PRINT March 2014


IN THE FIFTH OF THE SERIES of new essays on the avant-garde for Artforum, historian and philosopher Thierry de Duve investigates the ideas behind one of modernism’s most notorious inventions: non-art, that vexing category of things that reject, trouble, and ultimately expand the definition of art itself. From the nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts system to Marcel Duchamp’s radical readymade Fountain, 1917, to the pluralism of the present day; from the fin-de-siècle ruminations of Stéphane Mallarmé to the aesthetic pronouncements of Clement Greenberg, de Duve reveals the astonishing theoretical implications of non-art—as term, as idea, and as type. In the process, he offers a groundbreaking narrative for the emergence of our contemporary understanding of art.

Unknown artist (formerly attributed to Piero della Francesca), Città Ideale (Ideal City), ca. 1480, oil on panel, 23 1/2 x 79".

You can only make absolute statements negatively.1

—Ad Reinhardt

IN 1966, DONALD JUDD, reflecting on a widespread debate in contemporary art circles, wrote in a somewhat exasperated tone: “‘Non-art,’ ‘anti-art,’ ‘non-art art’ and ‘anti-art art’ are useless. If someone says his work is art, it’s art.”2 The sovereign naming power that Judd granted himself and his fellow artists here is remarkable. Those of us who are not artists, or who are rival artists, might object to such a fiat. Those who are critics, gallery owners, museum curators, or collectors might object less to this fiat than to its appropriation by the sole artist. Well, the objection seems to have been vindicated: By the beginning of the 1980s, the power of calling something art had purportedly shifted from the artist to the institution of art as a whole. In the words of one critic, the late Thomas McEvilley:

To be art is to be called art, by the people who supposedly are in charge . . . artists, critics, curators, art historians, and so on. . . . If something (anything) is presented as art by an artist and contextualized as art within the system then it is art, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.3

There is a lot you can do about it, starting with not letting yourself be intimidated by “the people who supposedly are in charge,” and ending with the construction of an aesthetic theory of art that offers a viable alternative to the nominalism of institutional theories such as McEvilley’s.

Constructing the lineaments of just such an alternative aesthetic theory was precisely what Clement Greenberg endeavored to do in a series of seminars he conducted at Bennington College, Vermont, in the early ’70s. In one of these seminars, Greenberg reproached the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (whose early-twentieth-century lectures on aesthetics he found second only to Kant) for not having followed through on his intuition that anything that can yield an aesthetic experience can also yield an artistic experience, and for having missed, therefore, that “all reality, all possibility is virtually art, not necessarily realized as art, but virtual as art.” Greenberg went on to say:

It was Croce’s big mistake, and others’, to say that if art is bad, it is not art, and then to leave it undecided as to what bad art was, what order of experience it belonged to. That left a whole huge area of human experience unaccounted for; not bad art, non-art. And introspection, I think, shows that this isn’t so, that it is the very nature of art to contain infinite degrees of value, quality, and so forth.4

“Introspection shows that this isn’t so”: If you reflect enough on your aesthetic experience of art, Greenberg argued, you’ll realize that you cannot draw a line beyond which bad art is so terribly bad that it ceases to be art at all. I must say that I agree. I know from experience that the aesthetic appreciation of art is a matter of intensity of feeling and urgency of thought on a continuous scale of nuances. Even though, in theory, there ought to be a boundary somewhere between art and non-art, in experience it is bound to dissolve. I beg your pardon: I just wrote “non-art” as shorthand for “what is not art.” In Greenberg’s account, “non-art” is not the same thing as “not-art,” yet it is not simply a trivial subcategory of art either, as Judd would have us believe. Non-art is bad art mistaken for not-art. That mistake is not an error of taste, and thus supposedly not a matter of aesthetic experience; philosophers would call it a category mistake (a fallacy where things that belong to one category are mistakenly placed in another)—and a strange one, because it seems to be voluntary. If I understand Greenberg correctly, non-art is what results from a refusal to judge aesthetically something that ought to have been the object of an aesthetic judgment, however severe. Works of art are such things. Indeed, Greenberg’s adamant conviction was that “when no esthetic value judgment, no verdict of taste, is there, then art isn’t there either, then esthetic experience of any kind isn’t there. It’s as simple as that.”5

Detail of caricature by Honoré Daumier published in Le Charivari, April 6, 1859. The caption reads: “Ignoramuses . . . they have refused this!”

BUT SIMPLE IT CERTAINLY ISN’T. Where does the refusal to make an aesthetic judgment originate? In a willful decision of the viewer? In a conscious intention on the part of the artist? Croce’s opinion that bad art is not art means that he upholds the first theory: There are works that are so bad they don’t even deserve aesthetic attention; you won’t even look at them. But are you not, then, making another category mistake, one between attention and judgment? And if you decide not to look—not to look attentively—is it not because one glance was enough? If introspection tells you, as it certainly told Greenberg and as it tells me, that aesthetic experience is judgment and that both are involuntary (that is, you can’t help liking or disliking a given work), then you begin to question whether the refusal to judge aesthetically was a conscious, voluntary decision, even though turning your attention away was a deliberate one. “Cover that breast, which I’d rather not see,” the hypocritical Tartuffe exclaims in Molière’s eponymous play.6 Honestly, wouldn’t you admit that averting your gaze in order to avoid aesthetic judgment was the paradoxical outcome of an aesthetic experience you had but denied having had? Croce’s mistake is more twisted and complicated than Greenberg thought: In practice, sometimes we do draw a line between art and non-art—pardon, between art and not-art, between art worthy of the name and art so bad or so disturbing (more about that later) that we judge it undeserving of the name. And we don’t commit a category mistake if we draw that line aesthetically, while denying having had an aesthetic experience. It would be closer to the truth to say that we invoke the category mistake conflating bad art and not-art as if it were an alibi for our denial of aesthetic judgment in the first place. Greenberg would have to agree that in this instance, we unwittingly produce a case of non-art.

Now, what about the second theory? What if the refusal to pass aesthetic judgment originates not in the viewer’s decision but in the artist’s intention? That yields another brand of non-art: art that banks on Croce’s mistake; art that wants to be dismissed as not-art and seeks confusion with the vast empirical world of what-is-not-art, yet in which Greenberg saw an infinity of virtual, potential art; art that traps viewers into denying the aesthetic experience they inevitably had; in short, art as not-art. Can that brand of non-art be good art? Is it automatically bad art? Should it be rejected as not-art on account of the artist’s avowed intention? Or, on the contrary, hailed as non-art for the same reason? In Greenberg’s mind, that brand of non-art is ipso facto inferior art because it pretends to shunt aesthetic judgment; it makes a theoretical point of making judgment of taste beside the point. Here Greenberg added: “And it is inferior art that hoped, in making judgments of taste beside the point, also to make its own qualitative inferiority beside the point.”7

Readers of Artforum won’t be surprised to learn that Marcel Duchamp’s readymades were, for Greenberg, the epitome of such inferior art, the prototype for all the “far-out” avant-gardism they authorized and against which he systematically railed. Although this is not true for all the artist’s readymades, the urinal Fountain undeniably wanted to be dismissed as not-art, sought confusion with the world out there, and banked on Croce’s category mistake. For that very reason, Duchamp cannot be accused of making that mistake. In his critique of Croce, Greenberg disputed that a line could be traced in the continuous scale of aesthetic experience. But this is no longer the issue. Since the artist drew it in advance of the viewer, the line is not a matter of the viewer’s experience at all; it runs between two parties in an agonistic game. On either side are two groups who differ less in their appreciation than in their theories: Viewers upholding Croce’s theory think that bad art, or the worst art, does not deserve its name. They exclude Fountain from the domain of art, not realizing that they fall into the artist’s trap, and in fact endorse the production of an instance of not-art as art—albeit as art unworthy of the name, as inferior art. Viewers upholding Greenberg’s theory go along with him in refusing to rule out Fountain but maintaining that, as one particular instance of inferior art, it demonstrates that to speak of art worthy or not worthy of the name is irrelevant, because “art is not an honorific status. The condition of being art does not necessarily confer honor or more than minimal value on anything or any event or any act or any moment.”8

Clever, but wrong. It is not up to the critic or the theorist of aesthetics to decide whether art has honorific status. Society bestows honors on certain human activities and not on others, and there is not one society on earth (so far) that does not salute art and artists with marks of honor. These can be anything from religious worship to hero glorification to media glamorization; the point is that Greenberg was wrong if he thought he could weasel out of a difficult theoretical conundrum by stripping art of its honorific status. Or did he think that ranks of aesthetic superiority or inferiority are somehow miraculously immune to contamination by what defines honorific status socially? We might remind ourselves that honorific status is never abstract and, in that sense, never purely honorific. It entails power, prestige, wealth, privilege, public veneration, career advancement, and other entitlements. The social body that plays arbiter, that distributes honor, power, wealth, prestige, and privilege among artists, that advances the careers of some and blocks others from public veneration, is what we call the institution of art—in McEvilley’s term, the “system.”

The passage from one such system to another is the broader scope of my Artforum series as a whole, and the role that non-art played in this passage is the focus of this and last month’s essays.9 The art institution we left behind is the Beaux-Arts system, and the institution we have entered is what I call the Art-in-General system. Right now, the latter is moving swiftly away from the dealer–critic system that defined it since the end of the nineteenth century, into some private collector/celebrity artist/monopolistic gallery/prestigious auction house/Russian oligarch system that has disastrous, predictable and perhaps felicitous, unpredictable effects on contemporary art. (It’s too early to tell, and it depends on whether or not a new avant-garde emerges from our “contemporaneity” in the way the original avant-garde emerged from nineteenth-century academicism.) We may have left the dealer/critic system behind economically, but we still live in the Art-in-General system, and probably for a long time to come, because what defines the latter aesthetically is that in it anything can be art. In Greenberg’s words: “We live in an ocean of art or of the possibility of art. An infinity already there.”10

I see Duchamp as the messenger who heralded the passage from the Beaux-Arts to the Art-in-General system.11 And I take Fountain to encapsulate the news of that passage, broadcast in 1917 (with Alfred Stieglitz’s photo of the work in the journal The Blind Man, which tells of the urinal’s disappearance from the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists) but not reaching its audience until the mid-’60s, when a myriad of artists suddenly acknowledged receipt of it. Although Greenberg was a little slower on the uptake than many of those artists, he didn’t make the mistake of shooting the messenger when he spoke of “an infinity already there.” It is remarkable that, for all his hatred of Duchamp and of all the bad art Duchamp’s success had spawned, Greenberg never rejected the readymades as not-art. He acknowledged them as a demonstration worth making and never made before: that everything is potential art—or, as he put it, “virtually art.”12 Whether such a thing can be demonstrated is doubtful, but it doesn’t affect what is important in Greenberg’s insight: the fact that Duchamp didn’t change the art institution—as if any artist could single-handedly achieve a change of that magnitude. Duchamp certainly conceived the idea of readymades, and he chose them one by one; he produced Fountain in precise circumstances; he most likely knew that sooner or later someone would coin the expression “non-art” to account for his gesture and similar ones by other artists; but he did not invent non-art. Neither did other Dada artists or Dada as a movement. As I argued in last month’s essay, the invention of non-art is some fifty years older than Dada and cannot be attributed to any artist at all. It is an involuntary side effect of the binary structure of aesthetic judgment in the French Beaux-Arts system’s main state apparatus, the nineteenth-century Salon.

WITH GREENBERG’S INSIGHT about Croce’s mistake in mind, let us now revisit the five stages of the birth of non-art I outlined in my previous essay. First stage: the Salon des Refusés. I have argued that the jurors’ rejection of Édouard Manet’s Le Bain (The Bath, now titled Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe [Luncheon on the Grass]), 1863, at the Salon that same year rested on the denial of their intensely emotional aesthetic response to the painting: “The jurors knew that with Le Bain Manet had radically redefined the tableau; they just couldn’t stand it.”13 I admit this was speculative. But in the absence of direct historical testimony, we are bound to speculate. So I drew on my experience and on that of Leo Steinberg, as recounted in his essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public” (1962), in order to construct a plausible phenomenology of the jury’s verdict.14 Let me now build on that. First, allow me to dispel all allegations that the painting was a prank intended to mock tradition and to shock the bourgeois. This may very well have been an unintended effect of the painting, of which Manet was aware and which he accepted, but anti-art was definitely not on his mind. Then, let me emphasize the seriousness and ambition of the artist’s endeavor with Le Bain, by resting my appraisal of his intentions on Michael Fried’s now-classic analysis of the painting: Fried reads the problematic unity of the canvas as relying on an unprecedented attempt to achieve the synthesis of all the genres of painting.15 And let me thus speculate the following: Manet presented the jurors with what he conceived as a tableau, which quasi-didactically embodied that attempt at a synthesis. The jurors intuitively sensed Manet’s ambition because their notion of the tableau—the one prevalent in the criticism of the 1860s—involved a coalescence of qualities independent of genre. But they could not, or would not, accept the consequence Manet drew from that independence, namely, that “tableau” henceforth stood for painting at large rather than for portrait, landscape, or history painting.16 In their eyes, none of the qualities that would award the painting the status of a tableau—and pace Greenberg, that was an honorific status—were present. As far as they were concerned, Manet had thrown a commotion on the canvas: a still life in the lower-left corner, a superb morceau de peinture, but how lackadaisically strewn on the model’s petticoat!; a landscape in the background painted so hastily it looked like a theater backdrop; and an incomprehensible genre scene in the middle, in which the jury may or may not have recognized an updated, thirdhand quotation of Raphael, via Marcantonio and Charles Blanc, not counting the indecent nude that looks us in the eyes and tosses Ingres’s slick odalisque “into one pot with Rembrandt and Giotto.”17 The jurors saw the impure mixture of the genres but not their new synthesis. As a result, Le Bain appeared to them as a total negation or betrayal of the conventions of the tableau in any genre, and this was enough to motivate their rejection of the painting.

Negation and betrayal were, in the jurors’ minds, perpetrated by the artist. From our point of view, however, it is clear that the jurors, not the artist, enunciated the negation. They are the ones who judged that Le Bain was not a tableau good enough to be shown. With that switch in agency, the meaning of betrayal changes: It meant treason for the jurors, who accused Manet of it; it means involuntary admission for us, who attribute it to the jurors. Did the jurors commit Croce’s mistake? Did they wrongly take bad art for not-art? Not exactly; we are dealing here with a more sophisticated variant of Croce’s mistake. First, Le Bain was not so much bad art in the jurors’ eyes as disquieting art, upsetting art, incomprehensible and perhaps revolting art; all epithets that made them accuse Manet of betrayal. Second, the jurors did not rule that Le Bain was not art, only that it had to be banned from public view. (If the painting ended up being shown, it was only thanks to the emperor, Napoleon III, who authorized the Salon des Refusés.) But to ears attuned to the exasperated tone of their possible debate, their verdict sounds like an involuntary avowal of the painting’s perceived but not acknowledged qualities. It conveys a negation of a particular kind, a denial in the quasi-Freudian sense, a “no” that betrays itself as a “yes.” Third, and this is crucial: When the jurors denied Le Bain the aesthetic qualities that would have made it a tableau in their eyes, did they also deny having had an aesthetic experience? I speculate that they did. A negative aesthetic experience rarely translates as the claim of not having had an aesthetic experience at all, but this seems to have been the case here, as close attention to the second stage of the birth of non-art may confirm.

THAT STAGE WAS REACHED when Stéphane Mallarmé penned “Le Jury de peinture pour 1874 et M. Manet,” in reaction to the rejection of Manet’s Bal masqué à l’Opéra (Masked Ball at the Opera) and Les Hirondelles (The Swallows), both 1873, by the jury of the 1874 Salon. The excerpt I quoted in last month’s essay is worth further scrutiny:

Entrusted with the nebulous vote of the painters with the responsibility of choosing, from among the framed pictures offered, those that are truly tableaux in order to show them to us, the jury has nothing else to say but: this is a tableau, or that is not a tableau.18

I have previously pointed out how curious it seemed that Mallarmé was exhorting the jury to do something it already did. This is a symptom. The context leaves no doubt that the poet was not simply describing the jury’s task; he was enjoining the jury to utter a judgment that he thought they should have pronounced but didn’t. He was irritated that the jurors let their personal taste override what should have been a more neutral, open, “objective” appraisal. Yet Mallarmé must have known that such an appraisal was aesthetic, even if it shunned taste: He didn’t invite the jury to separate tableaux from non-tableaux the way you and I would separate chairs from objects that are not chairs. And how did he understand “tableau”? He may not have been fully aware of the formal expectations that the critics of the 1860s saw converging in the notion of the tableau, particularly since, by the Salons of the 1870s, that term had lost some of its stringency. He may have used the word tableau in a sense closer to its everyday usage, or—more likely—as imbued with “the very neutral feeling of the artistic worth discernible in each thing in which it dwells,”19 which he admonished the jury to recognize. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that “this is a tableau” conveys an aesthetic judgment, albeit a liminal one; it admits a given “framed picture” into the domain of “those that are truly tableaux,” and thereby establishes its admissibility into the higher domain of art. In short, “this is a tableau” means “this can be art”—not “this is art.” To be a tableau in Mallarmé’s sense is not in itself the guarantor of art status; it warrants only the legitimacy of the claim to art status. I believe that Mallarmé thought that the task of the jury was to grant or refuse that legitimacy, and that the task of the public was to grant or refuse, in various proportions, the trademark of aesthetic excellence and originality that nineteenth-century viewers identified with art status proper. The impression we have that Mallarmé exhorted the jury to do something it already did may be accounted for by a deeper intuition on the poet’s part regarding the specifics of the division of labor between jury and public. If the jury’s verdict “this is truly a tableau” means this can be art, then the public’s appreciation (“this is a good tableau”) means this is truly art—art worthy of the name.

How do I know this? How is all this more than gratuitous speculation? Decoding Mallarmé’s mannerist prose requires reading between the lines. The answer may come from focusing on his implicit treatment of the alternative, negative judgment. Only if the verdict “this is not a tableau” means this cannot claim any sort of aesthetic excellence should the jury be allowed to hide a picture from the public. For the public “is the master at this point, and can demand to see everything that there is.”20 Should the jury sense in a picture even the faintest whiff of the tableau, they must show it: “Défense d’en cacher un.”21 Therefore, “this is not a tableau” must entail the illegitimacy of the picture’s claim to art status; it must mean this cannot be art and not just this is not art. Only by way of a logical ricochet am I able to infer the positive from the negative: that “this is a tableau” means this can be art and not this is art. To cite Reinhardt again: “You can only make absolute statements negatively.” Positive statements are relative—in other words, comparative.

Now, the interesting thing is that because of the lack of a perceptible difference between denial and ordinary logical negation (both use the symbol no), we can reach the same conclusion without Mallarmé’s help. It is a trivial consequence of the division of the arts in the Beaux-Arts system that something that is not a painting, and is obviously not a sculpture, a poem, or a piece of music either—a chair, for example—cannot find a place among the fine arts, and therefore cannot be art. No value judgment is involved: To say that a chair is not a work of art is no insult to the chair. Here, I believe, lies the key to the question of whether the jurors made Croce’s category mistake: They didn’t commit it; they invoked it, whether consciously or not. A chair is not a work of art for the reason brought up by Greenberg: It doesn’t call for an aesthetic judgment. The framed pictures Mallarmé asked the jury to dispatch to the categories of tableau or non-tableau, on the other hand, of course called for the jury’s aesthetic judgment. But the jurors had an alibi for their denial if, under the pretext that Manet did not present them with a full-fledged tableau, they could pretend to remove Les Hirondelles from the category of the tableau, the way you and I sort chairs from non-chairs.

I’m not sure how much of this Mallarmé consciously theorized. I’d say very little. Whatever the case, his admonition to the jury symptomatically sheds light on the jury’s reach for an alibi: In denying Les Hirondelles the quality of a tableau, the jurors translated their negative, annoyed, disturbed, but definitely aesthetic response into the disingenuous after-the-fact claim of not having had an aesthetic experience at all. The ricochet in Mallarmé’s rescue of the painting is an even more interesting symptom: In reversing the jurors’ verdict and thus granting legitimate art-status candidacy to what remained a non-tableau in their eyes, Mallarmé transgressed the boundaries of the Beaux-Arts system. In retrospect, the same can even be said of Napoleon III, when he authorized the Salon des Refusés. I mentioned earlier that if I understood Greenberg correctly, non-art resulted from a refusal to make an aesthetic judgment, however severe, about something that ought to be judged aesthetically. We are now a step beyond Greenberg. Non-art is a strange ontological category: the category of things that claim candidacy to art status and yet are denied the aesthetic appreciation such things require because, in the Beaux-Arts system, they cannot possibly be art.

IS THERE AN ART INSTITUTION, different from the Beaux-Arts system, where such things can be art? We know the answer: In the Art-in-General system in which we live, everything is a legitimate candidate for the status of art. And we are back to the question I asked in the first essay in this series: Since when? Since when do we live in the Art-in-General system? When did we exit the Beaux-Arts system? Except in cases of revolution, history doesn’t move overnight from one institution to another, especially not from one with as massive a presence as the French Beaux-Arts system to one as loosely anarchic as the Art-in-General system. Yet the change could not have occurred gradually: The Beaux-Arts system morphing seamlessly into the Art-in-General system is as inconceivable as a monarchy smoothly becoming a republic. A conceptual revolution occurred, radical and absolute, and it is not the (r)evolution the history of modern art usually narrates. Cézanne’s late paintings morphing into Georges Braque’s early Cubism, morphing into Pablo Picasso’s papiers collés and cardboard constructions, morphing into Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau and Duchamp’s readymades, is a familiar story; in no way does it account for the transition from the Beaux-Arts to the Art-in-General system, which seems to me much better explained historically if we map it onto the five stages of the invention of non-art. In the long run, such mapping may ask art historians to theorize our concept of history in new, largely untried ways. For the time being, we might put our efforts on trial by turning to the third stage in the birth of non-art, the creation in 1884 of the Société des Artistes Indépendants.

I insisted in last month’s essay that the Société’s motto, “Ni jury ni récompense” (no jury, no prizes), amounted to the a priori admission that anything a member would present counted as potential art. Such an admission preempted any judgment stating “this cannot be art,” since all entries had a legitimate claim to art status as a matter of principle. The Salon des Indépendants was the first venue in which, to return to Greenberg’s terms, “all reality, all possibility [was] virtually art, not necessarily realized as art, but virtual as art.”22 I see the Indépendants as the first historical incarnation of the Art-in-General system—a very local one, certainly, hardly pioneering an aesthetic upheaval and totally blind to the radical shift it precipitated. The Société could not possibly foresee that the betrayal of its no-jury rule automatically amounted not only to the denial of the rejected work’s virtual art status but also to the refusal to acknowledge the transition from the Beaux-Arts to the Art-in-General system, which the Société had willy-nilly accomplished. I would bet that no one among the founders of the Indépendants realized that to refuse a member’s entry (on any grounds) did not mean this is not art, but rather this cannot be art, in total contradiction of the no-jury rule. And no one predicted that someday the Indépendants might have to make an exception to that rule.

It was bound to happen, though, and when it did, the fourth stage in the birth of non-art was reached. We recall that the hanging committee of the Cubist room of the 1912 Salon des Indépendants made an exception to the no-jury rule, of which the young Duchamp was the unsuspecting victim. His Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), the committee claimed, was not a bona fide Cubist painting. Bruised and humiliated, Duchamp was forced to remove the painting from the show. What variant of Croce’s category mistake, if any, did the committee members commit or invoke? I don’t believe that Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, the most dogmatic among them, refused to see that the Nude was art, even less that it could be art. On the other hand, I wager that they had a reaction as emotional as that of the jurors of the 1863 and the 1874 Salons who saw Manet’s entries. There is a huge difference, though. The Indépendants had exited the Beaux-Arts system, and Gleizes and Metzinger didn’t realize that. Whether or not they denied that their negative aesthetic experience was an aesthetic experience at all, denial was now a built-in consequence of the institution’s rules: Denying the right to the status of art to something that had that right as a matter of principle amounted to an automatic, a priori refusal to judge that thing aesthetically. Neither the psychology nor the phenomenology of aesthetic experience mattered anymore.

A line now appears that separates two parties in an agonistic game. Gleizes and Metzinger thought that the Nude didn’t deserve the name of Cubist painting. Duchamp seemed to think that “Cubist painting” was not necessarily an honorific status, but he was deeply hurt all the same. The chance for revenge came his way when the vagaries of the war made him cross paths with Gleizes once again. This happened in New York, where both men had landed after fleeing Europe. Both were consulted about the creation of a new artists’ society in opposition to the conservative Academy of Design. One of them (or both) advised the Ashcan School alumni who formed the core of the protesters to model the statutes of their society after those of the French Indépendants: No jury, no prizes. The rest is history. It is also the last and fifth stage in the birth of non-art, now clearly identified with the last and fifth stage of the advent of the Art-in-General system. A few days before the opening of its first salon, held in April 1917, the board of directors of the newly incorporated Society of Independent Artists received an entry from a certain Richard Mutt titled Fountain, which was actually a urinal turned on its side, dated, and signed the way works of art are supposed to be. Duchamp alias Mutt had chosen the object so as to make sure that it would be rejected. He had set a trap.

An exhibition of art is a context of expected aesthetic expectations. The Society’s directors didn’t know exactly what to expect. They were ready for amateur art, children’s drawings, decorative objects of all kinds, even (why not?) fountains—but of course not the one Richard Mutt had in store for them. Mutt, who had the right to exhibit two works in exchange for his six-dollar membership dues, expected that the directors wouldn’t stretch the range of their expectations beyond the boundaries of the Beaux-Arts system; yet he demanded that they do just that, that they judge a urinal aesthetically, as a legitimate candidate for the name of art. They did, because their no-jury rule forced them to do so. At an emergency meeting to decide the fate of the litigious object, one of the directors on the board apparently exclaimed: “You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvas that we would have to accept it!”23 To expect manure on a canvas was bad enough, but it could still be conceived within the Beaux-Arts system; to stretch one’s range of expectations to manure, period, was really beyond the pale for that director.24 This betrays that he (and his colleagues) were aware of the peculiar nature of Richard Mutt’s trap: By asking them to pronounce aesthetically on Fountain’s candidacy to art status, Mutt had asked them whether they were ready to acknowledge the collapse of the Beaux-Arts system and the advent of the Art-in-General system.

They were not. After a heated discussion, they whisked the urinal away and issued a press release stating, “The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.”25 “By no definition” entailed that the useful object in question could not be art. The board of directors had clearly fallen into Mutt’s trap and reacted exactly as Duchamp had expected them to react: They refused to acknowledge the consequence of their own no-jury rule. They could not fathom that they were, in spite of themselves, the pioneers of the new Art-in-General system.

Duchamp could have left it at that and secretly savored his little revenge on Gleizes and Metzinger. But his calling was to be the messenger. Stieglitz’s photo in The Blind Man made sure that the Independents’ censorship of Fountain landed on the record, and left it to posterity to draw the consequences. The critics and artists of the ’60s complied. But even they blamed or hailed the messenger. Many lent Duchamp the paternity of non-art, not realizing that it was actually the Independents who had produced an instance of not-art as art, or of art as not-art—the very definition of that brand of non-art that results from an artist banking on Croce’s category mistake and on an audience falling in his trap.

The limbo of non-art now contains one object that everybody agrees doesn’t belong in the Beaux-Arts system. This agreement is, I believe, Duchamp’s most remarkable achievement with Fountain. The dividing line is by the same token, to use his words, “the sign of the accordance.”26 There are those who cling to the Beaux-Arts system and reject Fountain, and there are those who celebrate Fountain and reject the Beaux-Arts system. Both groups agree that Fountain belongs elsewhere, whether it is in the category of inferior art so bad that it doesn’t deserve its name or in the category of the best avant-garde art that leaves Picasso behind “as the last of the humanists.”27 Am I asked to take a stand? How could I possibly cling to the Beaux-Arts system, knowing that it died in the 1880s? And why would I reject it, knowing the same? It would be like rejecting horse carriages because we now have automobiles. I don’t particularly like Duchamp’s urinal. Give me any Matisse or Picasso or Mondrian or Malevich to live with—they’re better company. But I tip my hat to the messenger. Fountain is a work of genius, no doubt; the bottle rack (Sèche-bouteilles, 1914), the snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915), the comb (Peigne, 1916), and perhaps the coatrack (Trébuchet, 1917) come close. I would be hard-pressed to call them inferior art, but I cannot call them great art either: The physical objects do not sustain renewed encounter on a sufficiently deep, unexpected, and inexplicable plane of experience. And, as everybody knows, the idea of the readymade is more art theory than art (which is why, being the theorist I am, I fell for it—call me the perfect sucker).

But Fountain is more than an idea, and it’s not illustrated theory. Embodied theory, perhaps. The more I think about it, the more I tend to see Fountain as the most remarkable thought experiment about art ever contrived, as dry and ethereal and mysteriously political as those quattrocento citte ideale once attributed to Piero della Francesca. An ideal city is a transcendental place of agreement in disagreement: an agora empty of flesh-and-blood people, a haven in the public sphere based on the principial legitimacy of dissent. Fountain prompts agreement about its belonging to the Art-in-General system, something that cannot be positively ascertained. Indeed, there is no proof that that system even exists. There is no proof that everything can be art. There are only dissenting judgments. To paraphrase Mallarmé, the judge of art has only to say: “This is art,” or “this is not art.” And as Reinhardt knew, only the latter is an absolute statement.

Next month: “Part VI: This Is Art—Anatomy of a Sentence”

Thierry de Duve is currently teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York. In fall 2013, he was Kirk Varnedoe visiting professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Visit Artforum’s archive at for the first four essays in this series: “Pardon My French” (October 2013), “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” (November 2013), “Why Was Modernism Born in France?” (January 2014), and “The Invention of Non-Art: A History” (February 2014).


(Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in French are the author’s translation.)

1. Phyllisann Kallick, “An Interview with Ad Reinhardt,” Studio International 174 (December 1967): 272.

2. Donald Judd, “Statement,” in Donald Judd: The Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax, Canada: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005), 190. Originally published in Kynaston McShine, ed., Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, exh. cat. (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1966).

3. Thomas McEvilley, “Art in the Dark,” Artforum, Summer 1983, 63.

4. Clement Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 158.

5. Ibid., 62.

6. “Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurais voir!” Molière, Tartuffe, 3.2.860–62.

7. Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics, 159.

8. Ibid., 158.

9. See my “The Invention of Non-Art: A History,” Artforum, February 2014, 192–99, 238.

10. Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics, 158.

11. This, after having seen him as the messenger of “anything goes” (Artforum, October 2013), of “everyone is an artist” (Artforum, November 2013), of the collapse of the Beaux-Arts system (Artforum, January 2014), and of the advent of non-art (Artforum, February 2014).

12. Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics, 158.

13. “The Invention of Non-Art: A History,” 198.

14. Leo Steinberg, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, March 1962.

15. “In sum I see Manet’s project in the Déjeuner as involving a deliberate attempt to bring together and in effect to fuse in a single large-scale work as many of the major genres of painting as he could encompass.” Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 174.

16. Fried, who sees Manet’s attempt at a “totalization” of the major genres of painting as running parallel to, or indeed as converging with, the artist’s striving for a “universal” painting transcending the national schools, speaks of both endeavors as the pursuit of “painting altogether” (Manet’s Modernism, 175, 126, 404). I prefer to speak of “painting at large” in order to avoid confusion with “art altogether,” an expression I shall introduce and explain in the next Artforum essay in the present series.

17. I quote Steinberg here, who ends his account of the depressing experience he had when visiting Jasper Johns’s first New York solo show, in 1958, thusly: “For what really depressed me was what I felt these works were able to do to all other art. The pictures of de Kooning and Kline, it seemed to me, were suddenly tossed into one pot with Rembrandt and Giotto.” Steinberg, “Contemporary Art,” 12.

18. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Le Jury de peinture pour 1874 et M. Manet,” in Œuvres complètes (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1945), 699. I quote from George Heard Hamilton’s translation (Manet and His Critics, 184), with the French “tableau” restored for Hamilton’s “painting.”

19. “Un sentiment très neutre de la valeur artistique discernable dans toute chose où elle se trouve.” Mallarmé, “Le Jury de peinture pour 1874 et M. Manet,” 699.

20. “Il [le public] est le maître à ce point, et peut exiger de voir tout ce qu’il y a.” Ibid.

21. “It is forbidden to hide one [tableau].” Ibid.

22. Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics, 158.

23. William Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain (Houston: The Menil Collection, 1989), 25.

24. The director in question is either George Bellows or Rockwell Kent. Beatrice Wood has given two versions of the story, with either of them engaged in a heated discussion over Fountain with Walter Arensberg. See Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, 25–26, note 24.

25. Quoted in Francis Naumann, “The Big Show, The First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Part I,” Artforum, February 1979, 38.

26. The expression “the sign of the accordance” appears in two notes contained in Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box. See Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 28.

27. John Canaday, “Leonardo Duchamp,” New York Times, January 17, 1965.