PRINT November 2013


View of “International Exhibition of Modern Art” (The Armory Show), 1913, 69th Regiment Armory, New York. Photo: Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

IN THE SECOND IN A SERIES of new essays on the avant-garde for Artforum, historian and philosopher THIERRY DE DUVE picks up where he left off last month—contemplating the reception of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic readymade Fountain upon its first appearance, in 1917, and then in a 1960s culture steeped in utopic ambition. Looking anew at long held myths of modernism, de Duve here examines the artistic and institutional legacy of the most notorious artwork of our time, which was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists, only to have a monumental effect—and a nearly equally consequential misprision—in the twentieth century.

The danger remains that he’ll get out of the valise we put him in.
So long as he remains locked up—
—John Cage, “26 Statements Re Duchamp”

IN 1917, MARCEL DUCHAMP put a message in the mail stating that anything could be art. The message, in the guise of a urinal, did not arrive at its destination until the 1960s, whereupon the whole Western art world reconfigured itself as “post-Duchamp.” Thirty years later, the message’s arrival was still making ripples: In 1994, the editors of the journal October devoted an entire issue to them; they titled it “The Duchamp Effect.”1 Another nine years down the road, and said effect began to draw serious criticism from the field of postcolonial studies. Thus Okwui Enwezor:

The Duchamp effect was the most traditional view, because what it purports to do is delineate the supremacy of the artist: the artist as not only a form giver but also a name giver. It is the artist who decides what an object of art is or what it can be, rather than the decision being a result of progressive, formal transformation of the medium of art. For Duchamp, it is not tradition, but the artist who not only decides what the work of art is but also controls its narrative of interpretation.2

The problem with this statement is not its implicit critique of the Western ethnocentrism of October. That point, addressed elsewhere in the article, is well taken.3 The problem lies with the many assumptions Enwezor makes on the editors’ behalf regarding the “Duchamp effect.” They were careful not to title their special issue “Duchamp’s Effect.” Enwezor misses the nuance: He lends the messenger authorship of the message and then infers the “supremacy of the artist,” a very common error and the symptom of a fundamental misreading. I don’t see that Duchamp was able—or wanted, for that matter—to control the interpretations his work has spawned. What twentieth-century artist’s work has generated more divergent readings than Duchamp’s, with “narratives” ranging from incest to courtly love to alchemy to the Kabbalah to Mallarméan poetry to Lacanian punning? Regarding the artist as “name giver,” Enwezor is closer to Duchamp’s “pictorial nominalism,” yet he makes the same mistake of lending him too much. Duchamp surely saw to it that the name art be given to his readymades, but he never—I insist, never—gave them that name himself;4 a great deal of the effectiveness of the Duchamp effect is due to his withdrawal from traditional artistic agency and to his redefinition of authorship on novel, much less deterministic grounds.5

Indeterminacy was very much part of the Duchamp effect in the ’50s—witness John Cage. The ’60s was a decade when the name art was up for grabs: Anyone could claim it, everyone would re­-define it, artists certainly had no monopoly over it—witness Michel Claura, Seth Siegelaub, Harald Szeemann, or Lucy Lippard. Further, when Enwezor speaks of the “medium of art,” he shows that he has not truly grasped the message Duchamp put in the mail. Art is not a medium. Painting, sculpture, music, poetry, cinema are media, but art—art-in-general—is not. When anything can be art, we find ourselves, as Rosalind Krauss would say, in a “post-medium condition.”6 Finally, what I find most intriguing in Enwezor’s quick critique of the Duchamp effect is his claim that the artist decides “what an object of art is or what it can be” (emphasis mine). If I did not believe that Enwezor intuitively hit upon an important truth with the equivalence of “is” and “can be,” I would not have dissected his statement with such critical scrutiny. I must ask the reader’s patience, for we have a long way to go before I can address that truth.7

EVEN IF THE DUCHAMP EFFECT means something quite different from Duchamp’s effect, effect is still similar to influence. Both concepts imply definitive causal links that carry an excessive weight of determination. Acknowledging receipt of a message, however, is a very different process. The mailman who asks you to acknowledge receipt of a registered letter warns you that the acknowledgment will be sent back to the sender—in this case, to a sender who has been mythically construed to perform an acknowledgment in return.8 In this back and forth specularity may lie another reason for the effectiveness of the Duchamp effect: It plays itself out in an echo chamber. In that sense, the more magazines, critics, historians, theorists, and journalists join in with October in analyzing and deconstructing the Duchamp effect, the more they amplify it and distract attention from the content of the message—i. e., from the news that it is now technically feasible and institutionally legitimate to make art from anything whatsoever.

View of “First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists,” 1917, Grand Central Palace, New York. Photo: Arensberg Archives/ Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives.

Duchamp was merely the messenger of that news, the whistle-blower. He did not own the news channels: Many people reached a similar understanding without his help. Guillaume Apollinaire was not waiting for Fountain when he wrote, in The Cubist Painters in 1913: “You may paint with whatever material you please, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candelabra, pieces of oil cloth, collars, painted paper, newspapers.”9 Although William Carlos Williams was a member of the Arensberg circle and, as such, knew Duchamp by 1916, Duchamp did not whisper the following into his ear: “I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it.”10 And to take an example from the ’70s, when nobody in avant-garde circles, least of all the Situationists, would have dared admit ignorance of Duchamp, I’m sure it was Guy Debord’s pride, not Duchamp’s “influence,” that led him to pronounce: “Yes, I flatter myself to make a film from anything whatsoever, and I find amusing the complaints of those who let their whole life become whatever.”11

Add to these few examples Robert Frank’s alleged statement that today one is free to photograph anything, and the one difference between these various realizations that anything can be art and the acknowledgment of receipt of Duchamp’s message will leap to the eye. Apollinaire speaks of painting, Williams of literature, Debord of film, and Frank of photography. They allow infinite expansion of artistic means—but within the confines of a given medium. Compare their declarations with this one, by Allan Kaprow: “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists.”12 There is no mention of any medium, only of art in general. The interesting thing is that Kaprow makes this generalization a legacy of Jackson Pollock. This shows that one can consider oneself heir to a painter while echoing news received from a very different messenger.

TO ACKNOWLEDGE RECEIPT of Duchamp’s message is to engage in—I’m tempted to write “to succumb to”—a compelling, quasi-automatic reasoning process that cannot fail to draw the most general conclusions from the utterly contingent premises it was given. I call this the “Duchamp syllogism,” and I take it to be the logical driving force behind the so-called Duchamp effect: When a urinal is art, anything can be art; and when anything can be art, anybody can be an artist. There are countless signs indicating that the reception of Duchamp’s message in the ’60s proceeded along the lines of that syllogism more often than not, including—and these might be the most interesting—signs of resistance to the message’s content.

Here are two such signs of resistance. Probably with the enthusiasm of the likes of Kaprow in mind, Robert Smithson scornfully wrote:

Many so-called artists see ‘art’ everywhere, in this world. . . . This orgy of aesthetics, such as textures on the sidewalks, interesting shapes on the mailboxes, and gods in the machines must be prevented, or else the artist will die in his own art.13

This predates by ten years Smithson’s interview with Moira Roth, in which he expresses his dislike for Duchamp’s dandyism and his lassitude with the“Duchampitis” he sees as having seized the art world.14 There is no artistic personality more opposed to Smithson’s than that of Joseph Beuys. Yet Beuys’s acknowledgment of receipt of Duchamp’s message was a sign of resistance, too. Commenting in retrospect on his 1964 televised performance, “Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet” (Marcel Duchamp’s Silence Is Overrated), he made the following declarations:

I criticize him [Duchamp] because at the very moment when he could have developed a theory on the basis of the work he had accomplished, he kept silent. And I am the one who, today, develops the theory he could have developed.15

He entered this object [the urinal] into the museum and noticed that its transportation from one place to another made it into art. But he failed to draw the clear and simple conclusion that every human being is an artist.16

An artist may be pardoned for his misinterpretation of another artist’s work. Yet the fact remains that Beuys made two mistakes in the above statements. The second one has huge consequences for the proper understanding of Duchamp’s message, and I’ll address it in due time. But the first one, which is factual, has its importance too. Duchamp did not enter Fountain into the museum. No doubt he made sure that it would, in the end, be enshrined as a museum piece, but he astutely managed to make his moves appear as gracious responses to someone else’s desire.

Page from the Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (William Edwin Rudge, 1917).

The original 1917 Fountain is lost; nobody knows what really happened to it. All examples of Fountain presently in museums are replicas and, with two exceptions, were commissioned by the Milanese art dealer Arturo Schwarz. (In 1964, less than a year after Duchamp’s Pasadena Art Museum retrospective, Schwarz convinced the artist to have fourteen of his readymades and related works minutely reconstructed in an edition of eight, plus two artist’s proofs.17) The two exceptions are the Sidney Janis and the Ulf Linde versions. In 1950, invited by Janis to participate in the dealer’s “Challenge and Defy” group show, Duchamp managed to have him find a suitable replacement for Fountain. Janis located a urinal of a similar model in a Paris flea market.18 He exhibited it twice in his gallery: in the “Challenge and Defy” show, hung on the wall in its usual orientation, and rather low, so that “little boys could use it,”19 and then again in the “Dada 1916–1923” show of 1953, where it hung above a door opening, upside down, with a sprig of mistletoe hanging from it. The Janis replica was subsequently displayed in William Seitz’s 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “The Art of Assemblage,” then in Duchamp’s 1963 Pasadena retrospective; it eventually found its way into the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it complements the Arensberg collection of the artist’s work. In Pasadena, it was displayed in a peculiar arrangement: above it hovered Pliant de voyage (Traveler’s Folding Item), an oilcloth dustcover for an Underwood typewriter, dated 1916; and above the typewriter cover, there hung a small glass vial Duchamp had bought in a Paris pharmacy in 1919, emptied of the serum it contained, and filled with ambient air, titled Air de Paris.20 This arrangement, with the urinal underneath, the typewriter cover in the middle, and the vial high above, echoed an identical arrangement at the Galerie Burén in Stockholm a few months earlier, in April and May of 1963. There, the art critic Ulf Linde provided the urinal and the typewriter cover.21 The story is that he found an adequate urinal in the men’s room of his favorite restaurant and traded the owner a new one for it.22

Now, why did the curators of the Stockholm and the Pasadena shows, Linde and Walter Hopps, respectively, choose to display the urinal, the typewriter cover, and the vial in that particular arrangement? The answer forces us to reach further into the past, to the Boîte-en-valise. In 1935, Duchamp began to work on “an album of approximately all the things [he] produced.”23 Six years later, when the first Boîtes appeared, the announced “album” turned out to be a rectangular box, approximately sixteen by sixteen by four inches, containing sixty-nine items minutely reproducing almost all of Duchamp’s works. The deluxe edition was packed in a leather suitcase, hence the appellation Boîte-en-valise. Most works were replicated with elaborate means involving collotype printing and pochoir coloring. A system of flaps and sliding pullouts allowed the display of several facsimiles of paintings and works on glass. When opened and unfolded, the central part showed a celluloid reproduction of the Large Glass and, on its left, three miniature replicas of readymades: the urinal below, the typewriter cover at the height of the “horizon line” that separates the “bachelors’ domain” in the lower part of the Glass from the “bride’s domain” in the upper part, and the vial full of Paris air in the upper area next to the bride. This is the arrangement the Stockholm and Pasadena shows reproduce.24 Clearly, Linde and Hopps went out of their way to legitimate the readymades through their esoteric ties to the Large Glass, and explicitly referred the spectator to the Boîte-en-valise, where some information, however cryptic, could be gathered regarding the origin and history of Fountain, Pliant de voyage, and Air de Paris. Labels were affixed to the cardboard wall of the compartment that housed the miniature replicas of the three readymades. The one next to the mini-urinal stated:

by Richard MUTT
(Ready made; haut. 0m60)
New-York, 1917

That label is the first written statement on the part of Duchamp that links him directly to “Richard Mutt” while acknowledging Mutt as the author of Fountain. It also mentions, for the first time, the place and date of the work. Of course the date, 1917, and the signature, R. MUTT, were readable on both Linde’s and Janis’s replicas, just as they can be read in Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph, which is virtually the only proof that such a signed and dated urinal once existed. As for proof that the photograph was actually taken in 1917, there is practically none other than its appearance in the second issue, from May 1917, of The Blind Man, the little magazine that Duchamp, his friend Henri-Pierre Roché, and their mutual (girl-)friend Beatrice Wood published. Very few people would have laid eyes on that issue, as the circulation of the magazine did not exceed a few hundred hand-distributed copies. To see Stieglitz’s photo of Fountain reappear in print, one had to await the publication of a 1945 issue of View magazine entirely devoted to Duchamp. It included an article by Harriet and Sidney Janis, “Marcel Duchamp: Anti-Artist,” which Robert Motherwell reprinted in his 1951 anthology The Dada Painters and Poets. Incidentally, Motherwell may have been the first person to have formally acknowledged receipt of Duchamp’s message, when he wrote in his entry on the bottle rack: “It is also a subtle solution to an essential dada dilemma, how to express oneself without art when all means of expression are potentially artistic.”25 Motherwell’s anthology was a success but could not compete with the popular press. Only when Winthrop Sargeant’s article in Life magazine was published in April 1952 did Duchamp’s career with the broad public take off, and only then was Fountain launched into orbit, eventually becoming the famous icon we now know.

Page from the Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (William Edwin Rudge, 1917).

The only Fountain replica to have entered a museum in Duchamp’s lifetime is the Linde version, which was donated to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1965. The first Schwarz replica of Fountain to land in a museum was bought by Brydon Smith for the National Gallery of Canada in 1971; the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London acquired their replicas only in 1986 and 1999, respectively. Schwarz sold one to the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto in 1987 and donated one to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome in 1997. And the Janis version entered the Philadelphia Museum of Art only in 1998.

THOSE ARE THE FACTS Beuys ignored or deemed unimportant when he claimed that Duchamp entered a urinal into the museum.26 Facts are boring, I know. But they constitute the forensic evidence with which serious art history must reckon. We are fortunate to rely on the remarkable detective work done by William Camfield, Francis Naumann, and others as to the fate of Fountain, so that the facts are by now fairly well known.27 I shall focus only on the ones that are relevant to my inquiry.

All readers of Artforum know that in 1917, Duchamp, hiding behind the pseudonym R. Mutt, sought to enter a urinal titled Fountain into an exhibition and that it was rejected, or rather, censored.28 There is no doubt about the censorship, since the exhibition in question was advertised as one “where artists of all schools can exhibit together—certain that whatever [emphasis mine] they send will be hung and that all will have an equal opportunity.”29 Fewer people, however, know that no scandal at all broke out during the exhibition. In support of R. Mutt, Duchamp resigned from his chairmanship of the hanging committee, and a few newspapers picked up the news, but then only to mention a “bathroom fixture” or “a familiar article of bathroom furniture” without ever identifying it as a men’s urinal and, of course, without unmasking Mr. Mutt.30 The second issue of The Blind Man, in which Stieglitz’s photo revealed just what kind of bathroom fixture Fountain actually was, appeared as the exhibition ended and nowhere cites Duchamp’s name.

As we have seen, Duchamp hid his authorship of Fountain until he released the Boîtes-en-valise in the early ’40s. Those are important facts. What is not a fact is my contention that the purpose of The Blind Man’s photo and editorial had never been to cause a scandal but rather to put Fountain on the record for future art history. This is what I mean when I say that Duchamp put a message in the mail. He lived long enough to see it delivered. Whether he had foreseen the ripples its delivery would make or was genuinely surprised remains a mystery none of his late, carefully rehearsed interviews—or his deadpan appearance in one of Warhol’s 1966 Screen Tests—has laid to rest.

The most relevant fact of the R. Mutt affair for my purpose is the institutional context in which Fountain appeared and then immediately disappeared. I have spoken thus far of an exhibition without being more specific. I am actually referring to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Inc., which opened on April 10, 1917, at the Grand Central Palace in New York. The initial announcement released by the society stated:

There are no requirements for admission to the Society save the acceptance of its principles and the payment of the initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars. All exhibitors are thus members and all have a vote for the directors and on the decisions made by the Society at its annual meetings.31

As for the principles to which this announcement refers, they boiled down to the slogan “No jury, no prizes,” which was not cast in the society’s bylaws but was commented on at length in the foreword to the catalogue of its first exhibition. Membership in the society was thus absolutely unrestricted, something the press didn’t fail to notice. One journalist offered this ironic comment:

Step up, ladies and gentlemen! Pay six dollars and be an artist—an independent artist! . . . Cheap isn’t it? Yet that is all it costs. You and I, even if we’ve never wielded a brush, squeezed paint from a tube, spoiled good paper with crayon, or worked with a modelling tool, can buy six dollars worth of wall or floor space at the Grand Central Palace.32

Beuys’s second mistake now jumps to the fore. After (wrongly) crediting Duchamp for having entered a urinal into the museum and having “noticed that its transportation from one place to another made it into art,” Beuys reads Duchamp’s message in reverse when he adds: “But he failed to draw the clear and simple conclusion that every human being is an artist.” Because Beuys’s reading was uttered not by an artist under Duchamp’s spell but, on the contrary, by one who thought his silence was overrated, it is about as exemplary a formulation of the Duchamp syllogism as you can get: When a urinal enters the museum it becomes art; when a urinal is art, anything is a plausible candidate for the name art; when anything and everything can be art, everybody is potentially an artist.

But clearly, the truth of Duchamp’s message goes the other way around: When anybody is institutionally allowed to be an artist, it is about time to show that anything can be art, even a urinal, and to bet that it will land in the museum someday. Beuys was a powerful utopian thinker who entertained a romantic belief in universal creativity and wanted art to change the world. Duchamp was a cynic in Diogenes’s sense, the revealer of an unwanted truth. Or of a truth too eagerly desired? Unwanted by the Ashcan School alumni who formed the bulk of the Independents’ founders; desired by the baby boomers of the ’60s, who sought liberation from all constraints in art and life alike. I think the pervasive utopianism of the ’60s explains why so many people misread Duchamp’s message to the point of inverting its logic altogether. Beuys was far from alone in his reversed and somewhat disingenuous reading. It is hard to decide whether Jack Burnham was disingenuous or truly naive when he wrote: “Obviously it is no longer important who is or is not a good artist; the only sensible question is—as is already grasped by some young people—why isn’t everybody an artist?”33

Why indeed? Robert Filliou—whose “principle of equivalence” between “well made,” “badly made,” and “not made” (leaving out the fourth possibility, “ready made”) represents one of the wittiest acknowledgments of receipt of Duchamp’s message—was definitely enthusiastic, even though humor saves him from being a true believer: “Oui, oui, voilà, oui! Tout le monde sera un artiste” (Yes, yes, you see, yes! Everybody will be an artist in the future). As if taking their cue from Ben’s 1962 realization that “since Duchamp one is allowed to put anything into this [art] box,” a number of major players in the art world of the ’60s seem to have inferred that everybody was—could be, should be, would be—an artist. From the vantage point of our “contemporaneity,” where it is all too blatantly clear that not everybody has become an artist, not much remains of Filliou’s enthusiasm, save sepia-tinted nostalgia for the ’60s. It is time to move on, time to conceive of criticality in nonutopian terms, time to stop mistaking an angel for a prophet (angelos means “messenger”). And it is time to rewrite the art-historical narrative—respecting, not inverting, the logic of the facts.

THE SOCIETY OF INDEPENDENT ARTISTS was incorporated in New York on December 5, 1916, after a few months of discussion, gathering some twenty artists and at least one art patron, the collector Walter Arensberg. William Glackens was named president and almost everybody else a “director.” The core of the group—Glackens, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Maurice Prendergast, and his brother Charles—had been associated with the Eight, aka the Ashcan School. The most advanced American artists in the group were John Covert, Morton Schamberg, Man Ray, Joseph Stella, and John Marin. Duchamp was solicited early on, and he was not the only Frenchman to be involved. Among the European expats who had fled the war and taken refuge in New York were Francis Picabia, Jean Crotti, and Albert Gleizes. All three participated in the discussions. Did they have a hand in the following, lifted from the foreword to the catalogue of the society’s first exhibition?

The program of the Society of Independent Artists, which is practically self-explanatory, has been taken over from the Société des Artistes Indépendants of Paris. The latter Society, whose salon is the oldest in France, has done more for the advance of French art than any other institution of its period. A considerable number of the most prominent artists of the present generation and the preceding one established their reputation at its annual exhibitions. It has more members, sells more works and is on a firmer financial basis than any other of the four great salons. The reason for this success is to be found in the principle adopted at its founding in 1884 and never changed: “No jury, no prizes.34

In the French of the original Société: Ni jury ni récompense. It is unclear who proposed the name “Independents” and who suggested modeling the society’s bylaws on those of the French Société des Artistes Indépendants. The most likely candidates are Duchamp and Gleizes, for obvious reasons: They were both French and both had experience with the Paris Indépendants. But—and the cruel irony of the whole R. Mutt affair might very well hinge on this—at the 1912 Salon des Indépendants, they had found themselves on opposite sides. Gleizes and his fellow Cubist Jean Metzinger had just published a very dogmatic treatise/manifesto titled Du Cubisme and, together with Henri Le Fauconnier and Duchamp’s brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, they formed the hanging committee of the Cubist room. In compliance with the motto Ni jury ni récompense, the committee was supposed to confine itself to installation decisions. Yet when the young Duchamp arrived with a new painting titled Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), Gleizes and Metzinger asked him to remove his painting from the show. Duchamp’s brothers tried a mediation by asking him to change the title, but the guardians of orthodox Cubism prevailed and Duchamp withdrew the painting, mortified—so mortified that shortly thereafter he left Puteaux, where he had been living near his brothers, and a few months later took exile in Munich, where he would remain until the fall. He would never forget and never forgive, even though the Nude was rehabilitated at the Salon de la Section d’Or in October 1912 and enjoyed a tremendous succès de scandale at the Armory Show in February 1913.

Here we must leave facts behind and enter the realm of speculation.35 I can think of two scenarios. Either Duchamp brought up the Paris Indépendants in the founders’ meetings as a possible model for their new society, and gave them the arguments listed in the foreword to the catalogue; or Gleizes did, with Duchamp watching from the sidelines. I like the latter scenario even better than the first. Please reread the excerpt I quoted and notice its bombastic rhetoric, its accumulation of superlatives, its rampant nationalism, and its appeal to crass commercialism. Only a dead-serious ideologue or a supreme ironist could have crafted such a piece of prose. Either way, it is the supreme ironist who saw to it that it got printed—or so I am convinced. The presence of his nemesis at the discussion may have spurred Duchamp’s talionism (his word for revenge promoted to the rank of artistic “ism”), and too bad if it was taken at the expense of the innocent and unsuspecting American art community. Gleizes would soon be the true target of Fountain, and with Gleizes, the academization of the Paris Indépendants.

Facts have the last word in art history. No matter which of my two scenarios—or a third one—proves to be right, the fact remains that the R. Mutt affair took place in a precise institutional context with a precise transatlantic history. As Camfield has noted:

To a considerable extent the Society was a direct descendant of such organizations as The Eight, the 1910 Independents Group, and the Armory Show—all formed to provide exhibitions of American art outside the structure of the National Academy of Design and offerings of conventional art galleries. From the outset, however, the Society of Independent Artists was distinguished by a contingent of French artists and the intent to be an ongoing organization modeled after the French Société des Artistes Indépendants.36

The key word in the transatlantic bridge Camfield rightly establishes between Paris and New York is independence, and the key words in the trans­atlantic abyss that nevertheless subsists are ongoing organization. Reviewing the 1910 exhibition, Robert Henri wrote:

This is called an independent exhibition because it is a manifestation of independence in art and of the absolute necessity of such independence. It does not mean that it is an independent organization, but that it is made up of the independent points of view of men who are investigating.37

For Henri, independence was synonymous with individuality. The American founding members of the 1916 Society of Independent Artists probably understood it similarly. But by modeling their newly incorporated society after the French Indépendants and intending it to be “an ongoing organization,” they unwittingly imported an institutional model foreign to their tradition.

The transplant did not take. The Society of Inde­pendent Artists contributed nothing to the history of avant-garde art in the US. Its only memorable salon is the first one, and then only on account of the one item that was not exhibited! But the fact that the R. Mutt affair took place in that particular institutional context is very much part of the message Duchamp put in the mail in 1917 with Fountain. On the face of it, the message stated: Anything and everything can now be art. “Now” refers to 1917, not 1964, the year of Schwarz’s replicas, Beuys’s The Silence of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and other acknowledgments of receipt of the message. On the whole, the art world of the ’60s succumbed to the Duchamp syllogism and mistook a condition for a consequence. They read, “If B, then A,” where the messenger had written, “If A, then B.” Our inquiry allows us to rephrase the message, putting what comes first first: Anyone and everyone can now be an artist; consequently, anything and everything can now be art. Does “now” still refer to 1917? If we focus on the consequence, yes. But if we focus on the condition, “now” actually refers to 1884, the year the Société des Artistes Indépendants was founded in Paris by a circle of artists around Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. “Anything can be art,” the first layer of meaning in Duchamp’s message, is a red herring. “Anyone can be an artist,” the second layer, gets us closer to the core of the matter. But there are more layers waiting to be peeled away, and to get to the next one, we might as well ask the question several critics posed at the 1884 Salon des Indépendants: Why did those artists call themselves Indépendants? Independent of whom, of what?

Next, in the January 2014 issue of Artforum: “Part III: Why Was Modernism Born in France?”

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

Visit Artforum’s archive at for the first installment of de Duve’s ongoing series: “Part I: Pardon My French,” from the October 2013 issue.


1. October 70 (Fall 1994), reprinted as The Duchamp Effect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

2. Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, ed. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 211. A slightly different version was first published in Research in African Literatures 34, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 61.

3. See Research in African Literatures 34, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 79.

4. With the notorious exception of the readymade’s definition in André Breton and Paul Éluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (Paris: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1938), 23: “Objet usuel promu à la dignité d’objet d’art par le simple choix de l’artiste” (Ordinary object promoted to the dignity of art object simply by the artist’s choice). The entry is signed m.d. It is possible that Duchamp thought so in 1938, though I think it more plausible that he was feigning to placate Breton, whose entry on him called him “the most intelligent and (for many) the most embarrassing man of this first part of the 20th century”(ibid., 10). I find it in any case significant that Duchamp ironically concluded his entry on the readymade with promotion to the dignity of art in reverse: “Ready made réciproque: se servir d’un Rembrandt comme planche à repasser” (Reciprocal ready made: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board).

5. See my “Authorship Stripped Bare, Even,” Res 19/20 (1990/91): 234–41.

6. I take issue with the notion of the “post-medium” condition, but this is not the place to do it. See Rosalind Krauss, “‘. . . And Then Turn Away?’ An Essay on James Coleman,” October 81 (Summer 1997): 5–33; Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 2 (Winter 1999); Krauss “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999); Krauss, Under Blue Cup (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

7. It won’t be before we reach the last of this series of articles.

8. The story of Warhol and John Giorno meeting Duchamp that I told in article 1 is exemplary in this respect. See my “Pardon My French,” Artforum, October 2013, 246–53.

9. Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations (New York: Wittenborn, 1962), 23. A note in the French edition specifies that “painted paper [i.e., wallpaper], newspapers” was an addition on the galleys, proof that Apollinaire had only recently heard of papiers collés.

10. William Carlos Williams, Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920), 16.

11. “Oui, je me flatte de faire un film de n’importe quoi, et je trouve plaisant que s’en plaignent ceux qui ont laissé faire de toute leur vie n’importe quoi.” Voice-over in Guy Debord’s last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978).

12. Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1958), in Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 7–9.

13. Robert Smithson, letter to George Lester (1961), quoted in Thomas Crow, “Cosmic Exile: Prophetic Turns in the Life and Art of Robert Smithson,” in Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai and Cornelia Butler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 37.

14. See “Robert Smithson on Duchamp, An Interview with Moira Roth,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 197–99.

15. Joseph Beuys (quoted in French), “Interview with Bernard Lamarche-Vadel,” Canal 58/59 (Winter 1984/85): 7.

16. Beuys (quoted in French), “Interview with Irmeline Lebeer,” Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne 4 (1980): 176.

17. Schwarz, who would later become Duchamp’s biographer, has said that in addition to the artist’s proofs, two “exhibition copies” were also made.

18. See William Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989), 77–78.

19. Sidney Janis, in a letter to Camfield dated August 18, 1987, cited in ibid., 78.

20. Actually, this was a replica, too. Walter Arensberg, the owner of the original, had accidentally broken it. A letter to Henri-Pierre Roché, dated May 9, 1949, attests that Duchamp asked his friend to secure a similar vial from the pharmacy where he had bought the original. See Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 76–77.

21. More remarkably, without having seen the original, Linde also made the copy of the Large Glass that was shown at the Galerie Burén and then traveled to Pasadena.

22. Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 91.

23. Marcel Duchamp, in a letter to Katherine Dreier dated March 5, 1935, quoted in Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp: The Box in a Valise (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), 147. I rely on Bonk’s book for the description of the Boîte-en-valise that follows.

24. With one difference, however: Contrary to Janis in 1950, Linde and Hopps did not hang the urinal in its usual, functional position, as Duchamp hung his miniature replica in the Boîte-en-valise. They took their cue from the Stieglitz photograph as well as from the readability of the inscription.

25. See Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets (New York: Wittenborn, 1951), 306–15; and xvii (emphasis mine). Camfield insists that “that issue of View did not reach a wide audience,” but that Motherwell’s anthology “had incalculable influence on our thinking about Duchamp and a revived interest in Dada.” Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 76.

26. Of course, Beuys could not have known the facts posterior to January 23, 1986, the date of his death.

27. Besides Camfield’s groundbreaking work, let me signal Francis Naumann, “The Big Show: The First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Part I,” Artforum, February 1979, 34–39, and “Part II: The Critical Response,” Artforum, April 1979, 49–53; see also Edward Ball and Robert Knafo, “The R. Mutt Dossier,” Artforum, October 1988, 116–19.

28. “There was not time enough to assemble the entire board of directors, but a group of about ten was gathered to decide the issue, and according to a New York Herald reporter, a battle raged up to the opening hour of the exhibition on April 9, at which time ‘Mr. Mutt’s defenders were voted down by a small margin.’” Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 26. This, and the version told by Rockwell Kent in his autobiography (in my opinion the most probable one), in which he writes that after a heated discussion the board of directors finally found a way to refuse Fountain on the basis of a technicality (the entry card had not been filled in properly), are the least farfetched of the many stories telling the fate of Fountain. See Rockwell Kent, It’s Me, O Lord (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1955), 316.

29. Announcement titled “The Society of Independent Artists, Inc.,” undated, in the Archives of the Société Anonyme, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; quoted in Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 19.

30. In addition to Camfield’s book, see my “Given the Richard Mutt Case,” Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

31. “The Society of Independent Artists, Inc.” 32. Naumann, “The Big Show,” 49.

33. Jack Burnham, “Problems of Criticism IX,” Artforum, January 1971, reprinted in Idea Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton, 1973), 69.

34. Quoted in C. S. Marlor, The Society of Independent Artists (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1984), 7. The same excerpt is also cited by H. P. Roché in the first issue of the Blind Man (p. 4), and taken up by at least one reviewer of the show (Springfield Republican, April 15, 1917).

35. Not that there are no facts, but they have been erased. Nothing has transpired from the meetings that led to the incorporation of the society (nor from the meeting where Fountain’s lot was decided), because a fire destroyed almost all the archives of the society in the ’30s. See Camfield, Marcel Duchamp, 28.

36. Ibid., 14.

37. Robert Henri, “The New York Exhibition of Independent Artists,” Craftsman 17, no. 2 (May 1910): 160–61.