SKILL AND DESKILLING: HOW DUCHAMP INFORMS CONTEMPORARY ART

Marcel Duchamp’s work shadows every debate on skill in the current art world.  His much-celebrated readymades (so called because they were “already manufactured”) forms a major part of his legacy. Yet Duchamp, at the same moment he was undermining artistic skill and technical proficiency with his readymade objects, was working on The Large Glass, a multi-year project that demanded attention to handwork.  This talk explores Duchamp’s engagement with skill during the 1910s and 20s. Further, I will track his influence on post-war avant-garde practice and examine his resonance today.  In particular, I will explore how Duchamp presents an intriguing, yet problematic framework for current craft and craft-based practices.     

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In the 1910s, Duchamp moved decisively away from “retinal art” or paintings that did not engage the mind.  He began in 1912 creating diagrammatic machines (such as his Chocolate Grinder) using strategies from mechanical drawing.  Shortly after this moment, he began pulling everyday, mass-produced objects—a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a coat rack—away from their normal function and declaring them “art.”  These readymades liberated him entirely from conventional painting and set the stage for his long-term creation of The Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass.  Constructed from unconventional materials--glass, lead foil, fuse wire, dust--this work is a combination of carefully contrived perspectival studies and chance processes.   In this work we see Duchamp rethinking, challenging, and reinterpreting artistic conventions of technique, authorship, and narrative.    

 

Duchamp’s undermining of skill and technical proficiency was very attractive to the avant-garde in the 1950s (Johns and Rauschenberg) and grew exponentially with Postmodernism. We witness his influence in a multitude of practices that arose in the 1960s and 70s:  the undermining of authorship in minimalist sculpture, the disregard of skill in conceptual art; the overthrow of technique in Fluxus production; the contempt of traditional material in Arte Povera.  Duchamp—both as a persona and his production—remains a touchstone in contemporary discourse.