To be an artist but not noticed as an artist

In the early years of his career, Marcel Duchamp set out to revolutionize the art world: he invented the ready-made and declared art to be dead. In doing so, he did not only shock the audience, he also alienated many of his fellow artists - including the French cubists and those he deemed to be ‘optical’ painters who only seek to please, like Matisse. By the 1960s, when Joan Bakewell interviewed him for the BBC, Duchamp had become a legend who inspired the young artists of the time, especially those involved in Pop Art.

In the interview, Duchamp talks about his attitude towards his own work as well as about distancing himself from groups and artistic movements alike to follow his vision, and boredom as a strategy to attract a public after shocking the audience became impossible.

  • Date of recording: Wed, 1968-06-05
  • Language(s) spoken:

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0:10 Early years of Duchamp’s career

JB: Marcel Duchamp, at the age of 15, you were painting pictures that look very much like the impressionists.

MD: They were.

JB: Within a few years of that, you challenge the whole of the artistic values that existed. What did you so dislike about them that made you launch that attack?

MD: Well, when you are 15 and paint like the impressionists, then you are experimenting with yourself. People you don’t know what you’re going to do, it you don’t know even you aren’t you going to do anything else.

It took me 10 years or more to change the style, at least to say where there’s nothing more in impressionism to find, and I tried to find something else. At first I went through Fauvism, I went through cubism, and in only nineteen twelve or thirteen I found more or less what I wanted to do, which would not be influenced by movements that i’ve been through.

1:18 Retinal painting

JB: you attacked what you called retinal painting. Can you define it?

MD: Yes, of course. Everything since Courbet has been retinal, that is the only - you look at a painting for what you see, what comes on your retina. You and add nothing intellectual about it, nothing else then what visual  is on the - I mean the visual side of the painting. Because it would be, it would have been, an estimate to say “well this is the psychoanalytical analysis of painting. It was absolutely an estimate then - you should look and register with your eye what you would see, that’s why I called them retinal.

Since Courbet, all the impressionists were retinal, all the Fauvists were retinal,  the cubists were retinal and, well, the surrealists  did change a bit of that, and Dada also, by saying “why should we be only interested in the visual side of the painting. There may be something else to put.”

2:34 Relationship to artistic groups

JB: And you even … while you were working in the cubist style, you nonetheless managed to produce a cubist painting, “Nude descending a staircase”, which shocked the cubists. Why did it shock them so much?

MD: Because they had already even very soon in their production, they decided to write a book, at least miss Angie and Gleize wrote a book, on cubism, with sort of a theoretical exposé on what cubism should be. So early, one year or so, after they had started painting.

So, when I came with my new “descending the staircase”, they didn’t see that it applied to their theory, it was not an illustration over their theory, and in fact it had - more than cubism had in these days - the idea of movement, which the futurists had at the same time. So they thought it was too much either - neither one. No futurism, no cubism and they condemned it.

JB: Throughout your life, you really kept very much separate from groups. Did you at that particular time enter into any debate with the cubists?

MD: Hardly any. No, I was always in the margin of it.

JB: You in fact have been associated with Dada and with surrealism, also. But nonetheless you’ve very seldom been a key figure in the group activities.

MD: I never was, at least I tried to keep away from it, to keep away from … From the group expression, the group activity of it.

JB: Why?

MD: I don’t know, it’s a form of individualism, nothing else.

JB: Did you not enjoy it?

MD: No, I never enjoyed being part of the group. I’ve always wanted to make something of a personal contribution to it, which can only be done if you think by yourself and not follow the general rules of the group, you see.

JB: When you arrived in New York, this cubist painting was that enough had arrived before you and was already a great scandal/success. So your reception was obviously colored before you arrived by your work. Did you enjoy that?

MD: Yes, it was very nice to come to a new country and be accepted and received in very nice terms, you see. That was what probably made me like America to begin with, but it’s always like that. With an individual issue, if you are flattered, you just fall in.

JB: And you enjoyed it ever since?

MD: Yes.

5:19 The “Great Glass”

JB: Now, perhaps the most famous work of yours is the work “The great glass” on which you spent eight years, and some years prior to that thinking about it. Now, this was really bringing an intellectual approach into a work of art ,which well known as seen for many years.

MD: Yes.

JB: There is in fact a published text which is published sometime after the glass was - not finished but - was abandoned. Do you  wish the great glass to be appreciated with the text to inform it?

MD: Yes, exactly. That’s where the difficulty comes in, because you cannot ask the public to look at something with the book in his hand and following sort of a diagram as explanation of what they can see on the glass. So it’s a little difficult too for the public to come to understand it, to accept it, but I don’t mind that, or I don’t care, because I did it with a great pleasure, it took me eight years to do part of it at least, and the writing and so forth. And it was for me as an expression really that I had not taken anywhere else, you see, from anybody or any movement, anything, and that’s why I like it very much. But don’t forget, it never had any success until lately, much very much lately [sic].

JB: Well, you worked on it for eight years and enjoyed it very much, why did you stop working on it? It’s not completed, is it?

MD: Well after 8 years of a very tedious film wait because you make first the sketch, you transfer the sketch on the big glass, it’s my own motion mechanical work, it was… Then, what you call the splash, you know the special … The brushing or something of a painter.

There was nothing of this satisfaction, see, the physical satisfaction of painting and looking at it and finishing it in 10 minutes in your sitting area. It was the opposite of it all long. So after eight years of it, you just say: enough, enough, it’s enough.

And sometimes there’s something in abandoning a work before the finishing, because the finishing - sometimes you know, the schubert (?), etc., etc.

JB: It is known as the meticulous as a piece of work of calculation, that is a combination of chance elements, carefully organized with mathematical calculation. Is it - in fact you did make it almost more tedious for yourself.

MD: Yes. In plotting several of the points on the glass? Yes, it was full of …

JB: Why did you make it so - make it so difficult?

MD: Well because I didn’t want to make it easy. In other words well why shouldn’t I?  It was my pleasure, call it masochism if you wish, but I mean it was like this. In fact

JB: The plotting of the nine holes, how long did that take to decide where they would be placed?

MD: Well, in fact, in the first place I’m at eight only, and then I had a remorse of some kind, because the whole thing was more or less based on the number three: not a clairvoyant legacy, what I mean number three. As three for me is neither unity, neither dualism, but three is everything, the end of the Newman numbering machine, and with three, three units you have enough for the whole thing of counting things. You see, millions don’t count, 3 is makes it, does it for them.

So eight was not, eight cannot be divided by three, nine can. So I made it nine, added this one of the called it the station master, the last one I think, added to the eight to make nine, so there you are.

JB: And how did you place them on the glass?

MD: Well according to the perspective, because the whole glass is based on the usual, ordinary perspective, nothing very difficult.

So in order to keep this thing is certain widths, the glass itself, see, when you paint on and have the perspective help you would use that but at a distance so that I could put my nine mule Malik’s in the in the certain area and they would be seen. Not outside of the glass. Because she had to keeps saying the glass after, so that helped me to find a place for each one.

JB: You said that the ideas in the glass a more important than its visual realization.

MD: Yes.

JB: Are these ideas a personal pleasure to you only are the ideas you wish to communicate?

MD: Well, they are communicated by the fact that the other and especially with the notes in the green box, they are all there, explained. There was no the idea is in like the chance I do you those things with the holes, the bullet holes, to with it who loves to see bulletholes done by the new Canon. But imagine it with blue paint on top at the end. Imagine never like a baby playing, you see.

JB: And you shot the cannon?

MD: Nine and nine shots to see and how they marked on the glass which should be in. And then after that, I had the points boorda, you see, as a whole to keep it more no visible.

JB: You abandoned the glass, you never embarked on anything exactly like that again.

MD: No, never, this is too long an affair, too difficult too, because after all you’re so you cannot remove the vein makes your search for a new CEO you on one thing at a wraparound I the air on twenty years have age thirty is a vein. After that you cannot invent anymore. They seldom do, you do.

Is not true painters that been on canvas and think they can repeat, repeat, repeat, and repetition is good because you know why? Because the collectors can collect if they even if it’s a repetition of Renoir, it’s a Renoir. And it has a gate value so it goes into the market indexes and it pays.

JB: The glass was broken in transit to an exhibition in 1926, how did you feel when it was broken?

MD: Nothing, not much at least.

I was soon were no I was not, because I’m fatalist maybe enough to take anything as it comes along and fortunately, a little later, when I look at the breaks, I loved the breaks. It happened to be that two panes, two glass panes on top of one another with paints on it upholding a bit when they break on VEF aberration referring transported flat, to see on it on a truck branded, the breaks take a similar direction in the two panes so when you put them on top over one another, they seem to continue the same the same breaks as though I had it done in the name purpose.

JB: Now, chance in our something that dada set out to really exploit, to use. Yet in fact this is it and an example of chance that you welcome in the glass itself.

MD: Oh yes, letters with that was a yes exactly without even thinking about it came of itself.

JB: What do you think not the element of chance in work of art is? Having try to control and devised chance to serve your ends, do you think it’s something subconsciously the artist projects into the work?

MD: Yes, because chance said may be unknown to us - in other words we don’t know the results of chance because we haven’t got enough range for that. See i mean the divine brain for example could surface and say there’s no chance, I know what’s going to happen is you we don’t know because we are ignorant enough not to be able to detect what chance is going to bring. So it’s a kind of admiration for a chance so I the consideration of chance as a almost a religious element. So it’s a very interesting to have introduced, to put it at the service of art productions

14:20 Ready-mades and the importance of indifference

JB: Didn’t chance mostly played some part in your other most renowned achievement which is the ready-made which you began about the same time one work was taking eight years…

MD: Yeah.

JB: And at the same time, you designated certain objects as ready-mades. Now, what sort of effort went into the choice of the object you designated?

MD: That’s another story, completely different and in that case maybe I was too fine to descend to find a new member not even decide is vendor to decide a year the choose an object that would not even attract me either by its beauty a by its ugliness.

To find a point of indifference in made looking at it, see? Because I might - you might say that found in the number of those but at the same time it’s not so much because it’s hardly difficult.

After a while, when you look at something, it becomes very interesting, you can even like it. And needed I liked it I would be discarded. So the choice came on if I feel very supported disparage very different from one another.

Enough so that two days looking at the thirteen ready-mades I made in coercive 30 years maybe, I  and says however the fact that it is they don’t look like one another. See what I mean? In other words, there’s a different completely strangeness from one to the other which shows there’s no style there and no taste and no liking and no disliking either.

JB: But in fact you have to do you have to live with these objects before you decided you were indifferent to them, is that right?

MD: No, no, because I do really didn’t have them with me along this year they were somewhere then in fact for 20-30 years I never saw them very much. It’s only in the last twenty years that people have been interested in them an ask me questions and things about them.

JB: And the people now say that the objects you chose have an aesthetic value and in this if the bottle drive chairs you felt indifferent to it used to feeling that UPS horse and Sydney less

MD: Because ash to after twenty years or forty years of looking at it, you begin to like it. Yeah I mean yes you might and might have disliked it, but I happen to like it. Okay. That’s the fate of everything, see? Any painting or anything at all you look at for twenty years very often every day you have a liking or disliking. If you dislike it you discard it and throw it away.

But if you like it then that liking augments and goes on with the time with time there so that’s this I feel and their liking it,

JB: You can come to know and love all the ready-mades?

MD: Yes.

17:27 Devaluation of the concept of art

JB: What you are also attempting to do, as i understand it, was to devalue the art as an object, simply by saying: “If I say it’s a work of art, that makes it a work of art.”

MD: Yeah, but you my word work about to see is not so important for me, I don’t care about the word ‘art’ because it’s been so … You know, discredited, that’s the word.

JB: But you you effect contributed to the discrediting didn’t you gradually?

MD: Deliberately, yes, so in a way to get rid of it. You because the way many people today have done away with religion. It is sort of unnecessary over a duration of art today which has been and is unnecessary and I think I know, this is a difficult position because i’ve been in it all the time and still want to get rid of it, you see?

It’s not … And I cannot explain all I everything I do because I do things the waypeople to do things and don’t know why they do it.

JB: You see, the anti-art movement of dada in fact was proven to be in the interest of art because it regenerated and revived and freshened in people’s attitude to it.

MD: Yes.

JB: Do you in fact anticipate that your own contribution when it the final reckoning comes will have in fact contributed to something called art?

MD: I didn’t inspired myself if you wish to say that. I’m sorry you know there was I would have liked but at the same time if I did or I had done it I would completely have been not even noticed, or people who hadn’t said anything you will read moreday by be a hundred people like that would who have given up art and condemned it and proved to themselves it wasn’t is necessary, no more religions over and who cares for them?

Nobody could nominees

19:26 Rarity and the value of the artwork

JB: But nonetheless, if you care about art because it was money, and is in fact in designating certain object and signing them with your own name, you have created a highly commercial object in fact 9064
MD: yeah

JB: A new product with actually manufactured yet so that you could sign it, so this would produce in addition a ready-made with the value of something like two thousand-pounds?

MD: Were alright but this is not high enough. I’ll tell you why: because any when you compare this to a painting by anybody you might name you last a difference of price between the painting at least of an well-known painter.

So even so and in the certain lower bracket that means and excuse for that reason by being in the low bracket instead of a high bracket, so 20020 million pounds if you wish to say when you come to Cézanne, say, or even to Picasso. See, that doesn’t compare with the painting.

JB: No, it doesn’t, but if if you are following through your determination to devalue art, what would happen if in fact these manufacturers readymade were mass-produced and we could all buy one?

MD: No, no, no, you have to sign them, yes sign. Yes signed and numbered. Yes in addition to the eighties of any sculpture. So it’s still in there realm of art in the form of  technique you just make 8 and you sign them and number them. So that’s the end of it, you should never have one more, even if you could find them in there in the shops.

JB: So in fact it follows that to side if you would have gotten the actual production in signing in selling: you stayed very much within the accepted standards?

MD: Yeah fact that I had to, because otherwise where would I be? I’d be in an insane asylum.

JB: Why did you limit the number of ready-mades?

MD: Because you have to limit it an issue to make it a little more than … Not too easy to find, I mean, eight you have to buy when at the age you wanted and there are only 8 people in the world who have this.

JB: And now I’m into the time when you were the 13, you you chose my wanting to end.

MD: Yes.

JB: Why do you not over the years go on choosing more norms?

MD: Because yet in the same as the end and it has a … I didn’t finish my glass, you see, there’s an end to everything in a long life like mine.

22:08 Pop art and Op art

JB: Your choice of ready-mades has appealed enormously to the pop art is the the Martin de hmm. They in fact regard them as very aesthetic pieces of sculpture.

MD: Unfortunately. But also they, they use it in a way,  not the ready-mades themselves, they use ready-made objects to in do it in to use them in their paintings or in their sculptures. You know and it’s it’s a form of communion, friendship if you want na got. I mean homage really doesn’t mean the same.

JB: The effects of the Dada movement, then the Surrealist movement seems to have been absorbed by the world of art and today, the figurative elements go very much to the fore in modern painting as though they had absorbed all the discoveries made by this realists and were returning … Are they returning to work? In fact you cool retinal?

MD: No, no they are not.I mean people like the Pops - you mean the pops and the ops?

JB: Yes.

MD: The Ops naturally that the ups do retention, pure  retinal painting, original art andi deplore it, because I am against retinal, as you know, we began that way, and we have to get into it with the retinal with the ops, the optical old ones. But I’m afraid there is so much repetition in the sensation and visual sensation the retinal activity that it made me mad now and develop very long though get to an end even if they are many many different cases.

I like the pops much more than the ops.

24:11 Shock and boredom

JB: In terms of the activities of the dada group, other than painting, the sort of happenings they devised are in fact happening again. They are called happenings today. Do you ever see or engage in these or feel any fellow feeling towards them?

MD: Oh, happenings enough for happenings and no Capello in on these and it’s always amusing LA the point that they’ve brought out so well and interesting one is they play for you a play of boredom. It has been … I’m not discovering that, but it’s a very interesting to have used boredom as an aim to to attract a public.

In other words, the public comes to a happening not to be amused but to be bored. And that’s quite an invention a contribution to new ideas is in it.

JB: When you set out to and challenge all the established values your means will shock: you shock the Cubists, you shocked the public, you shock the buying public. Do you think the public can be shocked any more by anything?

MD: No, finished. Finished, that’s over, you cannot shock the public, at least with the same means. To shock the public we have to, I don’t know what… Even that thing, that happening, boring people, boring the public doesn’t prevent them from coming. Public becomes and sees anything a couple does though Goldenberg (?) And all these people and i’ve been there, and I go there every time. You accept boredom as a name, you see, an intention.

JB: Do you regret the last shock or do you think it’s a little artist full the public simply always expect additional …

MD: No, but the shock would be a different way, a different character. You see, by shocking at that time, shocking alongside the old channels so to speak, but the publisher shock will come have something entirely different we as I said.

Non-art, not art you see, in the sea with that not know either Dalton and yet something would be put to use because after all I think whom the word art from ancient Arabic means “to do”, means not even “to make” but “to do”, so… And with me to do some DUI not issue no that would but you are not

So you don’t sell your work but you do. The action lol art is means action in activity onek then everyone any gay everyone but we’ve got our society has decided to make a group that be called artists, a group of doctors, and so forth, which is purely artificial.

JB: You said in the twenties - you proclaimed: “art is dead”.

MD: It is, it is. it yes we’re left with the amendment that you see and meant to that aided by the fact that incentive being singular sized in eighty in a little box like that so many others in so many square feet. I … By the fact it would be universal it was to be a human, a human factor in anyone’s life. To be an artist, but not noticed as an artist. You see what I mean?

JB: Marcel Duchamp, thank you very much.

MD: Well, I’m delighted.