Lesson 9: “Embed thought in material.” — Roberta Smith
What does this mean? An object should express ideas; art should contain emotions. And these ideas and feelings should be easy to understand — complex or not.
These days, an artist might exhibit an all-brown painting with a long wall text informing us that the artist took the canvas to Kosovo near the site of a 1990s Serbian massacre and rubbed dirt on the canvas for two hours while blindfolded to commemorate the killing. Recently, while I was looking at boring black-and-white photographs of clouds in the sky, a gallerist sidled up to me and seriously opined, “These are pictures of clouds over Ferguson, Missouri, in protest of police violence.” I started yelling, “No! These are just dumb pictures of clouds and have nothing to do with anything.”
There is a different way. In the winter of 1917, Marcel Duchamp, age 29, bought a urinal at J.L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue, turned it on its side, signed it “R. Mutt 1917,” titled it Fountain, and submitted it to the non-juried Society of Independent Artists exhibition.
Fountain is an aesthetic equivalent of the Word made flesh, an object that is also an idea — that anything can be an artwork. Today it is called the most influential artwork of the 20th century.
This project of embedding thought in material to change our conception of the world isn’t only a new development. When we see cave paintings, we are seeing one of the most advanced and complex visual operating systems ever devised by our species. The makers of the work wanted to portray in the real world something they had in their head and make that information readable to others. It has lasted tens of thousands of years. With that in mind …