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Mick Hartley on Roy Lichtenstein and Marcel Duchamp

I like two recent postings by Mick Hartley, both in connection with art exhibitions in London, Lichtenstein at the Tate, and Duchamp (and others) at the Barbican.

Of Lichstenstein, Hartley says, among much else that is worth reading in full:

So yes, it’s easy to see him as glib, compared to the great names of New York Abstract Expressionism, like, say Mark Rothko, whose brown and purple splodges of colour were seemingly dragged agonisingly from deep within his soul; who couldn’t bear for his Seagram works to be displayed in a restaurant; who finally killed himself in his studio. Compared to Rothko, yes, Lichtenstein does seem a bit of a light-weight.

Also, there’s the fact that Lichtenstein’s easy to get. Just about anyone can see what it’s about. And critics hate that. What they want is to be given the opportunity to demonstrate why they’re art critics and you’re just some dumb schmuck who doesn’t know much about art but knows what he likes. If they started lecturing us about how Lichtenstein is commenting on mass reproduction and popular culture, we’d say, well of course he is.

That’s one mark against the man. Another may be that, despite all the attempts to portray his art as somehow critical of the popular culture of the times, and by extension of the rampant greedy capitalism of post-war America etc. etc. together with the sexual stereotypes of those ditsy romantic blondes and macho soldiers from the comic books, it’s fairly clear that Lichtenstein, far from mounting a biting critique of US imperialism, was in fact celebrating rather than condemning the sheer vibrancy and energy of the visual world he lived in – of New York in the Sixties. Of course he maintained an ironic distance, but he was no revolutionary, no radical subversive – except in the sense that he saw popular culture as a suitable subject for high art.

The Lichtenstein exhibition is a popular hit, but, Hartley reports, the Duchamp etc. show is provoking no such mass enthusiasm.

In 1917, Duchamp grabbed a urinal, signed it, and stuck it in an exhibition, to the delight of art critics ever since. Says Hartley, at the end of his Duchamp posting:

The logical conclusion to this line of thinking would be that if anything can be art if its maker wishes it to be art, then anything or everything can be art – and we don’t need artists any more. Curiously this is an argument that artists themselves seem reluctant to make.

So yes, the urinal was funny; yes, it was subversive; yes, it was probably the kind of kick-up-the-arse that the art establishment needed at the time. But can’t we move on? It’s not as if the art establishment now isn’t in need of a kick up the arse. But it’s not going to come from repeating the same old tricks of 100 years ago. The urinal lovers now are the art establishment.

Indeed.

10 comments to Mick Hartley on Roy Lichtenstein and Marcel Duchamp

  • RAB

    Duchamp did indeed administer a mighty kick up the arse to the Art Establishment, realised that he had said all that he needed to say and packed Art in for Chess.

    The best we can hope for from the current crop of talentless plagiarists is that Damien packs it in and takes up Tiddlywinks.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    FYI, there is considerable evidence now in the art history world that Duchamp’s urinal was not, in fact, an off the shelf model but was custom made. That is, he was pulling a double-mindscrew.

  • [...] Via Samizdata, we see this story about art. No, about Art! [...]

  • veryretired

    What has happened to art in the modern world is a microcosm of what has happened to our culture writ large.

    The search for truth and beauty, once the age-old obsession of the greatest minds humanity produced, has been replaced by a cynical con game, in which truth has been replaced by obfuscation, and beauty by piles of feces, literally and figuratively.

    Go to any modern art exhibition, observe the utter worthlessness and triviality being presented as art, and then walk out into the world and see that same debauched meaninglessness ascendent in every area of our modern life.

    Want to know what happened to education? To entertainment? To liturature? To the rule of law? To practically every aspect of our lives?

    Seek out that fabulous, revolutionary urinal. Look deep into its depths, into its uttermost recesses and hidden meanings.

    There you will find the state of modern culture, in the age of the artistic poseur who denies the existence of art, and the intellectual who denies the existence of the intellect.

    As it turns out, dung is a pretty good metaphor for our age after all…

  • I think Sturgeon’s law applies to art as it does to anything else. 99% of modern art is crud. But then again, 99% of art in the 15th century was crud, too, but only the other 1% has survived to this point. Do I think there is anything about the modernf art that makes it more corrupt or of less value, or the people who create or promote it more venal than their equivalents from any other era? In truth, no. There certainly is plenty of venality and corruption there, but this is not new.

    Personally, I go with the masses here. I rather like Roy Lichtenstein’s work. I don’t care much for Duchamp.

  • RAB

    Wrong Michael. 15th Century art was commissioned by rich patrons… the Church, Nobility etc and artists considered craftsmen and artisans for hire. Certainly not the social equals of those paying the bills. They produced goods to order.

    Then suddenly art with a big A was invented and the artists considered geniuses above the mere King Pope or Merchant who had commanded them to paint sculpt etc to order and were paying the bill. Suddenly you had a market that could be speculative, that relied on new factors such as fashion and whim,which is open to hype and critique, but is also so closed and closetted as to be less accessable to the ordinary man in the street than Da Vinci’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Creation.

    Vincent Van Goch sold just one painting in his lifetime (to his brother) but painted hundreds that are now worth fortunes. Why? Was he really a genius who was not appreciated in his lifetime, or was he without a big fat agent to do the bullshit promo for him at the time? The Pre Raphaelites you could not give their paintings away a decade or so ago, now they are fashionable and expensive again. Whim, fashion and market forces…

    But most all Modern Art is excerable rubbish, and the artists know that themselves, but laugh all the way to the banksy because they have no shame or soul. They know that with the right spin and promotion, there’s a sucker born every minute.

    The likes of Damien Hirst can come back from the pub with a half pissed idea ” The physical Impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” going round in his head and say to himself… That’s pretty far out there, how can I execute that as a work of art for big bucks? I know, I’ll stick a shark in a perspex box, that should do it!”

    The gene pool of modern art is so shallow you won’t get the soles of your shoes wet, let alone your mind stretched. Read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, if you haven’t already.

  • john in cheshire

    I like Roy Lichtenstein’s work. And I like Marcel Duchamp’s work. But whose is better? There’s only one way to find out…..

  • Laird

    Personally, I don’t care very much for either, but at least both had some demonstrable technical skill. That’s more than can be said for most modern “artists”.

  • Dom

    Hartley’s blog is my daily must-read. He never disappoints. But he is dead wrong about that fraud Lichtenstein, who did nothing but steal comic-book panels, often copying even the text balloons verbatim. Think of it from the point of view of the comic artist.

    Go to the Lichtenstein Foundation site, and this is what you read:

    “The contents of this website are for personal and/or educational use only. The texts, graphics and designs contained in the website may not be reproduced, downloaded or modified in any form without the express written permission of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.”

    I wonder what would happen if a comic-book artist made a copy of a panel that Lichtenstein stole from him to begin with. Could he be sued for plagiarism?

  • [...] there was a comment thread here about modern art, about how ghastly it is, how badly it bodes for Western Civilisation, etc. [...]