A 1959 Interview with Marcel Duchamp: The Fallacy of Art History and the Death of Art

A 1959 Interview with Marcel Duchamp: The Fallacy of Art History and the Death of Art
Marcel Duchamp. Image: Artspace.

In 1973, a new sound archive was born: Audio Arts, a magazine in the form of a cassette tape, devoted to art and artists. (A podcast before podcasts?) "With the invention in the early 1960s of the Phillips cassette tape recorder, it was an idea whose time had come," writes Mel Gooding in Phaidon's Speaking of Art, the most extensive collection of transcriptions from Audio Arts to be published, itself a valuable addition to the archive. 

Here we've excerpted from an Audio Arts interview with Marcel Duchamp, which was featured in a 1974 issue of the audio magazine, and was originally recorded in 1959. In it, Duchamp speaks about whether or not a ready-made can be considered art—a startling discussion considering that we now regard Duchamp's urinal to be literally one of the most important artworks of all time. George Heard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton, and Charles Mitchell take turns interviewing Duchamp, whose insightful, philosophical ruminations seem just as relevant now as they were almost 60 years ago.


Irony, contradiction and wit permeate the life and work of Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968), an artist associated with Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism who dedicated the last two decades of his life to chess while secretly working on his final masterpiece, the installation Étant Donnés (1946-66). In 1913 he mounted a found bicycle wheel on a stool (Bicycle Wheel), thus inventing the readymade and, with it, one of the great artistic revolutions of the twentieth century. Throughout his long career Duchamp argued for an art of ideas rather than images or objects. This interview, begun in New York and continued in London, reveals Duchamp’s own thoughts on his work and his motivations as an artist, articulating the often complex issues surrounding his practice with great clarity, simplicity, and humor.


Marcel Duchamp: The first one of the readymades was done in 1913. It was a bicycle wheel.

George Heard Hamilton: Just an ordinary wheel?

An ordinary wheel. A bicycle wheel on a stand. I would turn it as I passed by. The movement of it was like a fire in a fireplace. It had that attraction of something moving in the room while you think about something else. The second one was a bottle dryer—you know, they have them in French cellars to put the bottles on. The third one was a snow shovel, which I did here in New York when I first came in 1915. That was just a plain snow shovel bought in a hardware shop and it’s now, or a replica of it is, in the Yale University Art Gallery. Another one, from 1921, was called Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy? Of course, the title is not a descriptive title because that readymade was made of a small bird cage in which, instead of a bird, there were cubes that looked like sugar cubes. 

The cubes were of white marble.

That was the pun, the visual pun—that when you picked it up you understood it was marble and not sugar. I also added a thermometer to it. Another one was the phial. I was in Paris in 1919, and I was thinking of bringing back a present for Walter Arensberg in California. So I went to a drug store and said, "Will you give me a phial that you will empty of whatever serum is in it and seal it again? And what will be in it will be air of Paris.” The druggist did it, and I brought my present to Arensberg, to California, and it was called Phail with 50 cc of Air of Paris or Air de Paris.

Was that the last of the actual readymades to be manufactured? 

Yes, but in my notes in the Green Box from 1934 I mentioned some that could be made. One I called a “reciprocal readymade.” You take a painting by Rembrandt and instead of looking at it you use it plainly as an ironing board. You iron your clothes on it, so it becomes a readymade reciprocal.

It’s rather hard on the Rembrandt.

It is, but we had to be iconoclastic then.

There are, then, two kinds of readymades—those that already existed, so to speak, before you came upon them, and those that you have assisted. Do you put any priority on one kind rather than the other? 

No, no. It was to add a little diversity to the idea. It was not a very active part of my life—when you make one or two readymades a year, you have plenty of time for something else.

Do you think anybody else could make one?

Yes, everybody can. I don’t attach any value—I mean commercial value, or even artistic value—to it.

Is there any way in which we can think of a readymade as a work of art? 

That is a very difficult point, because art first has to be defined. Can we try to define art? We have tried. Everybody has tried. In every century there is a new definition of art, meaning that there is no one essential that is good for all centuries. So if we accept the idea of trying not to define art, which is a very legitimate conception, then the readymade comes in as a sort of irony, because it says, “Here is a thing that I call art, but I didn’t even make it myself.” As we know, "art," etymologically speaking, means “to hand make.” And there it is ready-made. So it was a form of denying the possibility of defining art, because you don’t define electricity. You see the results of electricity, but you don’t define it.

But with the readymades it seems to me that they carry with them out of the world of everyday life—out of the hardware shop, as in the case of the snow shovel—something of your own sense of irony and wit. Can’t we believe, therefore, that they have some sort of…


Not message, no, but artistic value. Even though you haven’t made them, your intention in getting them derives from everything else in the world. Does that not give them, possibly, some kind of intellectual value.

It has a conceptual value, if you want to say conceptual. I don’t know what it means exactly, but it takes away all the technical jargon of painting. Painting should be made with colors, with pencil, with brushes. When you take something that is not made by those technical instruments, you don’t know whether you should take it as a work of art. And that’s where the irony comes in.

The irony, of course, is very much part of the Dada spirit, ins't it?

Yes, that was a very important form of introducing humor in a very serious world at the time, during the First World War.

You said once to me some years ago that the Dada spirit had been operating, so to speak, in New York with you, for instance, and with Man Ray, before Dada was named as a movement.

Oh yes, yes, it was in the air, as many of these things are. And we certainly had the same spirit as in Zurich when Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp and Richard Huelsenbeck started under the name of Dada. They found the name. Of course, the name was a good flag around which all these ideas…

A slogan?

Yes, a slogan. That helped the movement a lot. And, of course, the Dada spirit has always existed, and it exists today. Someone like Rabelais certainly was a Dada in essence.

Would you consider Dada more than just a criticism of art? Is it also a criticism of society?

It is much more. It’s been the nonconformist spirit that has existed in every century, every period, since man is man.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6. Photo via Tate.org


Another work is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), in the English translation, which is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was started in 1912, 1913, 1914. I worked on it before the War, and even though I tried in that big Glass to find a completely personal and new expression, the final product was to be a wedding of mental and visual reactions. The ideas in The Glass are more important than the actual visual realization. 

But this sounds almsot contradictory, because a work of art is primarily a visual experience. 

Yes, but this welding of two different sources of inspiration gave me a satisfactory answer in my research for something that had not been previously attempted. My research was in that direction—to find some way of expressing myself without being a writer, without taking one of these labels, and yet producing something that would be an inner product of myself. The two things—mixing up the ideas and their visual representation—attracted me as a technique, if it has to be considered a technique. This hybrid form explains why I didn’t have anyone to agree with me.

You had to invent everything for the first time. 

Yes, because, as you know, the revolution of Courbet was mainly a visual revolution, what you might call a retinal revolution. He insisted, without even mentioning it, that painting is to be looked at and only looked at, and the reactions should be visual or retinal—plain physical reaction in front of a painting. This has been going on since Courbet and still is in vogue. If you speak to a painter today, he will never think of an anecdote. It’s all about the line, the form, and the more abstract the better.

And all that has nothing to do with The Glass.

I thought The Glass was a reaction against the retinal conception of painting, and I think it still is, because of the introduction of the conceptual. This is literary painting. It’s using words. But everything that uses words is not necessarily literary, as you know.

The interview continues in London...

Richard Hamilton: One thing you say in the Green Box's general notes is, "Always, or nearly always, give a reason for the choice between two or more solutions by ironical causality." Ironical causality is one of the techniques by which you make decisions. But it is always a very prim, conceptual decision.

Charles Mitchell: Yes, but this can be a joke at the same time.

Duchamp: Yes, this can be a joke all right, but it's based on the fact that I have my doubts about real causality. There's no real reason for using causality. Why not use it ironically by inventing a world in which things come out differently from the usual one?

But do you see a distinction between your own activity, which is a world invented by you, and the activity of a Surrealist proper, someone like Salvador Dalí, who tried to work without any conscious effort? One might suppose that your juxtaposition of something that you call a "chocolate machine" combined in the same picture with something that you call a "symmetry of uniforms and liveries" is a surrealist activity, but these ideas of your are always closely related into a system.

The subconscious never interested me very much as a basis for an art expression of any kind. It's true that I really was very much of a—if you could use the word—défroqué, or unfrocked, Cartesian, because I was very pleased by the so-called pleasure of using Cartesianism as a form of logic and very close mathematical thinking, but I was also very pleased by the idea of getting away from it. It happened also in several places in the works of Raymond Roussel, a writer who wrote these completely fantastic descriptions of the same order, where everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented—in Locus Solus and in Impressions d'Afrique. That's where, really, I found the source of my new activity in 1911 or 1912.

In spite of the fact that one thinks of you as sitting right on top of Cubism, you felt a need, after just one or two years' experience of Cubism, to find a new path for yourself. I take it that this is the way in which you found it—by an exploration of intellectual and conceptual terms juxtaposed to the physical configurations that you made?

Yes, very soon I felt impatience, so to speak, with Cubism—at least, impatience in that I couldn't see any future for me in it. In fact, I touched Cubism rather a little, The Nude Descending a Staircase from 1912 is in a style like Cubism, naturally, but the addition of movement in it, which seems to be Futuristic, is so only because the Futurists were speaking of movement at the time. That doesn't make it a new idea of theirs—movement was in the air. There was something more important that the Futurists for me in that case, which was the publication of photos of men fencing or of horses galloping and so forth...

All through The Glass, you use fairly clear-cut symbology of a very direct kind—man and woman are identified, and the operations, the functions, of the machinery are all explainable in terms of sexual relationships, which is the work's basic preoccupation.

Yes, eroticism is a very dear subject to my life, and I certainly applied that love to my Glass. In fact, I thought the only excuse for doing anything was to give it the life of eroticism, which is completely close to life in general, and more so than philosophy or anything like that. It is an animal thing, which has so many facets that it is pleasing to use it as a tube of paint, so to speak, to inject in your production. It's there. It's in the form of fantasy. Stripped Bare had even a naughty Connotation with Christ. You know, Christ was stripped bare. It introduces eroticism and religion... I am ashamed of what I am saying.

There has often been an element of the sacrilegious in your work. The gesture of painting a mustache and a beard on the Mona Lisa, in L.H.O.O.Q., is all the more blasphemous for not being executed by a philistine. How do you feel about the works of art of the past and their deification in museums?

I have a very definite theory—let's call it theory, so that I can be wrong—that a work of art exists only when the spectator has looked at it. Until then, it is only something that has been done that might disappear and nobody would know about it. The spectator consecrates it by saying, "This is good. We will keep it." The spectator, in that case, becomes posterity, and posterity keeps museums full of paintings today. My impression is that these museums—call it the Prado, call it the National Gallery, call it the Louvre—are only receptacles of things that have survived, things that were probably mediocre. Because they happen to have survived is no reason to make them so important and big and beautiful, and there is no justification for that label of "beautiful." Why have they survived? It is not because they are beautiful. It is because they have survived by the law of chance. We probably have lost works by many, many other artists of those same periods that are as beautiful, or even more beautiful.

And how do you feel about the consecration of your own works in museums?

The same way. I am not concerned because I do not consider myself any different from the others. My real feeling is that a work of art is only a work of art for a very short period. There is a life in a work of art that is very short—even shorter than a man's lifetime. I call it twenty years. After twenty years, an Impressionist painting has ceased to be an Impressionist painting, because the material, the color, the paint has darkened so much that it is no more what the man did when he painted it. That is one way of looking at it. So I applied this rule to all artworks, and after twenty years they are finished. Their life is over. They survive all right, because they are part of art history, but art history is not art. I don't believe in preserving. I think, as I said, that a work of art dies. It's a thing of contemporary life. In your life you might see something because it's contemporary with your life, it's being made at the same time as you are alive, and it has all the requisites of a work of art, and your contemporaries are making works of art. They are works of art at the same time you live, but once you are dead, they die too.

You are interested in the writings of Roussel and of Rabelais, so you can accept the perpetuation of ideas through a text. But you are less inclined to accept it through a painting.

The reason is that ideas can survive more without distortion. Death is longer for ideas, because the language stays on for at least a few centuries—as in the case of Rabelais. But I am sure we don't understand a word of Artistophanes or of Homer, even. Our interpretation of Homer is very, very twentieth-century. The distortion that, every fifty years, the new generation gives to old works of art, and to new ones too, is not justifiable. In other words, fifty years ago we liked this, but a hundred years ago we liked that, which shows the doubtful judgement of humanity of works of art. That's why I like it to be only twenty years. Art should have a short life.

It is sometimes said of you that when you received notice that your Large Glass—a work on which you had spent an enormous amount of time, energy and thought over twelve years—was smashed, you responded in a very indifferent way. You didn't care. How did you feel?

I didn't care. When I learned it, I was lunching with a friend of mine who knew it, but she couldn't, she just couldn't announce it to me. She was so moved by the assignment to announce it to me that my reaction was really a cold reaction to help her. I accept any malheur as it comes. I don't fight back.

I wanted to know how you react to the title that has been given to this radio series, "Art, Anti-Art." What is the concept of "anti-art" for you?

I am against the word "anti" because it is like atheist as compared to believer. An atheist is just as much a religious man as a believer is. And an anti-artist is just as much of an artist as the other artist. 'An-artist' would be much better. I don't mind being an 'an-artist.'



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