Duchamp’s Game of Chance
The story of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades enjoys mythological status in art history, and the veracity of some elements of the tale is on par with stories of Greek gods. After success and eventual disillusionment with cubist painting, Duchamp began fashioning everyday objects into artworks in 1913. André Breton defined readymades as “manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of art through the choice of the artist.” Duchamp insisted that his selection of objects was not visual, and did not take good or bad taste into account. Art could be made of anything, and required little or no manipulation. Sensing the Pandora’s box he was opening, he only made a few readymades each year, warning that “art is a habit forming drug.” The objects are intentionally not unique, so a replica is just as good as a so-called original. Starting in the 1930s Duchamp used this to his advantage, creating and selling replicas and small reproductions of all his major works. Many of the originals have not survived (1).
The enduring legacy of Duchamp’s readymades is the idea that the discovery makes the work of art, not the uniqueness of the object. In this framework, artistic agency is central. Art is whatever an artist declares to be art. The artist exists, everything else is a variable. But why should the artist remain on a firm foundation while everything else is subject to flux? What if the artist’s identity, agency, and very existence become variables, as well?
The pinnacle of Duchamp’s legend is the moment he submitted Fountain to the exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists. The exhibition, just like Salon des Indépendants in Paris, was supposed to be open to any artist, but the urinal was rejected. In some ways, Sunset Over the Adriatic and Fountain are two jokes with the same punch line. These open, democratic salons, however well meaning, couldn’t really be open to everything. The impulse of fumisme and later Dada was to poke and prod and offend until the invisible borders of decorum and good taste were revealed. Lolo accomplished this by having his artwork accepted to the salon. Duchamp, repeating the prank seven years later, made much the same point when his artwork was rejected.
Fountain’s place in the art historical canon was not clear in 1917, and only solidified later when replicas and retrospectives began to circulate, which had a major impact on artists and writers later in the century. Duchamp’s oeuvre particularly resonated with artists in the late 1950s and 1960s, especially Neo-Dada, Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism (1). There’s a common assumption that artworks that achieve masterpiece status do so for reasons that are inherent in the quality of the work. There’s evidence to suggest that this is not entirely true for any artwork, and a work like Fountain goes out of its way to complicate the notion of a masterpiece. Duchamp insisted that the creation, or declaration, of readymades was not an aesthetic choice. These works were a revolt against art that he deemed to be too pictorial. So if there’s a mark of genius embedded anywhere in Fountain, it’s not in the object itself, but in the idea that precedes the object. When we look at the impact Duchamp had on modern and postmodern artists, his influence is difficult to overstate. Pop artist Richard Hamilton said, “All the branches put out by Duchamp have borne fruit. So widespread have been the effects of his life that no individual may lay claim to be his heir, no one has his scope or his restraint.” (1)
Answering the question of whether Lolo’s Sunset Over the Adriatic could take the place of Duchamp’s Fountain as the pivotal art prank of the twentieth century is difficult because there was only one twentieth century. We have the events as they transpired and nothing to compare them to. We can’t precisely measure the randomness with which Fountain attained its status, neither can we measure the inequality of its success relative to other possible contenders, like Lolo’s sloppy seascape. But we can make a pretty good guess.
In 2006, Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts published a study in Science called “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” They began by observing that the success of one cultural artifact (song, painting, novel, movie, etc.) compared to another is very unpredictable. On top of that, the inequality between the most popular artifacts and moderately popular artifacts is enormous. The success of a cultural artifact is also very difficult to predict, even for experts with plenty of data. Try as we might, we can’t predict with much certainty which paintings, songs, and movies will become popular. Their explanation, which accounts for both unpredictability and inequality in cultural markets, is that the determination of quality of an artifact happens socially, and the merit of the work itself plays only a small role. Remarkably, they were able to measure this.
Salganik and his collaborators created an artificial online music market where 14,341 participants were shown a list of previously unknown bands. When entering the study, all participants were randomly sorted into two groups, one that included a social element and one that did not. In the independent, non-social condition, participants were asked to listen to songs, give them ratings, and download any they’d like to keep in their personal music library. They could see only the name of the band and title of the song, no other information. Participants sorted into the social condition, on the other hand, had the exact same interface with one very important addition: they could also see the average ratings and how many times each song had been downloaded by other participants. Those in the social version of the experiment were further divided randomly into eight “worlds,” distinct digital realms where they could only see the social download information from others in their own world. As the authors explained:
By studying a range of possible outcomes rather than just one, we can measure inherent unpredictability: the extent to which two worlds with identical songs, identical initial conditions, and indistinguishable populations generate different outcomes. In the presence of inherent unpredictability, no measure of quality can precisely predict success in any particular realization of the process. (2)
In short, social influence makes popular cultural artifacts more popular, and makes unpopular cultural artifacts less popular. Social influence has the added effect of increasing the unpredictability of outcomes. Noise, when amplified, starts to become signal. In the study, some songs were wildly popular in one digital world, while the exact same songs were hardly noticed in another world, even though the starting conditions of the virtual worlds were identical. They did find some correlation between quality and success, but not much. They conceded that “in general, the best songs never do very badly, and the worst songs never do extremely well,” but they go on to say that “almost any other result is possible.” (2)
Of course, songs and conceptual artworks are different things, and we’re considering the course of art history, not digital music sharing, so surely there’s a significant difference, right? Maybe not. It turns out there is observable evidence of this phenomenon in the storied history of Duchamp’s Fountain. Writing recently in The Art Newspaper, Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson state quite emphatically that Duchamp did not submit the urinal to the 1917 New York Society of Independent Artists exhibition. In a letter that year to his sister, Duchamp said about the exhibition, “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.” This correspondence did not come to light until 1983, long after Duchamp’s death. (3)
The female friend was a German Baroness named Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who lived from 1874 to 1927. After her aristocrat husband abandoned her, she continued to keep rarified company with the cultural elite of New York. She simultaneously attracted and repelled a string of noteworthy personalities, including Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. She even had poems published alongside excerpts of James Joyce’s Ulysses. She was a hoarder and a junk collector, filling her apartment with various knickknacks that she reassembled into artworks. On April 6, 1917, Elsa was enraged when the US declared war on Germany. She submitted the urinal to the Society of Independent Artists as a protest. “Armut,” the homophone of “R. Mutt” in German, has multiple meanings, including “poverty” or “intellectual poverty.” Elsa revealed the “intellectual poverty” of the Society by tricking them. If they accepted the piece, they would have to admit that anything could be an artwork. If they refused it, they would break their own rule stating that they would accept any artwork submitted. Spalding and Thompson summarize Elsa’s provocative political act this way: “The urinal was Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war—an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for.” (3)
Beginning in 1936, Duchamp started making replicas of his readymades, most of which no longer existed. Around 1950, he assumed authorship of Fountain. By then Elsa was dead, and just as importantly, so was Alfred Stieglitz, who had photographed the original Fountain (3). Eventually art history was written, and Duchamp’s Fountain had a starring role.
On one hand it’s easy to see Duchamp’s behavior as nothing more than malicious theft. He liked what he saw and he took it. On the other hand, the unoriginality of Fountain was the point all along. He never claimed to have made anything, the origin story was always about artistic theft, it’s just that Elsa’s story makes it clear that there was a victim beyond an unnamed toilet designer. By ripping off Elsa’s gesture, rather than pilfering a crafted object, he robbed her of the very thing that’s so valuable in his formulation of what it means to be an artist: the declarative act, the ability for an artist to state that an object is art.
Elsa’s story is important for our purposes here–beyond setting the record straight–because it illustrates the extent to which the defenders of the art historical canon are willing to go to keep the narrative in tact. Very compelling evidence, a letter from Duchamp to his sister stating clearly that the conceptual gesture of Fountain was not his doing, has been public since 1983. Despite this, art historians and curators keep the old myth alive and tell it as truth. Why? “The reason is simple,” according to Spalding and Thompson. “[T]oo much has been invested in Duchamp’s fiction. Countless artistic, curatorial and academic theories have been based upon it.” Fountain’s position as a turning point in art history is self-reinforcing. It has become a tautology: the reason Fountain is a significant work is because Fountain is a significant work. This is exactly what Salganik et al were measuring with their music download experiment, only on a grand scale that unfolded over a century and set the course of history. Popular things become more and more popular, even if their initial popularity is essentially random. Fountain became the foundational art prank of the twentieth century avant-garde, not Lolo’s Sunset Over the Adriatic, even though the donkey made the joke first.