The Pursuit of Triviality

   Duchamp’s “Fountain” illustrates very clearly the other side of the distinction. We are presented with a work of art which is not of value in itself – praise or blame at this level would go to the manufacturers – but attains value through our understanding of a context quite external to it, in which it finds itself by accident, as it were. The “art” resides in the use that Duchamp makes of it; by placing a ready made object in an art context he challenged contemporary views of what constituted art and seriously damaged the idea that art objects had to be special things in their own right. He made it clear that ultimately there was no valid distinction between art and non-art; all that was necessary for something to be called art was the appropriate invocation of an art context.

   As a radical gesture this was not bad for the 1920’s and it’s no wonder that Duchamp is an avant-garde hero, one of the greats of Modernism. But Duchamp’s gesture, and the gestures like it that we’ve been having ever since, come at a price. The shrinking of value I mentioned before is accompanied by a corresponding shrinking of the frame of reference in which art can operate, as more and more it tends to become about the advanced place that it aspires to with respect to other art and less and less about the external world. This is the source of the much commented upon self-referentiality that is such a characteristic of Modernism, and very likely also a cause for the reduced audience that contemporary art enjoys with respect to other periods in history. While traditional art is intermeshed with the world around us by the more or less complex mechanisms of representation that it involves, Duchamp’s found object has no existence (as art) other than as a statement within a sequence of other art works, and it would be quite unintelligible to someone (let’s say a workman involved in cleaning up after a major fire at the gallery where it’s kept) who was not aware of its special identity.

   The general result of all this is that Modernism, (and I’m speaking here of a whole spectrum of work, most of it considerably less extreme than Duchamp’s found objects), far more than any other kind of art in history has need of an extensive framework of preconceptions to be intelligible. It comes embedded in a vast and principally linguistic scaffolding of theory, explanation and justification whose subject is by and large art itself. At the centre is the canonical account of how all this came to be, the principal artists, the movements, their relations to each other and the significant ways they enlarged or redefined the concept of art. I don’t mean to say that all this is done without any intended connection at all to what we may describe as the world outside art, or that art has not always been conceived within a framework of what other artists have been doing. The difference is one of degree, rather, with Modernism having a much higher index of self-referentiality than anything before, and requiring a lot more prior knowledge about art to make sense of it. It would be interesting to speculate whether any of this could have happened in an age before mass art education, public art galleries and the widespread production of textbooks.

© 2020 Neil Moore

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