THIS YEAR, the 1913 Armory Show turns one hundred. That watershed exhibition—together with the emergence of the readymade—has long been seen as a pivotal moment in modernism’s relentlessly revolutionary progress, blowing the category of modern art wide open and ushering in the avant-garde’s signal conditions of shock and rupture. (This centennial will be celebrated by a number of exhibitions and events, including “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution,” opening at the New-York Historical Society on October 11.)

But what if we’ve missed something? What if our narrative of the avant-garde and the route it traces is too narrow, too easy? And what if, as a result, we have misunderstood our contemporary institutions of art? In a series of essays for Artforum launching this month, historian and philosopher THIERRY DE DUVE returns to the subject of his landmark “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,” first published in these pages in 1986. If that text changed the way we understood the production of art, de Duve now overturns our understanding of the invention of the avant-garde—and presents Marcel Duchamp anew, as the messenger rather than the creator of a far earlier sea change in culture. Spanning three centuries, de Duve’s provocative argument leads to a riveting reinterpretation of the very concept and status of art.

Piero Manzoni signing a model during the making of a short film for Filmgiornale SEDI, Milan, 1961. © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan.

Theorization comes easily; it requires nothing
more than imagination, fantasy. Myths are
theories that have stiffened. To debunk a myth
is to flex a countertheory.

Richard Shiff

THEORIES IN ART HISTORY, as scholar Richard Shiff suggests in this beautiful passage I have chosen as an epigraph, are easily fabricated. And when fabricated theories age, they stiffen but are not abandoned; they become myths. Yet countertheories capable of debunking a myth can be flexed—made pliant and nimble, never contrived or fantasized. Economy of means and amenity toward as many facts as possible are their major qualities. Imagination is not in the art historian’s toolbox.

These days, a seemingly endless stream of books, articles, and questionnaires lament the lack of theory to help us navigate the globalized land- and web-scapes of current art. As Hal Foster has recently written, introducing one such questionnaire on “the contemporary” in the journal October, “such paradigms as ‘the neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism,’ which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead.”2 Although I am not sure that models and paradigms are desirable when it comes to art in the making, I share Foster’s diagnosis that “the neo-avant-garde” and “postmodernism” have run into the sand. Why have they? If there are answers at all to this question, they must be historical; pursuing them is not a task for the critic of the contemporary, but rather for the historian. What are the chances that “the neo-avant-garde” and “postmodernism” were not adequately theorized because the concepts they supposedly replaced or criticized were misconstrued in the first place? Does the malaise around the neo and the post not call for a reassessment—a reappraisal, perhaps, a reinterpretation, certainly—of the avant-garde and modernism?

I want to take a neglected route to such a reassessment: the aesthetic route. It is so rarely followed by art historians that I’m sure my mention of it conjures up specters that have nothing to do with it—paths of influence, evolutions of style, histories of taste, hagiographic biographies of artists, formalist genealogies, epiphanies of visuality, the construction of a canon—all things very foreign to the aesthetic route as I conceive of it, which is more like a brand of social art history pursuing an investigation dictated by aesthetic questions. First of all, as a road—a way for getting from A to B, a method for moving in culture and gathering information along the way—the aesthetic route is a line of inquiry, but it is not necessarily narrative or chronological; it can also follow a logical reasoning, a philosophical reflection, an introspection, or an aesthetic judgment, all mental acts that are extratemporal or reflexive. The vast majority of the sources consulted along the way are not aesthetic, but why they are consulted is often motivated by the desire to find or construct aesthetic facts. Second, the aesthetic route starts from the following premise: Works of art proceed from decisions of all kinds—technical, ideological, economic, to name just a few—some of which are aesthetic or have a determining aesthetic component. Those are crucial to the status of the works as art, as works of art. Whatever the medium of a work of art, aesthetic decision is the stuff it is made of. Or, to put things slightly differently:Whatever other decisions enter the work, aesthetic decision has the last word. There is no exception to this law; I am not saying that aesthetic decision should have the last word, I am stating a fact. For example, when the “director’s cut” of a film is released years after the producers’ version, we are not witnessing the vindication of aesthetic decisions over commercial ones. The latter are also aesthetic decisions; though motivated by profit, they are nevertheless aesthetic. Moreover, the commercial reasons adduced also boil down to aesthetic ones, since they are dictated by speculations about the aesthetic preferences of the film’s targeted audience. Consequently, a great deal of the aesthetic decisions entering a work of art are not made by the artist. Most are actually default decisions handed down to the artist by previous artists, by the artist’s tradition, teachers, patrons, commissioners, or employers. Some are anachronic, inasmuch as they find their way back into the work seemingly against the flow of time. Such are the judgments of the critics, the work’s reception by a narrow or broad audience, its integration into the discourse of art history, its assimilation by the culture or by society at large.

Finally, as a retracing of historical steps, the aesthetic route does not set norms; it deals with aesthetic decisions that have already been made, whether they are embedded in the works themselves or found in artists’ manuals, manifestos, art criticism, and so on. The aesthetic route only becomes prescriptive—but still not normative—with the aesthetic decisions of the one who walks it, at which point it may or may not ask for a revision of the historical record. For art historians to put their own judgments on the block is an important way of recognizing that their intervention in the construction of a canon—where prescription does become norm—is an open-ended process, always vulnerable to the verdicts of future generations. Actually, once an aesthetic route has been traveled and is retrospectively examined, it produces a self-conscious art-historical “narrative” best described as aesthetic jurisprudence—a concept much less authoritarian than that of a canon. Works of art regularly summon and are summoned by other works of art to appear in a permanently active court of appeals—a court that is prone to protect the verdicts of the past against aesthetic revisionism dictated by current fashions and also ready to revise them when new historical questions are raised, new objects of study surface, new ways of art writing prove necessary. Now, to quote Fareed Zakaria, my favorite political commentator: Let’s get started.

THE FRENCH TO BE PARDONED in this essay’s title is the exclamation “N’importe quoi!” uttered in a tone of exasperation or unmitigated contempt during a conversation about contemporary art, with eyes rolled to the ceiling, a pouting mouth spewing lament, a deep sigh, a shrug of the shoulders, or a dismissive gesture of the hand. Although its dictionary translation would give you a puritan “whatever,” “Anything goes! @#?*!#!” is more like it—pronounced, of course, with expletives, in the same exasperated tone. The semantic range of the expression is staggeringly wide but always derogatory, from a menial “My two-year old can do that” to a scatological “It’s crap,” via the usual demagogical protest against elitism and hermeticism. Applied indiscriminately, “N’importe quoi!” accuses contemporary art of being empty, ridiculous, banal, random, arrogant, badly made, meaningless, obscene, absurd, stupid, obscure, grotesque, ugly, purely commercial, merely technical, creepy, incomprehensible, snobbish, shocking for the sake of shocking, worthless, disgusting, childish, or worse, infantile—or all of the above. (It would be fun to illustrate each one of these epithets with a work by Paul McCarthy—which really says something about the quality and relevance of that artist’s oeuvre.)

It is sometimes useful to adopt the point of view of the adversary when looking for some truth too well hidden or too blatantly displayed. The grain of truth in “N’importe quoi!” lies in what the expression literally says rather than in the aggressive feelings it conveys or the severe judgment it expresses. People who use it as a blanket term to eruct against what they perceive as the decadence or the insignificance of contemporary art unwittingly recognize that n’importe quoi can, today, be art. Anything goes, indeed. Please note that I’m not saying: Anything can be contemporary art. I’m saying: Anything can be art, today. I want to avoid assuming a category of contemporary art recursively defined by its openness to the n’importe quoi, however positively viewed or subtly analyzed.3 Such a category implies that some of today’s artists are not contemporary because, for them, it is not true that anything goes. Let us dodge that misunderstanding straightaway. In my view, “Anything goes” is not at all a paradoxical rule of artmaking that removes all rules and that artists are at liberty to endorse or not. Rather, it is a condition that all contemporary artists share because it is not one of their making.

Stripped of its anger or its anxiety, “Anything goes” states a fact of our cultural moment: It is nowadays technically feasibleand institutionally legitimate to make art from anything whatsoever. Such is the starting point of this series of articles—its starting point but not its thesis. I have no intention of demonstrating that anything can be art, or, for that matter, of proving the opposite. Both attempts are futile because they are out of reach. I would have to review, one by one, all the materials, forms, mediums, styles, contents, and tools available to artists, and never come across even one material, form, medium, style, content, or tool that could not possibly yield art. Only if my quest were demonstrably infinite would I have made my point. But my point is not demonstrable, precisely for the reason that the quest is infinite. There is thus no empirical proof that everything can be art, and no empirical proof, either, of the contrary. I am happy for the time being to call my starting point a postulate, and to beg the reader to adopt it as if it were an established fact. What matters is whether it is fruitful.

THE “ANYTHING GOES” CONDITION seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Neither a court painter under the Ming dynasty nor a Baroque sculptor working for the church was allowed such unbridled freedom. The relevant question is thus: Since when? Since when is it the case that anything can be art? Let the answer take the shape of one of the Boîtes noires (Black Boxes) made in 1962 by the French artist Ben Vautier, who signs his works “Ben.”

Pardon my French, or rather Ben’s, as scrawled on the side of his object: DEPUIS DUCHAMP ON PEUT METTRE N’IMPORTE QUOI DANS CETTE BOÎTE (since Duchamp one is allowed to put anything into this box). With tongue-in-cheek (and quite Duchampian) humor, Ben acknowledges his illustrious predecessor, Marcel Duchamp, for having made it possible to put anything into the box—the drawer, the folder, the concept, the category—of art. That Ben’s Black Box should be interpreted as the “box of art” is implied by its own claim to the name of art and by the status of its author as an artist who openly walks in the footsteps of his chosen master: I, Ben Vautier, feel authorized by Duchamp to make art out of whatever I fancy, and you may feel the same. I’m bringing you the good news—or is it a warning?—that anything whatsoever fits in the art box. Since when? Since Duchamp.

From our contemporary vantage point, more than a decade into the twenty-first century, Ben’s answer sounds so self-evident that we must pause in order to unpack the reasoning behind it. First, to what exact time frame does “since Duchamp” refer? Duchamp was born in 1887 and died in 1968. To put things pompously, in the Latin dear to art historians, 1887 provides the terminus post quem and 1962 the terminus ante quem of our question. If we take Ben’s word for it, this means the concept of art was not open to the arrival of the n’importe quoi before Duchamp’s birth—giving him a couple of decades to grow up and mature, this pushes the date to the 1910s—and has already registered the n’importe quoi by 1962, the date of Ben’s Black Box. Duchamp was still alive when Ben bounced back to him the news he himself had been the first to broadcast. As we shall see, the proper dating of “since Duchamp” involves both the 1910s and the 1960s, but let’s not rush, for Ben’s box prompts another question, which we should address first. What particular achievement of Duchamp’s does Ben have in mind?

The latter’s own practice of signing found objects makes it clear that “since Duchamp” does not mean since Duchamp’s Large Glass, 1915–23, or Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Ben’s box is willing to accommodate anything and everything because it already contains all of Duchamp’s readymades, from the Bicycle Wheel of 1913 to the urinal called Fountain of 1917, once the most infamous and now, if we are to believe a 2004 poll of five hundred art experts, “the most influential modern art work of all time.”4 Pace the experts, influential is the wrong word. Ben was not influenced by Duchamp. He felt authorized by Duchamp, which is quite different. Whether it is by Duchamp that he felt authorized is not even so clear: Since Duchamp doesn’t mean thanks to Duchamp. Ben must have sensed the pressure as much as the liberation, and he felt compelled to burn his bridges.Duchamp’s authorization closed down on him in such a way that he had no choice but to act on his subjective impression that, since Duchamp’s readymades, since Fountain, all artists have received permission to make art from whatever they want. He might even have sensed that “all artists” is too restrictive: The impersonal on peut . . . suggests “anyone” instead. Let Fountain thus summarize, symbolize, or epitomize the reasoning behind Ben’s Black Box: When a urinal is art, then anything and everything can be art, and chances are that anybody can be an artist. Fountain’s presence in the art box legitimates the subsequent landing of any imaginable thing in it and the potential promotion of the man on the street to the rank of artist. Ben knows what he owes Duchamp: precisely the news his Black Box broadcasts. In spite of his egomania (true or feigned, often boasted), there is humility in his Black Box, as if he were saying: Duchamp is the real messenger and I, Ben, am only acknowledging receipt of his telegram and passing it on.

We might say that in 1917—the date Fountain proudly bears, along with the mysterious signature “R. Mutt”—Duchamp put a message in the mail, and that it had surely arrived by 1962. Ben’s Black Box is an acknowledgment of receipt. It registers the fact that Fountain has landed in the art box. Dates are symbolic as much as factual: They form constellations, as Walter Benjamin would say, clusters of events and meanings, anticipations, belated effects. DEPUIS DUCHAMP is a conundrum of reception history framed by the 1910s, the decade of the first readymades, and the ’60s, the decade when the art world as a whole seems to reconfigure itself as post-Duchamp.

The year 1962 is as good a symbolic date to start from as any. It was a prolific year for Ben. Daniel Spoerri and Arman had briefed him on Duchamp a few years before; he had recently met George Maciunas in London and joined Fluxus; he was assimilating John Cage while still revering Isidore Isou; he was jealous of Yves Klein’s megalomania and admiring George Brecht for making art from the simplest acts of everyday life; he was sending letters to the winds not knowing yet they were mail art; he was reveling in Duchamp’s authorization with a sense of exhilarated omnipotence. In fact, he was so inebriated by his new liberty that he frantically began to appropriate and sign everything, including God.5 At the time, Ben was far from being the only artist to feel excited and empowered by Duchamp’s readymades. Arman, also living in Nice, France, was churning out “Accumulations” by the dozen, while in New York, Claes Oldenburg was putting an extraordinary bric-a-brac of mock commodities, painted with streaks of strident colors, up for sale in The Store. And then, of course, there was Andy Warhol. The poet, artist, and AIDS activist John Giorno recalls an evening in May 1963, when he and Warhol went to an opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art and met Duchamp for the first time. Here is Giorno’s account of the event:

There was a crowd, a big semicircle of people at the museum entrance waiting to get in. Andy and I stood on the hot tar street at the edge of the crowd, and waited.

Someone famous arrived in a taxi. An invisible energy rippled through the mass of people, a visceral, tangible wave of excitement. “It’s like royalty arriving,” I said, “or a movie star. Who?”

“Duchamp!” said Andy.

“Have you met?”

“No!” Andy became very excited, overwrought. His forehead sweated and he started shaking, his hands and body trembled. He pushed his way through the crowd, and pushed faster, carving a path, bumped and knocked into people, who gave him dirty looks, and was rushing somewhere. I held on with two fingers to the sleeve of Andy’s loose sport shirt, and got swept along with him. I understood the expression, holding on to somebody’s coat tails. I didn’t know what was happening, but I was not going to get left behind. It was like water skiing, or surfing on wind, we were going so fast I could feel the wind. It was the only time I ever saw Andy do anything physically aggressive. We forged a semicircle through the crowd, and landed at the curb directly in front of the museum entrance.

Duchamp, from the taxi, walked straight into Andy, and there stood David Whitney, waiting to receive Duchamp for the museum, who by chance, introduced them. Perfectly timed!

“Ohhh!” said Andy. Duchamp and Andy shook hands, and looked in each other’s eyes. Duchamp looked into Andy’s eyes, and nodded his head imperceptibly. In the instant, he acknowledged Andy, knew his work, and approved. They had a great, non-verbal moment of communication, beyond thought.6

This is the very stuff of mythmaking. It is not Warhol acknowledging Duchamp’s telegram—he had done so brilliantly a year earlier with his exhibition of row after row of Campbell’s Soup Cans on shelves at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It is Warhol engineering Duchamp’s acknowledgment in return. The story may be apocryphal. Other sources have Warhol meeting Duchamp at the opening of the latter’s retrospective, “By or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy” at the Pasadena Art (now Norton Simon) Museum in Pasadena, California, five months later, in October 1963. Warhol would have scheduled his next show at Ferus within days to make sure the encounter would happen. Either way, Warhol’s eagerness to meet the great man is on the record, and the year of their meeting is definitely 1963.

Curated by the ever-alert Walter Hopps, “By or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy” was the artist’s very first museum survey. Already a cult figure among au courant artists, he was not totally unknown, but his works had seldom been seen outside of the rare exhibition (either a large group museum survey or small gallery exhibitions up for a short time, including the important 1953 Sidney Janis show on Dada in New York), with the exception of those in the Arensberg Collection, on view in Chicago in 1949 and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1954. Although Life magazine had published a remarkably well-informed article by Winthrop Sargeant as early as 1952, Duchamp’s reputation with the average citizen was rarely more specific than the image of an eccentric artist who preferred playing chess to making works.7 The 1963 Pasadena retrospective suddenly changed that. Not that chess and eccentricity were replaced overnight by more serious information: The most spectacular photo of Duchamp at the time shows the artist playing chess in the exhibition with a naked woman.8 But it was the first comprehensive display of his oeuvre a large audience was likely to attend. Thus far only art-world insiders had a sense of his importance; now his star was rising fast. As the decade moved on, his work was increasingly perceived as more relevant to current practices than Picasso’s. Reviewing Duchamp’s retrospective at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in 1965 for the New York Times, John Canaday estimated that Duchamp was “about even with Picasso . . . as the living godhead of modern art,” only to add:

Picasso, if you are a Duchamp man, is left behind in a cloud of intellectual dust as the last of the humanists, while Duchamp is the man who knows that nothing—art least of all—is important, but that all of it can be fun.9

Artists were registering the fun and lack of importance of art in a variety of ways that belied Canaday’s comment more often than not. Duchamp’s American reception by Oldenburg and Warhol’s generation of Pop artists had been prepared in the ’50s by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, not to mention John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, and others, for whom chance, lightness, and freedom in art were more than just fun. The timing and the seriousness were similar in Europe for Richard Hamilton and the British inventors of Pop art, as well as for Klein and Manzoni, soon followed by Ben, Arman, the Nouveaux Réalistes and the Fluxus artists. By the mid-’60s, virtually all significant young artists on both sides of the Atlantic, South America included, had their eyes on Duchamp or were under his spell. Probably the most literal reception of Duchamp’s message was a mock public toilet installed by Roberto Platé at the “Experiencias 1968” show at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires.10 And a year later, once Conceptual art had begun to receive official recognition and Duchamp had passed away, extravagant claims began to be made on his behalf. In his seminal 1969 text Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth went so far as to profess: “The function of art, as a question, was first raised by Marcel Duchamp. In fact it is Marcel Duchamp whom we can credit with giving art its own identity.”11 A claim this bold should give us pause. Was art devoid of identity before Duchamp? Or did Duchamp single-handedly change the identity of art? Did Kosuth not mistake the messenger of an ontological metamorphosis for its author? Was this metamorphosis really ontological?

The big questions will have to wait. From the point of view of the question “Since when?” Kosuth’s claim is a sure sign that Duchamp’s telegram had arrived. By the end of the ’60s, it was in everyone’s mailbox, and everyone was hurrying to find an adequate response. Between Ben’s (the most straightfoward) and Kosuth’s (the most elaborate) a small decade had passed, in which the most pervasive response, the most successful because the most promising and liberating, was already contained in the reasoning behind Ben’s Black Box. I’ll call it the Duchamp syllogism: When a urinal is art, anything can be art; and when anything can be art, anybody can be an artist. Pardon my French, or rather Robert Filliou’s, this time: “Oui, oui, voilà, oui! Tout le monde sera un artiste.” The future tense is telling. It is the signature of utopian thinking.

Next month: “Part II: Don’t Shoot the Messenger”

Thierry De Duve is presently Kirk Varnedoe visiting professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.


Research toward this series was facilitated by grants received from the Getty Research Institute, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art.

1. Richard Shiff, “Every Shiny Object Wants an Infant Who Will Love It,” Art Journal 70, no. 1 (2011): 11.

2. Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October, no. 130 (Fall 2009): 3.

3. For such a subtle analysis, see Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

4. “A white gentlemen’s urinal has been named the most influential modern art work of all time. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain came top of a poll of 500 art experts in the run-up to this year’s Turner Prize which takes place on Monday. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was second, with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych from 1962 coming third.” “Duchamp’s Urinal tops art survey” BBC News, last modified December 1, 2004,

5. The most complete list of things, gestures, ideas, and claims constituting Ben’s art practice in 1962 is to be found in Moi, Ben, je signe, a mimeographed pamphlet he issued in 1963. An augmented facsimile edition was published by Lebeer Hossmann Éditeurs, Brussels, in 1975. See pp. 12–18.

6. John Giorno, “A Letter to the Editor,” in Twisted Pair: Marcel Duchamp/Andy Warhol (Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum, 2010), 22. Published as a brochure in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name.

7. Winthrop Sargeant, “Dada’s Daddy,”Life, April 28, 1952, 100–108, 111.

8. Her name is Eve Babitz. She is alive and well, and a witty member of the LA art scene, who knows how to prolong her “fifteen minutes of fame.”

9. John Canaday, “Leonardo Duchamp,” New York Times, January 17, 1965, X19. Rosalind Krauss, for her part, sees in “Duchamp’s eclipse of Picasso as the most important artist of the century” one of the three things that “happened to make it irrefutable that the specific medium had fallen onto the trash heap of history.” Krauss, Under Blue Cup (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 20.

10. The work was among the counterproposals submitted to Jorge Romero Brest, the director of the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, where the show was held, when the artists (among them David Lamelas, Oscar Bony, and Antonio Trotta) refused the theme of the relations between art and technology he had first proposed. See Jorge Glusberg, Art in Argentina (Milan: Giancarlo Politi, 1986), 17–18.

11. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy” in Art After Philosophy and After (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 18.