Usually, I hate hearing inside jokes. They come off as self-important, obnoxious, and most importantly, not funny. Those who enjoy them most have been in on it from the start, and if you had to be there, then why bother telling and re-telling the inside joke to outsiders? Worst of all, while some d-bag is posturing and trying to reap the perceived benefits of exclusivity, you have to politely chuckle and pretend that you care. Lame-O.
Unfortunately, I often see the same type of thing happen when people experience art. Perceiving themselves to be outsiders to some exclusive underground club of art world geniuses, viewers can frequently feel as if they are simply not getting the inside joke, so to speak, when faced with something that doesn’t provide an immediate path to understanding. Yes, art strives to challenge viewers in varying degrees and if it doesn’t in some way, well, then you are probably not looking at art. But when was the last time you came upon some silly-ass art and instead of laughing or smirking, you squinted your eyes, tilted your head to one side, and attempted to really, really look at the work in the hopes that by doing so the meaning will be revealed? Seem familiar?
Granted, the art world can certainly feel like a kind of inside joke on its own for sure, but the funniest part about this is that viewers have somehow been tricked into putting artwork on a pedestal where it simply cannot, nay, will not make you openly laugh whether a particular piece has an air of intended silliness or not.
Yet poking holes into this perception of art as unquestionably authoritative is a favorite pastime of artists throughout history. The development of Western art can be mapped out based on this general theme as societies began to shift away from absolute monarchies in favor of a more individual approach, questioning the tropes of power, class, and societal behavior along the way. However, for me, one artist takes the cake when it comes to shredding the authority of the art world establishment and his brilliance is largely due to his amazing sense of humor. Marcel Duchamp has not only influenced a whole generation of artists, but his funny work has cause reverberations in the art world that are still felt today. And to be honest, I’m not sure what contemporary art would look like these days without him.
Nonetheless, I remember instantly disliking Duchamp when I was first introduced to him in one of my college art history courses. After I spent almost an entire school year learning about and then venerating Western art since Egyptian times, Duchamp entered the scene as a subversive art world trickster and I was having none of it. Why must he mock my beloved painting? I know that many of the great painters where limited by societal norms and the political atmosphere of their time, but I like Northern European art that subverts the authority of the Catholic church in Spanish-occupied Flanders! (Yes, that was an inside joke. My deepest apologies…) However, now much more experienced and to be completely honest - jaded by the nepotism of the art world, Duchamp makes me laugh. “But why?” you may ask. Well, allow me to illustrate…
Exhibit A: Bicycle Wheel, 1913 (original)
Have you ever wondered if an artist merely purchased items at a store, arranged the parts together, and then called it art? Thanks to Duchamp, there’s a real chance that you just might be correct! Bicycle Wheel was Duchamp’s first “Readymade” art piece, and yes, he bought a stool and bicycle wheel and then attached them to one another for visual amusement. Reflecting on this now iconic piece of art, Duchamp once stated that, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.” Awesome. I like spacing out on cool looking stuff, too. 3-D posters anyone? Plus, by calling this prefabricated marriage of parts art, Duchamp also challenged the concept of what makes an artist an artist while also subverting the viewer’s expectation of what art can be. Haha! Fooled you!
The best part of this is that the original got thrown away because someone mistook it for garbage, but Duchamp put together another Bicycle Wheel 40 years later and that is what you can now see at MoMA. So, why do certain art objects garner an insane price in the market? Yeah, I don’t know either. Ridiculous!
Exhibit B: Fountain, 1917
Here is another Readymade or found art piece by Duchamp. After buying a well-crafted porcelain urinal at a hardware store, the artist merely turned the thing upside down and then signed it with “R. Mutt”. Now realize that he did this in New York in 1917 (same year as the Russian Revolution - crazy!), so times were a bit different then and potty humor (unfortunately) wasn’t the most prevalent element of artistic discourse. Yet here we have a guy not only contributing a tiny amount of time and effort towards the creation of art (I forget, what is it that makes an artist an artist, again?), but he further tricks us by transforming a crass item into a highly regarded work of art. The piece offended others at the time of its creation so much so that it was not shown at an exhibition where a fee guaranteed an artist a spot. For me, Fountain is like Duchamp’s version of a fart joke - while it may be somewhat vulgar, it has the power to unite us all in its ability to make almost anyone smirk.
Exhibit C: L.H.O.O.Q., 1919
Unless you’ve never left the cave that you were born in, I’m guessing that you recognize this painting as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. With a postcard reproduction of the famous work in his possession, Duchamp took the liberty of adding some flare. Now the Mona Lisa can give mustache rides and save bits of food for later! Beyond knocking this highly revered painting down a notch by scribbling onto its image (classic move seen on advertisements across the globe), Duchamp further pokes fun at this sacred work of art by titling it L.H.O.O.Q. which when spoken with a French accent puns the phrase, “Elle a chaud au cul” which then translates to “She has a hot ass.” A-MAZING! Finally, someone has poked fun at the most famous painting in the world, oh, only about 400 years after it was made.
Exhibit D: Rrose Sélavy, 1920
That pretty woman gazing out of this photograph is none other than Duchamp himself! After giving himself a fabulous makeover, Duchamp posed for a series of photographs taken by the famous photographer, Man Ray. Throughout the rest of his career, the artist would attribute various works to his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, and just like Tom Hanks in “Bossom Buddies”, Duchamp was a straight man who was not afraid of gender-bending, especially when slyly subverting societal conventions.
Exhibit E: Installation Photo of First Papers of Surrealism, 1942
Duchamp’s contribution to the First Papers of Surrealism is the string you see strewn about the gallery space. Here he displaces the viewer from the artwork, art that they have been invited to see (You’ve been punked, suckas!). While part of this also speaks to the displacement of many European artists including the Surrealists under Fascist rule, Duchamp keeps it light by also arranging for children dressed in sports gear to continually kick around a ball and jump rope during the opening reception further pranking his usually affluent audience. Man, I hope that guy with the monocle keeps a vigilant eye out…
Lastly, while not a work of art per se, even in death Duchamp remains the eternal funnyman with what has got to be my favorite joke, I mean, epitaph of all time, “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent”, which translates to “Besides, it is always other people who die”. Ballsy and it has zing! Well played, Duchamp, well played indeed.
Kate Goyette is a Brooklyn-based artist who likes to make, see, ponder over, read about, and write about art.