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This article is taken from PN Review 203, Volume 38 Number 3, January - February 2012.

Catchwords 13 Iain Bamforth
End of Art

Few artists shaped the development of the visual arts in the twentieth century as much as Marcel Duchamp, who led a relatively conventional craft career as a painter in its early years - until he read that proto-Nietzschean book Max Stirner's The Ego and its Own (1845) and decided to leave 'retinal art' behind. He began work in 1913 on his famous The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), which took ten years to complete, but it was his first readymade, Fountain, which he submitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917, that made his name synonymous with scandal. The following year he painted his last canvas, Tu m', leaving it uncertain whether he was feeling sarcastic ('tu m'emmerdes') or tragic ('tu m'abandonnes') about his farewell to painting.

Fountain was a urinal, which Duchamp signed 'R. Mutt, 1917'. The show committee decided it was not art, and rejected it from the show - as Duchamp had no doubt anticipated. The group of New York Dadaists, including Duchamp, then resigned from the board of Independent Artists, thus amplifying the scandal. They were announcing the end of the nineteenth-century notion that the values of art could be held apart from the values of commerce, and starting a trend which has become wearingly familiar since: Jeff Koons engineers outrageous spectacles (porcelain sex sculptures of himself 'in heaven' with La Cicciolina, the giant aluminium lobster at Versailles) for which ...


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