5 Lessons from Marcel Duchamp

One of Marcel Duchamp's lasting contributions to the understanding of art was how he lived his life. For Duchamp, art was a path to the discovery of the self. He endeavored to ensure that his works were as much as possible a pure expression of his mind, and he lived in a way which would increase the likelihood of the purity of that expression.

A bride and her bachelors pose in the courtyard of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
seen through Marcel Duhamp’s piece: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

In 1964, Duchamp engaged in a series of interviews, gathered in Marcel Duchamp, The Afternoon Interviews. Based on the interviews, here are five things you can learn from Duchamp about living the artist's life:

Lesson 1: Reject commercialism so that your art can develop over time

Duchamp was disturbed by the shift in art toward commercialism which started in the early 1900's. Duchamp saw happening to art what happens to any product subjected to the demands of commerce: efficiency of process dominated over substance and idea.
The life of an artist in 1915 was non-existent as a money-making proposition—far from it. Many more people are miserable today because they try to make a living from painting and can't. There is so much competition.  . . .  [S]uch an abundance of production can only result in mediocrity. There is no time to make very fine work.
pp. 24-25.

Duchamp believed that commercial success is at odds with using art to develop the self because the motivations to produce work for commercial success steer creativity toward the consumer culture of the day instead of toward the humanistic timelessness of ideas.

His advice (which he practiced by withdrawing from the public world of art for twenty years) was for the artist to provide insulation from the influences of the commercial art world: "I think the great [artist] of tomorrow  . . . cannot be seen, should not be seen, and should go underground." p. 29.

Lesson 2: Don't engage in "art for the moment"

Popular trends tend to fade into history, and also tend to be a function of the conscious desire for recognition and notoriety rather than meeting the purpose of art, which is to uncover the mind. Duchamp is scathing on the topic:
Art for the moment, which doesn't care about the future of the past. That I think has been the characteristic of the whole century, from the Fauves on. And as a result, slow work is considered bad: you must do a painting at the most in an afternoon. Otherwise you're stupid. I mean, you are not considered important at all. And that is, for me, a thing I can't admit. I think there is a great deal to the idea of not doing a thing, but that when you do a thing, you don't do it in five minutes or in five hours, but in five years. I think there's an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later.
pp. 44-45.

The expression of the self is a life-long process, but it's worth doing, and worth taking the time to do. Each work of art is but a piece in a larger puzzle, and too often artists succumb to the pressure to produce instead of the pressure to create.

Lesson 3: Let chance be your guide

Duchamp understood that the artist's worst impediment is the consciousness's desire for order and rationality. Too often when an artist seeks to create, the artist engages in active thought about what will be created. Active thought inevitably leads back to the patterns of the past, with the work of art being a product of standards not of the artist's making. Duchamp rejected the past as an answer to his artistic expression, but understood that he was as susceptible as anyone else to its influences on his consciousness. One way he worked around that problem was to engage chance as often as possible. As Duchamp described it, embracing chance is a method "to get away from things already worked out. A real expression of the subconscious through chance. Your chance. . . . Chance is the only way to avoid the control of the rational." p. 51."So the duty of chance is to express what is unique and indeterminate about us beyond the rational." p. 53.

Lesson 4: Ignore criticism

A work of art has two required participants: the artist and the spectator. There is rarely, if ever, any overlap between the two, and Duchamp believed that it was no use to worry about the spectator's judgment because it was too removed from the artist's creation.
 . . . [W]e know that in spite of what the artist said or did, something stayed on that was completely independent of what the artist desired; it was grabbed by society, which made it its own. The artist does not count. He does not count. Society takes what it wants. [The artist should not concern himself with this] because he doesn't know. He thinks he knows. He's painting a nude, and he thinks he knows what he's doing. His painting is nice looking. But it was nothing to do with what the onlooker sees in it: he sees an entirely different side. The priority of the connoisseur or whatever you call him isn't to speak the same language as the artist. 
pp. 30-31.

It's not only impossible to anticipate to what the spectator will respond, but even trying to anticipate that response is destructive to the artistic purpose of expressing the self. The answer is to ignore criticism, good or bad, because what the spectator sees has little if anything to do with what you as an artist created. The purpose of creation is to reveal the ideas that come from your mind. Whether or not those ideas are received isn't part of the creative calculus.

Lesson 5: Have the courage to protect your work, no matter the cost

Duchamp was willing to make difficult choices which other artists around him were not. In 1912, when he was twenty-five, Duchamp submitted his Nude Descending a Staircase to the Independents Exhibition.
So, when I sent it to the Independents . . . they had a Cubist room, but when they saw my painting, before the show was open, they looked at it and decided it was not quite in accord with their theories. They already had Cubist theories. For them, Cubism was essentially static. The idea of movement, of a woman coming down stairs, did not appeal to them at all . . . . So they decided to send my brothers to ask me to change the title at least. . . .  I said nothing to my brothers. But I immediately went to the show and took the painting back home. It's in the catalog of the Independents of 1912, but it never was shown. I didn't discuss this with anyone, but it was really a turn in my life. I saw that I would never be much interested in groups after that. I felt it was too much of a schooling and a school to say you must do this and you must do that, very much of an academy attitude. 
pp. 70-71.

It's not easy to refuse notoriety, but Duchamp set an example early in his life of protecting the integrity of his work. Whether it was acceptable to the public was not his concern, and he was unwilling to modify his work in an attempt to gain public attention. In a world of commercial art, this is nearly an impossible task. Which takes us back to Lesson 1.