Sebastian Smee is the Boston Globe‘s art critic. Here he mounts a defense of Marcel Duchamp that takes into account the frustration and exhaustion that come from Duchamp’s legacy of conceptual art:
How you feel about the art of today hinges almost entirely on how you feel about this elusive figure. People regularly write to me bemoaning Duchamp’s impact on contemporary art. They consider him a charlatan, a huckster, a creep. These same people survey the art scene today and tend to throw up their hands in dismay. It’s all pickled sharks, empty rooms, and grainy, looping videos to them. Moreover, it’s all Duchamp’s fault.
I have some sympathy for this position. I have been a newspaper art critic for 15 years, and have seen every self-indulgent, empty-headed, look-at-me gesture imaginable. (Try having to sit through footage provided by a probe inserted into the anus of the artist Mona Hatoum.) But when people write off contemporary art wholesale and lay all the blame at the feet of Duchamp, I want to say, Hang on, you’ve got the wrong man.Painting, I don’t mind admitting, is my first love. My heroes are Manet, Degas, Matisse, de Kooning, Twombly, Guston. I am bewitched, like most people, by the feats of Titian, Velázquez, Hals, and Rembrandt. But I also know that my life as a critic, and a lover of art, would be so much more monotonous without the influence of Duchamp, and without the potential delivered upon by the best of his heirs.
Who are those heirs? They are truly innumerable. But it’s safe to say, just for starters, that the careers of giants like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Olafur Eliasson, and Tara Donovan are all pretty much unimaginable without the precedent of Duchamp. […]
One of the greatest things about art – even in relation to other art forms, like theater, film, music, or dance – is its radical freedom. It’s true, this freedom can trigger alienation, confusion, bemusement. And it can certainly be put to vacuous ends. But on the whole, I feel, this freedom is something to cherish.Freedom can be disappointing. It can even be pathetic. In fact, one characteristic of Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel’’ that is rarely remarked upon is its pathos.
Bicycle wheels are made to move, but this one has been turned upside down and attached by the bicycle’s fork to a four-legged stool. It’s stuck. I take Duchamp to be saying, in part: “I am free to do anything I please and call it art’’ – and then, with a clown’s frown of disappointment: “But look what I end up with!’’
Taking Duchamp’s Legacy for a Spin (Boston Globe)