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Duchamp’s Telegram

From Beaux-Arts to Art-in-General

A revisionist history of Duchamp’s legacy and impact on modern art.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp sent out a 'telegram' in the guise of a urinal signed R. Mutt. When it arrived at its destination a good forty years later it was both celebrated and vilified as proclaiming that anything could be art; from that point on, the whole Western art world reconfigured itself as 'post-Duchamp'.

This book offers a reading of Duchamp's telegram that sheds new light on its first reception, corrects some historical mistakes and reveals that Duchamp's urinal in fact heralded the demise of the fine arts system and the advent of what Thierry de Duve calls the 'Art-in-General' system. Further, the author shows that this new system does not date from the 1960s but rather from the 1880s. Duchamp was neither its author nor its agent, but rather its brilliant messenger.

456 pages | 69 color plates, 88 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

Art: Art Criticism, European Art

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"This stunning book has all the precision and force of the artwork at its center. De Duve recovers Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain as an extraordinary signal, previously lost in a sea of noise, that forever changed art – overturning myths of artistic intention, anthropocentrism, and symbolic and expressive 'content' and ushering in a different world in which art has no limits. It is a clarion call to reassess modernity and periodization itself in order to better understand the present."

Michelle Kuo, Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA

"Duchamp’s Telegram is the latest brilliant installment in the author’s lifelong project of reinterpreting Duchamp for contemporary thought. It would be impossible to summarize in a few lines de Duve’s arguments on behalf of Duchamp’s epochal significance, but suffice it to say that the freshness and originality of his claims about what he calls the Art-in-General system are massively in evidence throughout his text. And as always de Duve’s writing is marked by a sense of his delight in the play of his ideas, a quality that makes reading him a rare pleasure."

Michael Fried, author of 'French Suite: A Book of Essays'


These days, a seemingly endless stream of books, articles and questionnaires lament the lack of theory to help us navigate the globalized land- and webscape of current art. As Hal Foster has written, introducing one such questionnaire on ‘the contemporary’ in the journal October, ‘such paradigms as “the neo-avant-garde” and “postmodernism”, which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead.’ Although I’m not sure that models and paradigms are desirable when it comes to art in the making, I share Foster’s diagnosis that the neo-avant-garde and postmodernism have run into the sand. Why have they? If there are answers at all to this question, they must be historical; pursuing them is not a task for the critic of the contemporary but rather for the historian. What are the chances that the neo-avant-garde and postmodernism were not adequately theorized because the concepts they supposedly replaced or criticized were mis-construed in the first place? Does the malaise around ‘neo’ and ‘post’ not call for a reassessment – a reappraisal, perhaps, a reinterpretation, certainly – of the avant-garde and/or modernism?
I had no issue with postmodernism in the 1980s. From the outset, the concept seemed to me profoundly flawed, merely reactive and devoid of proactive content: no more than the symptom that something had gone awry with modernism. Why otherwise would people not want to be modern anymore – an all too desirable epithet until then? One answer, rehearsed ad nauseam, was that modernism had failed to deliver on its promises of progress and emancipation; the transgression of esthetic boundaries no longer stood for individual or political libera-tion; hedonism, wishy-washy pluralism and commercialism had voided art practice of all critical dimension; anti-conventionalism had turned into another stale convention; the already problematic notion of the neo-avant-garde had made way for the more than dubious notion of the trans-avant-garde. And so on. Notice that all these complaints, which indulge in melancholic nostalgia for the allegedly purist radicality of the historical avant-gardes, take for granted a certain, entirely negative, definition of the avant-garde – in Renato Poggioli’s classic account: ‘activism, antagonism and nihilism, agonism and futurism, antitraditionalism and modernism, obscurity and unpopularity, dehumanization and iconoclasm, voluntarism and cerebralism, abstract and pure art’ – of which they bemoan the loss of dialectical resolution.4 I’m afraid the question mark in the title of Suzi Gablik’s book Has Modernism Failed?(1984) was merely rhetorical:
In the complex transition from modernism into postmodernism, a new terrain of consciousness is being occupied – one in which the limits of art seem to have been reached, and overturning conventions has become routine. As long as we are willing to consider anything as art, innovation no longer seems possible, or even desirable. At this point in the breakup of modernist culture, as we draw away from it, we might do well to consider exactly what we have gained, now that the avant-garde has exhausted its task; and equally, what we may be losing as a result from its disappearance from the scene. It is not easy to represent to ourselves a whole that has been made up of so many changes and violent contrasts. Are we leaving behind us a period of success and resonant creativity, or one of impoverishment and decline? Has modernism succeeded, or has it failed?

The phrase in that lament that still sustains my attention more than thirty years after it was written is: ‘As long as we are willing to consider anything as art . . .’ But I am sceptical regarding the premise of that willingness, namely, that ‘the limits of art seem to have been reached.’ It appears to me, on the contrary, that to be willing to consider anything as art entails the realization that art has no limits. And I am even more sceptical regarding the consequence Gablik drew from her premise: ‘innovation no longer seems possible, or even desirable.’ This is a conclusion no art historian should feel authorized to make. What do we know about the things artists find possible and desirable? What do we know about innovations that have not yet been made, and where they will come from? Art historians deal with the past, and though I agree with Gablik that they should look at the past asking themselves what it has in store for the future, all they can do is try to reappraise, reinterpret or reassess the past in such a way as not to mortgage the future.

Duchamp’s Telegram, the first volume of a two-book project conceived under the heading Modernism Revisited, proposes a roadmap for this reassessment. The book revolves around a single work, the famous and infamous Fountain, a men’s urinal tipped on its side, signed R. Mutt and dated 1917, which its reception history has propelled to the pantheon of modern – or is it postmodern? – art and earned Duchamp the reputation of most influential artist of the twentieth century. Fountain will here be the object of an inquiry that will take us far away – very far away – from the thing itself to its historical underpinnings and its reception history, an inquiry which, as I hope to demonstrate, debunks a few modernist – and postmodernist – myths. Yet despite the distance Duchamp’s Telegram takes from its object, the book can be read as a monograph on Fountain, one that offers a novel interpretation of its historical purport and its consequences for subsequent art practices. It is not a book on Duchamp, though; it is not even a monograph on Duchamp’s urinal – by which I mean that the emphasis is not on who created Fountain. The emphasis is on the ‘telegram’, on the news Fountain conveyed, with Duchamp in the position of the telegram’s sender. He is the creator of Fountain as a work of art – or non-art, or anti-art or an-art, denominations that will be discussed in due time – but he is merely the messenger of Fountain as a telegram. This is not to diminish his merit, although, as will gradually emerge, the merit shifts to an area of grey matter which art history is not used to treating as the seat of creativity, and which the hagiographic celebration of Duchamp’s influence has not really recognized: the lucidity to see things as they are.

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