Modern Art and Spirituality: Duchamp

This week considers a third artist often grouped with Picasso and Matisse—the polymath Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is the crossover figure of the triad. Paris’ early 20th-century art salons, for example, already found it difficult to classifying his Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. He was too Cubist for the Futurist and too Futurist for the Cubist. Duchamp, however, moved far beyond these modes of expression which add to the confusion many still feel when viewing art post-dada. From Duchamp onwards, the interested but uninitiated person remains baffled by art. Picasso and Matisse still drew legible objects considered “beautiful” compared to Duchamp esoteric abstractions which went way beyond representation.

Nothing is simple with Duchamp. However, it is safe to say the break between him and the previous two artists came with Readymades. Readymades are everyday objects which attracted or repulsed Duchamp, which he took as art. Readymades are at the same time sober and playful. As a movement, it critiques romantic notions of art. Duchamp made sure most pieces had esoteric wittiness to them. The ironic moves and countermoves know no base. Duchamp even claimed that when he arrived in New York he did nothing new. He “found” the Readymade movement was already there. He just curated in its name. Here are the essential elements of viewing a Readymade. Understand the in-joke(s), then the critique(s), and recognise everyday objects as art.

Another difference between Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp is the first two drew on primitive art, while the third returned art back to the primitive. Duchamp took art back to its craft roots. Remember the contemporary idea of art, the artistic genius, or even the art museum started, as a particular perception of human history took shape. Between The Capitoline Museum (1471) and The British Museum (1753) historical imagination drifted from cyclical or stagnant time to a linearised and narrativised time. An increased awareness of times past allowed an European art canon to grow. Before this canonization, however, art just meant skill. The origin of the word art is Ars meaning craft. When Duchamp critiques art, he intends the linearised, compartmentalised, canon of art.

Duchamp never produced a religious artwork. Yet, all his art is religious or rather anti-religious. On multiple occasions, Duchamp linked his anti-art with anti-religion. As Paul Tillich has pointed out, all art contains the possibility of anti-art just as all religion contains the seed of anti-religion. Remember Duchamp critiques a certain historicization of art. If destroying art was Duchamp’s project why did he spend so much time helping the Guggenheims and others curate art? In a similar way, one finds Duchamp’s spirituality in his rallying against religion.

Duchamp never made a big deal about being an atheist or an artist. When asked if anybody can make a Readymade, his answer rang something like this: Why would they? There is no skill involved. It is not art. So, Duchamp breaks down the wall between the craft and art. By eroding the wall between the everyday and the special Duchamp is returning the art to what Taylor called the pre-secular. One may even say he is returning art to the pre-Carolingian world where there is a fluidity between spirituality and the ordinary life. He remains ever aware that one cannot recover the pre-secular contingency of spiritual and secular, art and craft without passing through the canonization of Europe. Once one passes through the canon into something new it is not secular nor pre-secular. It is something yet to be named.

In L’infintif Duchamp speculates about art in a direction which Derrida’s idea of hauntology would later generalise to language. Hauntology is an intentional homonymic play on ontology. Ontology investigates the nature of being while hauntology claims such investigation always includes our cultural and technological memory from the outset. Duchamp also believed art leaves the quintessential unexpressed but intended, and the unintended expressed, which seems a lot like the post-modern death of the author.

Analysing Duchamp’s work through his love of chess yields the most satisfying results. In particular, an article he co-wrote with chess theorist Vitality Halberstadt entitled L’opposition et cases conjuguées sont réconcilées. The article describes an end game situation called the Lasker-Reichhelm position in which the best black can hope for is a draw. Art and anti-art, religion and anti-religion are like a chess match. At the end the best black—the “anti” in this metaphor—can hope for is a draw.

Many would say Duchamp destroyed art. If one means an “accurate” depiction of reality through paint, sculpture or some other art form produced by a so-called master maybe he did. Art, however, has never been mere representation. Artists have always experimented with new perspectives on reality which shaped how we see the world. The masters often scandalised contemporary critics.

Rather than destroying art, Duchamp saved it from itself. Here the irony of the Lasker-Reichhelm position again is clear. Yes, Duchamp assailed the wall between art and craft, artistic intention and viewer reception, democratising art again. He opened art to various personal expressions which seem even more obscure than the beautiful paintings  hanging in a museum. The point is, those pretty pictures were never innocent. Art is always in the Lasker-Reichhelm position and so is religion.

Thus, Duchamp’s deadlock spirituality helps loosen the ground for the possibility of everything being art, even ourselves. Now even objects have spirituality oozing from the memory they house, like the bottled air of Paris he once exhibited. Duchamp teaches us to be less solemn about religion, more playful, to have more symbolic space. In a world where the religious chess game is full of zero-sum players convinced their religion or ideology checkmates all others,  Duchamp’s message—which bloomed during and after the Second World War remember—is more important than ever. In an endgame, the best any spirituality can hope for is a draw.


Works Consulted

  • Coleman, E.J., 1998. Creativity and spirituality: Bonds between art and religion. SUNY Press.
  • Derrida, J., 1994, Specters of marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New International, transl. P. Kamuf, Routledge, New York.
  • Duchamp, M., 1966. À l’infinitif. Cordier & Ekstrom.
  • Duchamp, M., Sanouillet, M. and Peterson, E., 1973. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Da Capo Press.
  • Duchamp, M. An Interview by George Heard Hamilton.
  • Duchamp, M. An Interview by Richard Hamilton.
  • Du Toit, C.C. 2015. Ready Made for Mystery. Decontextual. November 21.
  • Kudla, A.N., Biological Agency in Art.
  • Rulofson, C.A., 2012. Spirituality in Modern Art (Masters Thesis, University of Wisconsin–Superior).

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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