering work. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is sometimes cited as the first proto-cubist painting. Whether or not that view can be upheld, it unquestionably broke with the tradition of western art. There is no absolute reason why, from that innovation, Picasso was bound to move on to what came to be called Cubism, but in retrospect it looks feasible that the breakthrough he made in 1907 drove him to follow to its conclusion what he’d begun. Nothing touching that could be said of Duchamp’s rejected painting. From the perspective of the upheaval of the previous five years, it looks like the work of a follower. Did Duchamp paint it in the belief he could join the Cubist fraternity and by so doing win an enduring place ? Did its rejection pull him up short and shock him into the recognition that he was secondary, a peripheral epigone ? In any case, it seems that it was shortly after what must have been this painful experience that Duchamp began to ask the truly radical questions about art which have made him, in Filipovic’s view, the most significant artist of the modern world, and if that judgement is questioned, certainly one of the most discussed.

            Perhaps his disappointment in being turned down by the movement whose great practitioners he was imitating, elicited that questioning response which always arises when people’s fond expectations are shattered. He began to think about the way the art world works; to doubt the procedures by which a work of art is granted its status as such. In 1913, he scribbled a note to himself: “Can works be made which are not ‘of art’?” Why would an artist want to remove the art from his works ? Was it because he saw the naked emperor ? Did he realize that the paraphernalia of the art world: galleries, agents, museums, curators, grants, judges, prizes, conferred validity ? That is, what is marginal and secondary dominates the primary ? Detaching the work from the world of art, from the people who lived off art but didn’t produce any, from the unoriginal minds which lived parasitically on genius, was a way of asserting the primacy of the artist as creator. Yet Duchamp couldn’t do this if he produced conventional canvases to be hung in galleries and museums. He had to subvert all expectations. He needed to find a way to protect originality by seeming to deny it.

            Thus, the marginal activities of the title are those which surround art but aren’t primary. They are merely apparently marginal in Duchamp’s work because through his boxes, the large glass and the secretly assembled Etant Données and similar projects he found a way to wrest the work from the art world. Doubtless they constitute art, in the sense of being designedly structured to engage with reality in and through his sensibility, intelligence and skill. Yet they escape from art as conceived of as an activity mediated by a system which requires the attention of curators, dealers, museum directors and so on. Filipovic makes clear that Duchamp by no means abandoned art. He was highly productive. Nor did his declaration that he would exhibit nothing lead to his absence from museums. This might look like hypocrisy or a pose but as she argues, it is his exploration of what he called the inframince, the minute difference between an original and a copy and his consequent questioning of what she likes to call the “auratic”, that is crucial. His works are in museums but their status is quite different from that of a conventional painting or sculpture by virtue of being self-conscious: they know they are art. This knowing is part of the way they have been put together. As she argues, what Duchamp is always aware of is “the question of the apparatuses for the legitimation, valuation and circulation of the artwork”. He is trying to make work which reveals that awareness.

            Inevitably, she has to touch on the relationship of Duchamp to Broodthaers who, of course, kicked off his successful trajectory after years of neglect and poverty as a poet through an act of insincerity. He turned the art establishment’s emptiness against itself; the activities of the structures which mediate art have nothing in common with the motivations and procedures of artists. By renouncing the latter and pandering to the former, he found the acceptance and the money which had been denied him.

            Benjamin H.D. Buchloh believed Broodthaers had succeeded where Duchamp failed and Eva Krauss asserted he was “calling attention to the supposedly neutral containers of culture and questioning this putative neutrality”. Filipovic, while granting Broodthaers his seminal place in the creation of Institutional Critique, is sceptical of those commentators who have failed to see that the subversive activities they praise Broodthaers for are just as present in the work  by Duchamp which they ignore or play down. She argues that even today, in discussions of Institutional Critique, Duchamp’s major work is treated as if it doesn’t exist.

            Clement Greenberg remarked that Duchamp “locked advanced-advanced art into what has amounted to hardly more than elaborations, variations on and recapitulations of his original ideas.”Filipovic wants to rescue her subject from such dismissal and to propose that Etant Données far from being a mere rehearsing of old tropes, was a late act of radicalism as potent, beneath its “crass and incongruous hyperrealism”, as anything he produced.

            Perhaps what this fascinating study brings to the fore is the forever curious social status of art; all art, not merely the visual. What artists are up to, painting, sculpting, composing, writing, filming, choreographing, is always tangential to any society’s principal activities and its view of itself. There have been slave societies, feudal societies, capitalist societies, totalitarian societies of various degrees of nastiness even hunter-gatherer societies where you might expect artistic activities to be relatively integrated; but there has never been an artistic society.

            Our culture is soaked in entertainment, which is debased art. People who would never listen to Bach are blithely unaware that without him there would be no Kylie Minogue, just as they ignore that without Aeschylus there would be no television mini-series. Art is kept at arm’s length by the majority who prefer its downgraded offshoot.  The pull of our culture is to money. The impulse of art is to truth, as definitively as  that of science. What Duchamp did was to wrest art away from those who package it. In doing so he foregrounded the perilous, odd, marginal, precarious, status of the artist. Thanks to him, it is now taken for granted in the visual arts that conventional means of presentation can be radically upended. When will we see the same in, say, literature and theatre ? If the art works doesn’t need the museum, why does the play need the theatre ? There’s the kind of question, at the core of Duchamp’s effort, which sends shivers down the spines of arts administrators, producers, managers, agents, publishers; the bevvy of those who, in vulgar and unkind parlance are sometimes referred to as the pimps of the artistic world.