A conversation with Marcel Duchamp

Jean Antoine: When you started out, you painted like everyone else;
you created art. Then you became the man whom Andre Breton called “the
most intelligent man of the twentieth century”. So, does that mean,
since you have given up painting, that you associate painting with

Marcel Duchamp: No, not stupidity. First of all, I
want to defend myself a little against the charge of being the most
intelligent man in the world. It’s fairly easy for someone to call you
that, but it’s fairly difficult to convince yourself that you are. And I
find it hard to believe, because first of all you have to understand
the word “intelligent” in the way he meant it and I’m not sure that I
know what he meant; and there are any number of ways of being
intelligent. I accept it because it was said by Breton whose opinions I
respect greatly, but that’s all.

But you haven’t answered my question about the problem of painting and stupidity?

no, not at all. No, stupidity has got nothing to do with it. It’s
simply an activity which has been a little overestimated and is regarded
as something of major importance. Personally, I don’t believe it is all
it’s cracked up to be. It’s one of those human activities that is not
crucially important. That’s what I mean; especially now, when it has
become completely esoteric and everyone paints, everyone buys it and
everyone talks about it. I wonder if it counts for anything at all when
it comes to expressing more profound thought.

When you gave up painting, did you believe that painting was dead?

First, you know, I haven’t given up painting; if I get an idea for a
painting tomorrow, I’ll do it. I didn’t make any hard and fast
resolutions at all, of any kind. I simply stopped because I didn’t have
anything more to say at the time. I had run out of ideas; ideas don’t
come as easily as all that. As I have never been in the habit of working
at my easel every morning from eight am, I only feel inclined to work
when something stirs me in some way. Then I try to find a way of
expressing the idea and there isn’t one. There hasn’t been one for a
long time and that’s all I can say. But I didn’t make any hard and fast
decisions about giving up painting at all.

Tell me something about your urinal which you sent to the Independents Exhibition, signed R. Mutt?

was a bit of an exception, as it was sent to the first Independents
Exhibition in New York and, as is the case with all the Independents
Exhibitions, there was no hanging committee. The whole point of the
Independents Exhibition was to enable artists to satisfy their need to
exhibit without having to submit their work to a hanging committee. So I
sent that piece under the impression that there would be no problem
having it accepted and that afterwards we would see how the public
reacted to it. But the organisers, or the hanging committee, decided
against exhibiting it. It was too shocking, I suppose, even though it
was not obscene or pornographic, or even erotic. As the organisers
couldn’t find any reason to suppress it or reject it, they dumped the
piece behind screens where it could no longer be seen and we lost sight
of it for the whole exhibition. We didn’t know where it was and it was
only at the end of the exhibition, when everything was being dismantled,
that we found the piece hidden away and realised what had happened.

What is more, I was on the organising committee, so I resigned and I never again exhibited at the Independents Exhibition.

And what about the ready-mades you created afterwards?

they grew out of a thought process which was perhaps a little too
logical, but logical all the same, relating to works made with your
hands: you can cut off the artist’s hands and still end up with
something that is a product of the artist’s choice since, on the whole,
when an artist paints using a palette he is choosing the colours. So
choice is the crucial factor in a work of art. Paintings, colours,
forms, even ideas are an expression of the artist’s choice. So you can
take this even further if you want, by saying: why go to the trouble of
using your hands at all? So the idea of making something that is not
physically created by the artist, that simply stems from choices he has
made, that is, something already created like the ready-mades, was
valid—personally speaking, at any rate. But remember, I definitely do
not want to create a school of the ready-made; far from it.

As a matter of fact, doesn’t your concept of ready-mades preclude the idea of a school?

to some extent, but not entirely. But, ultimately, I know there is an
inherent danger in the ready-made, and that is the ease with which it
can be produced. So, if you were to create tens of thousands of
ready-mades per year, that would become extremely monotonous and
irritating. So I would recommend restraint in the production of

You yourself provided detailed pointers to the inner workings of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, in The Green Box, which is a sort of instruction manual, and there have also been numerous commentaries by critics.

Do you think that the work is accessible to the general public?

and no, because everything is accessible, you know! The analyses that
have been put forward are not necessarily of any value, since I have not
offered any explanation myself. That is, I have done something, but I
don’t analyse myself and above all I don’t judge what I have done. What I
intended is of no interest; what is interesting is the effect the work
has on the spectator, on the public who will decide if the work is
important enough to survive. If not, if the public decides against it,
if they are unmoved by it, then the Glass will be broken and people will
stop talking about it, which could quite easily happen in 20 years or
10 years, or even sooner. So, it’s nothing to do with me; I have nothing
to say. I created something and it’s up to the public—they decide
whether the work survives or disappears.

You don’t trust the judgement of art critics at all?

I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do.
That is, it lives from the time it’s conceived and created, for some 50
or 60 years, it varies, and then the work dies. And that is when it
becomes art history. So, art history only begins after the death of the
work, but as long as the work lives, or at least in the first 50 years
of its life, it communicates with people living in the same period who
have accepted it or rejected it and who have talked about it. These
people die and the work dies with them. And that is where the history of
art begins.

In that sense, I believe that the history of art is
extremely random. I am convinced that the works on view in the museums
and those we consider to be exceptional do not represent the finest
achievements in the world. Many geniuses have foundered due to their
lack of direction; ultimately they could not find a way of remaining
geniuses throughout their life. A simple error of judgement was
tantamount to artistic suicide. Their works have disappeared as a
result, and there are many more interesting things that have been
consigned to oblivion. In other words, this is my understanding of
mediocrity. Basically, only the mediocre works created in the past have
survived, while the most beautiful works, the finest works, have
vanished. This is something I really believe, but I’m not forcing anyone
else to believe it too.

Do you hold any specific beliefs about what might be called beauty?

Beauty doesn’t come into it, because I am not terribly interested in
words like “beauty” and “truth”. These are concepts which are not
exactly weak, but they lack substance; they are words and words are
extremely dangerous. When you try to analyse a painting using words, you
can only manage a very questionable approximation, worse than
questionable, because, after all, painting and art in general,
especially visual art, is a language in itself, a visual language
instead of a spoken language. So it’s already like a Chinese poem that
has been translated into English—it doesn’t mean anything any more.

Generally speaking, are you wary of words?

much so. I only recognise the poetic meaning of words, that is, the
sound of words, their music, which has nothing to do with their meaning.
The meaning of words changes every 50 years. The same word, used at the
time of Louis XIV, no longer has the same meaning today.

Have you ever been aware of belonging to a movement, a school?

I belonged to them in the sense that when I was interested in something
I tried to understand it as far as possible and, of course, even tried
to make use of it. But the word “school” only leads to the word “group”
and, ultimately, only individual works are produced, such as the works
of a certain Leonardo da Vinci. It’s down to the individual to emerge
from any school or so-called school. The idea of a school in itself is
basically of no interest to me at all.

You were, however, closely linked with the Dadaists and then the Surrealists?

but I probably tried to create my own personal brand of Dadaism, just
as each of them had their own brand of Dadaism based on the same ideas
but expressed in an intensely personal way.

Do you think that your work would have been possible if these movements had not existed?

not. I followed the ideas of various schools at various times, with my
own reservations of course, but I was strongly influenced by each
school, each time, like everyone else. No-one can escape the influences
surrounding them.

Do you think that our century will be the age of Surrealism?

probably, but I don’t know for sure. Deep down, I believe that our
century will not be very interesting compared to other centuries. I
think we will be regarded as being rather limited. Ours isn’t a century
like the 18th century which is impossible to love but which has its own
integrity, an identity. I believe that we will be regarded as a slightly
frivolous century, and that we will not be showered with the sort of
praise that we have blithely been giving ourselves.

games is an important element in everything you do, I believe. You have
played chess all your life and I think that, in the same way, you have
always approached your work as a player?

Absolutely. I am
extremely playful in that sense and I believe it’s the only form of fun
possible in a world which isn’t always much fun. I am inclined to be
witty. I regard humour as one of life’s vital ingredients. Sorrow and
pain, on the other hand, are not at all essential; there is no good
reason for them and people seem to feel obliged to cry much more often
than they laugh.

Doesn’t that imply that you don’t take things seriously?

not at all; it’s a witty seriousness, black humour, or whatever you
want to call it. It’s such a necessary part of life that I don’t even
question it.

I would like to talk to you now about what is
being done today, which has often been inspired by you. What is your
opinion, for example, of Pop Art?

I have a very high opinion
of Pop Art; I regard it primarily as a phenomenon that stands apart
from everything else this century. Turning its back on influences such
as the distortion of art, systematic distortion, anti-photography and
anti-perspective, the work of the Pop artists represents a restoration, a
reintegration of ideas that are of great interest to me and that
perhaps appear extraordinary. Yet their work also represents a very
important process, unlike any of the preceding “-isms”, which were
always a continuation: Impressionism started the ball rolling, was
continued by Fauvism, which was a distortion of it, followed by Cubism,
again a distortion but still “retinal”, because the importance of the
visual experience was always the decisive factor. With Pop Art, this all

What do you think about the Nouveau Realistes, the
creators of the Surrealist Object, whose work takes the idea of the
object as its point of departure?

I think it’s very
interesting since half the century has been concerned with this question
of objects. The word “object” amuses me because no-one talked about
objects in the 18th century. This particular interpretation of the word
“object” was invented as if to make it virtually some sort of fetish,
serving as a basis for an entire movement; and that is what is
interesting: found objects, this object, that object. It isn’t
sculpture, and yet it is three-dimensional. It has a completely unique
quality and is obviously one of the distinguishing features of our

But you don’t seem to be advocating it as a way forward?

the contrary, it may not last but it represents perhaps one way to move
away from traditional easel painting, for example. That has lasted for
five centuries, which is long enough; especially oil painting, which
certainly doesn’t last forever, and may possibly disappear completely.
Once, there were frescoes, mosaics and other techniques that were
dropped in favour of oil painting.

But, in my opinion, oil
painting is far from perfect: it darkens, it needs to be restored, any
painting on show has generally been restored countless times and is no
longer the painting that the artist originally created.

have lived on both sides of the Atlantic—you have lived in France and
you have lived in the US for many years—and now you are going back
there. Have you ever felt as though you don’t belong in either place?

but I was quite happy to feel like that, precisely because I was afraid
of being influenced by my roots. I wanted to get away from that. When I
was in the US, I had no roots at all because I was born in Europe. So
it was easy, I was bathing in a calm sea where I could swim freely; you
can’t swim freely when you get tangled up in roots.

So, European traditions were a sort of net in which you might have got caught?

Exactly. Traditions are inevitably deep-rooted; distance enables you to see more clearly.

You have taken up American citizenship. Should we regard you as an American artist?

Officially speaking anyway, just as I have a passport. But that doesn’t
mean a thing in any other way. Biological functions don’t give a damn
about nationality; your arm works without knowing if it’s French or
American. Officially, since you have to have an official existence, you
have a nationality of which you are either proud or fond.

And you are fond of this nationality?

I’m fond of it. America’s a nice place to live; I have more friends
over there than I do here and basically, as far as I’m concerned,
nations do not exist; they are a place where you have friends, that’s

Do you feel that people understand you better there?

But, most importantly, its just that I have made more friends there. I
have not necessarily been understood, because they don’t always try to
understand, but the feeling of warmth is either there or it isn’t and
that’s the only difference that counts.

If, when you attended
the major retrospective of your works that recently took place at the
Tate Gallery, someone had asked you: Marcel Duchamp, what have you done
with your life? What would you say was your greatest achievement?

painting, using art, to create a modus vivendi, a way of understanding
life; that is, for the time being, of trying to make my life into a work
of art itself, instead of spending my life creating works of art in the
form of paintings or sculptures. I now believe that you can quite
readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other
people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak.
These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was 20
or 15, but I realise, after many years, that this was fundamentally what
I was aiming to do.

The Art Newspaper No. 27, April 1993

Interview by Jean Antoine, translation copyright: Sue Rose, 1993