Marcel Duchamp was a French painter and sculptor. He is associated with many of the 20th Century’s most consequential and controversial avant-garde artistic movements, such as Cubism, Dada and “conceptual art”. He once painted a replica of the Mona Lisa with a moustache. I, for one, took this to be a joke, as if a vandalizing teenage Warhol had broken into the Louvre with his black Sharpie.
Duchamp died on October 2nd, 1968 in Neuily-sur-Seine, France at the age of 81. Among his most famous paintings is, Nude Descending a Staircase. It is abstract; or let me revise that and say that it is representational (and here I’m attempting critical analysist somewhat beyond my competence) only in that it shows the fragmented, mechanized movements one might see on a strip of film, back when film came in strips. Maybe Duchamp was imagining our digitized 21st Century future. Good for him. It was time better spent in his studio than messing up a Da Vinci.
In any event, the average person looking for a nude descending a staircase in that painting will see only a kind of bouquet of twisted tin. It would have been jarringly new to the eyes and artistic sensibilities of the average person in 1912, just as Stravinsky’s Sacre du Prentemp (The Rite of Spring) would shock the ears of many the following year. I happen to like the Stravinsky; I’m not all that fond of the Duchamp — or any Duchamp. Maybe my eyes need to catch up with my ears. Or, maybe I should trust my eyes and declare Duchamp worth only of a glance or two.
But the journal The New Criterion has offered a transcultural anecdote from the last days of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It involves, however obliquely, the artistic vision of Marcel Duchamp and belies America’s “woke” cultural blindness when it came to dealing with Afghanistan’s dominant Muslim culture. I submit it may well have confused and disenchanted Afghans to the point of softening their resistance to re-domination by the violent and zealous philistines known as the Taliban. You might say they were looking for cultural bread from America, and we handed them a funny-looking stone.
It seems that, before our cataclysmic withdrawal from the country, as part of a cultural outreach program we sponsored some art education programs. A video from one of those classes has surfaced and shows an American academic instructing a small group of Afghan men and women about the wonders of conceptual art. A slide pops up on a screen in the darkened room and the group finds itself looking at a Duchamp work called The Fountain. It is, in fact, an unadorned urinal. Duchamp impishly sprang this little novelty on the art world in 1917.
“Anyone know what this is?” asks the instructor.
“A toilet,” answers one Afghan gentleman very tentatively, as if he can’t believe he’s being asked this question or being shown this object in the name of art. The camera reportedly captures the expression on the faces of some of the women in the room. My reporter relates that it was “priceless” in its degree of bemused puzzlement. The instructor assures one and all that Duchamp is a very important figure in Western Art and that The Fountain found its way into an art gallery, flushing away (pun intended) age-old conceptions (this being conceptual art) of what did or did not constitute art. He declared that this was a huge artistic “revolution”, elevating the mundane above works meant merely, in Duchamp’s estimate, to please the eye.
I happen to believe in revolutions in art. They shake up and unexpectedly augment our vision of the world. But I suspect the mortals gathered for this little art class in Afghanistan, while doubtless eager to learn about Western art, were also painfully familiar with the destructive possibilities of any revolution. They could not fail to be conscious, while this docent was working to raise their art consciousness, that they faced the strong possibility of being swept out of that classroom and into yet another violent revolutionary maelstrom brewing on the streets. Beyond the serene luxury of that moment, they knew their fragile, preciously-bought freedom and their homeland might once again be descending civilization’s staircase.
And here they were, as if as a preview of coming attractions, being asked to admire a pisser.
Now there is some irony here. It is that Dechamp himself would comment years later that, “I threw the urinal (and other objects) into their (the commissars of the art world’s) faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their artistic beauty.”
Was his “challenge” therefore actually intended as a kind of joke? Well, artists do like to have fun with us. I told you my opinion of his mustachioed Mona Lisa.
Duchamp may have been a bit of a clown. But, as a matter of fact, I see no problem with offering up objects, no matter how functional, pedestrian or seemingly unworthy of celebration, as appropriate for our aesthetic attention and appreciation. I once toured the museum contained within the Wisconsin headquarters of Kohler, the famous makers of toilets. Among other things, it featured a huge, attractively lighted pyramid of porcelain Kohler privies. It was a surprisingly lovely display, suggesting, too, an antic Duchampian streak in Kohler’s corporate museum designers. And who’d have thought….well, you know, that a mound of toilets could be so visually edifying? I, for one, welcome the elevation of the lowliest of ordinary objects above, in this case, their urinary purposes. True, Duchamp’s “fountain” seemed more in the order of what you’d find in rows in a squalid, malodorous city bus terminal. That was probably his point. Ever stop to look at them while you were using one of them? The point of Kohler’s privy pyramid was undoubtedly advertising. And, of course, advertising has often been offered up as art.
But I’m afraid I see this pre-Afghan collapse art class as belonging to an order of purblind modern (again, “woke”) pedagogy. It reveals the transcultural priorities of much of the West’s and U.S.’s cultural and educational elite when it came to Afghanistan. I submit that they were in the toilet.
For instance, it has been reported that the United States, as part of its twenty-year, multi-trillion dollar Afghan adventure, spent $787 million on “gender programs” — a real challenge, since a writer for the journal The Spectator noted that neither the Dari nor Pasho languages of that nation contain any words for gender, per se. (I cannot confirm this, nor the companion assertion that the distinction between “sex” and “gender” was only invented by a sexually abusive child psychiatrist in the 1960s. I’ll be anxious to check out that incendiary claim, which, in light of the more dubious manifestations of the Sexual Revolution, seems not altogether implausible.)
I’ve also read that Dr. Bahar Jalali, putative founder of the first Gender Studies program in Afghanistan, noted sadly on August 30th that after teaching eight-and-a-half years at the American University in that nation, all his work was being “snatched away so needlessly.”
To which I’d say — all the while thinking it needless to say it — that Gender Studies Programs were the least of what we lost and the Taliban destroyed or rejected when that nation fell back into their hands.
I suspect the ancient, long-suffering Muslims, Christians and masses of abandoned, free-thinking, freedom-loving folks in Afghanistan could have done without the mother lode of “woke” modern cultural twaddle some of us set about heaping on them. But I’m sure the Taliban will make good use – which is to say evil use — of our heaps of left-behind weaponry and our fleet of Black Hawks. Too bad we didn’t snatch them away.
How might the waggish Marcel Duchamp have conceptualized Afghanistan’s horrible fate? Well, in dust, wire, glue and varnish he created something called, A Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors. It was broken into pieces during shipment to its final permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Every Afghan is familiar with broken thing. They might discern a universal statement in a shattered heap of glue, varnish, dust and wire. It might resemble the current state of their homes.
They’d get after it with a broom.