In an interview at the St. Petersburg Times, film director and screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky tells audiences that the state of criticism is less than shining. Too many critics share the same opinions, bright names are vanishing, and independent voices are rare. I feel his pain. Web publishing in particular often rewards reactionary criticism and fluffy reporting. And yet these aren’t the problems that Konchalovsky discusses.
Instead, he anchors his criticisms on a survey taken by 200 critics. When asked which work of art contemporary art they liked best, many cited Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” [A urinal]. “I believe that half of these critics inwardly, secretly don't agree that the most outstanding product of the 20th century is a urinal!” Konchalovsky says, “I consider it a shame to give in to the conformist herd instinct, a dictatorship of political correctness, a fear of going against the grain and looking unmodern.”
I’m not sure where this study comes from, but when talking about why art criticism is in the shitter, I’m not sure I would start with a urinal. “Fountain” isn’t my favorite work either, but few would argue its success in swinging art’s focus from physical craft to intellectual interpretation. That was a big deal. It’s not unreasonable that so many critics would put Duchamp’s sculpture at the top of their list.
As per what the results of the survey say about the state of art criticism, I’m not convinced that our interest in Duchamp should be evidence of that failure. Sure, people misread Duchamp and the Fountain all the time. Critics often make the mistake of repeating Duchamp’s quote about seeking “total anesthesia” by chosing an aesthetically neutral object. No one seems to have looked at the objects long enough to establish whether that’s true. Even a cursory look at the urinal, which has been rotated 90 degrees, or at his unmodified “Bottle Rack,” reveals either sculpture to be beautiful, strangely compelling – anything but aesthetically neutral.
Given that it was The Philadelphia Museum who quoted the artist unquestioningly on a wall label, I’m not entirely surprised Konchalovsky is drawing such harsh conclusions. However, two bloggers did not make these same mistakes.
Recently, Blake Gopnik claimed that the Duchamp urinals we now see in our museums were “visibly handcrafted replacements for his mass-produced industrial original, which disappeared early on.” That such an error could be made in a broadsheet publication is an embarrassment. Blogger Greg.org called it out and corrected it, citing the Economist. “Duchamp’s Fountains replicas include two or three actual, vintage urinals Duchamp signed, showed, or sold;” he writes, “and somewhat more than twelve which were cast, just as porcelain is, from a clay sculpture [aka 'the prototype'] made from Arthur Stieglitz’s photo of the ‘original.’” That the original urinal may never have existed at all (a point made by an AFC commenter and supported by art historian R. Shearer) is simply gravy.
Regardless of how convinced you are by Greg.org or AFC’s commenter, it’s hard to deny that there’s some good criticism going on here. It’s also worth mentioning that this is happening on two independent publications. While I obviously have a rather large stake in this, to my mind it demonstrates both their vitality and need for support.