Duchamps place in the timeline of art history
The history of art can be traced back to cave paintings of about 15000 BC.
The nature of paintings changed little until around 1450 AD, when the Renaissance brought-about naturalistic styles and formal rules of composition, such as perspective (Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc).
Following the Renaissance, new styles emerged every 50 to 100 years, but nothing significantly changed (e.g. the rules of perspective were still applied).
In 1874, Impressionism was born (Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, etc). The term was originally used to make fun of Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, but was adopted by artists to describe their style of work. Most people are familiar with Impressionism, so I will not waste words describing the style, and move on.
At the end of the 1800s, Impressionism spawned Post Impressionism (Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, etc). While Impressionism had remained faithful to nature, Post Impressionism favoured brighter and more unnatural colours.
Next we had Abstraction, where artists (Modigliani, Picasso, etc) changed the appearance of their subject so it no longer looked realistic, by shifting the point of view, exaggeration, simplification, etc.
At the risk of over simplifying things myself – Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and Dada all quickly followed, and were variations on Abstraction. Its the Dada artists that I want to write about.
In 1916, the Dada movement was formed amidst despair and revulsion arising from the horrors of World War I. Dada art was intentionally anti-aesthetic, and sought to reject all rules and conventions. Many Dada artists considered their work to be anti-art, and to have the purpose of enraging their audiences.
The single most influential Dada artist was arguably Marcel Duchamp.
Conceptual Art springs from the Fountain
As a young boy, Duchamp aspired to become an artist, and took classes in academic drawing. He worked in the styles of the time (Post Impressionism, Cubism, etc), but failed to achieve recognition, until 1917, when his notorious Fountain changed the face of art.
“Fountain” was a signed urinal. Duchamp claimed it to be a work of art that he had created, because; he chose it, he gave it a name, he placed it in a different context, and created a new thought for that object.
In December 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals. The Independent noted in a February 2008 article that with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between art and merit”.
Each person has to draw his or her own conclusions, but these are mine.
Duchamp was taking the “p”.
He was an art anarchist, and his aim was to damage the art establishment. Unfortunately the art establishment evolved to embrace his prank, and allowed Duchamp to achieve his goal.
Perhaps this happened because Duchamp presented an opportunity for those similarly without skill to enter a world previously closed to them? Whatever, more than 90 years later, our art galleries, art awards, and media coverage are all full of fountains, and the objective of our most notorious present day artists still appears to be enraging their audiences. Modern art has become a very weary joke.
Reasoning that anything can be art is no different to saying that everything is everything. History has even been rewritten, and the cave paintings now often given a new conceptual twist: they were not decoration, but an early form of communication.
Detractors of modern art are often shot down. When we voice our views we are usually patronisingly told that we dont like it because we dont understand it. I do understand I honestly do!
The point I am trying to make is that conceptual art is one very tiny and polarised viewpoint. It does not render all other points of view invalid.
Why am I bothered?
Well, as a professional portrait artist, I aspire to keep alive the traditional standards of natural colours, perspective, etc. The act of creation is subordinate to the output. My purpose is to copy from life, paint something pretty (delight rather than shock), and make no political statement.
However, it feels as though the only measure of mertit is that of conceptual art. On the Duchamp scale, my work has no merit; indeed, it probably doesnt even qualify as art.