Hear Marcel Duchamp Read “The Creative Act,” A Short Lecture on What Makes Great Art, Great

Hear­ing some­one dis­cuss the nature of art can eas­i­ly grow tire­some — indeed, it has, as a sub­ject, become some­thing of a short­hand for the tire­some. But Mar­cel Duchamp, the French painter, sculp­tor, con­cep­tu­al artist, and chess enthu­si­ast, could do it right. He did it by get­ting straight to the point, a suc­cinct­ness most famous­ly demon­strat­ed in Foun­tain, the sim­ple, every­day porce­lain uri­nal he signed and sub­mit­ted as a work of art for dis­play. The fact that the art world soon put Foun­tain (and its sim­i­lar, mass-pro­duced descen­dants) quite lit­er­al­ly on a pedestal makes an obser­va­tion about art more clean­ly than thou­sands of words on the role of the artist in mod­ern soci­ety ever could.

But where–whether you paint on a can­vas, chis­el into a block of stone, or make a pur­chase at the plumb­ing store down the street–does this impulse to make art come from? Do artists con­scious­ly cre­ate their work, act­ing out cre­ative deci­sions made with­in, or do they mere­ly give form to artis­tic impuls­es received from… else­where? And what do we talk about when we talk about the work of art the artist ulti­mate­ly pro­duces?

Duchamp, con­cise as ever, addressed the issue in 1957 when he gave the eight-minute lec­ture “The Cre­ative Act” which you can hear above (or on the full Sur­re­al­ism Reviewed album avail­able on Spo­ti­fy below). He iden­ti­fies one impor­tant part of the process as what he calls the “art coef­fi­cient.”

“In the cre­ative act,” Duchamp says, “the artist goes from inten­tion to real­iza­tion through a chain of total­ly sub­jec­tive reac­tions. His strug­gle toward the real­iza­tion is a series of efforts, pains, sat­is­fac­tion, refusals, deci­sions, which also can­not and must not be ful­ly self-con­scious, at least on the aes­thet­ic plane. The result of this strug­gle is a dif­fer­ence between the inten­tion and its real­iza­tion, a dif­fer­ence which the artist is not aware of.” This gap between what the artist “intend­ed to real­ize and did real­ize,” Duchamp calls the art coef­fi­cient, “an arith­meti­cal rela­tion between the unex­pressed but intend­ed and the unin­ten­tion­al­ly expressed.”

But none of it mat­ters, in Ducham­p’s think­ing, unless some­one else actu­al­ly thinks about the work of art. “No work of art — no bal­loon dog, no poem men­tion­ing cold-water flats, no four-minute-and-thir­ty-three-sec­ond per­for­mance by silent musi­cians — is a great work until pos­ter­i­ty says so,” writes the Paris Review’s Rebec­ca Bates in a post on the lec­ture (and a “sort-of Dadaist Mad Libs” recent­ly made out of it). She quotes Duchamp in a 1964 inter­view with Calvin Tomkins: “The artist pro­duces noth­ing until the onlook­er has said, ‘You have pro­duced some­thing mar­velous.’ The onlook­er has the last word in it.” Accord­ing to Ducham­p’s per­cep­tions, we, as pos­ter­i­ty, as the onlook­ers, have the last word on all work, even Ducham­p’s own. So go ahead and yam­mer a bit about the nature of art; doing so not only keeps the art alive, but made it art in the first place.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Anémic Ciné­ma: Mar­cel Duchamp’s Whirling Avant-Garde Film (1926)

When Bri­an Eno & Oth­er Artists Peed in Mar­cel Duchamp’s Famous Uri­nal

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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