Is the art world really as ridiculously trivial and weird as it seems sometimes? Most Americans get their view of the contemporary art world from the Big Lebowski. When does art seem valid to someone? What makes art important? Art historians typically attribute value to an artwork for one of three reasons: because of the artist, because of the content, because of the context. An artwork can be considered valuable simply because an artist says so. Typically, value is going to combine two or more of those categories, but it won’t always be evenly distributed.
DuChamp’s Urinal has value on all three registers. The main source of value is derived from the decision of the artist. Once DuChamp has made up his mind that the urinal would be a work of art, a value proposition is created. In this case, it is a decision that is sure to receive pushback and it is the refusal to capitulate to criticism that makes the work’s value sustain and grow. By sticking to his guns, DuChamp simultaneously creates and defends the value of the work. The more controversial it became, the more valuable. It was the tension between the artist and the public reception that
The context was also a big part of why the work had value. If DuChamp had merely signed the urinal and placed it in his studio or in someone’s private residence, it never would have mattered much. The context of the exhibition also opened up the possibility for pushback. By purposefully creating a controversy within an art space where people were coming to study and debate the merits of art, DuChamp underlined the importance of dialogue surrounding the work.
It would be a mistake to think that the formal elements of the work had no merit, though. DuChamp’s readymade opened up questions about what could be considered art, but most people miss the point altogether. He placed an industrially manufactured urinal on a pedestal and signed it R. Mutt 1917. Or, he tried to. But, the directors of the exhibition rejected the piece even though there was supposed to be no censorship as the basis of the exhibition. It was an experiment in free speech. What could be considered part of the discourse of art? Why?
DuChamp accelerated the velocity of a developing art world in New York. It was too much for us then, and it is too much for us now a hundred and four years later. DuChamp’s ideas thrive in the digital age. In DuChamp’s precedent, we can see the spirit that continues in pranks and practical jokes and trolling.
In 1917, the world was at war. When we look at how we are currently thinking about why certain beliefs have taken hold, why we have news outlets who seemingly have abandoned any effort to appear fair and balanced, it is important to remember how traumatic the 20th century was and continues to be. Because traumas don’t just go away. They impact how humans interpret the world and how they behave.
There is an undercurrent of trauma that runs through our culture. The side effects of war are immeasurable. Nobody knows what happens to an entire generation when they are traumatized by global events, or how that psychic damage affects the next generations. What is it like to be raised by a traumatized generation? This question has obvious implications for today’s situation, where trauma is widespread and the undiagnosed effects are everyday emerging in stories of mass shootings, suicides and other horrific side effects of this traumatic period of history.
The same thing happened a hundred years ago. Did we ever fully recover?
Is the new normal people are searching for no longer accessible to us? Has it been gone for a long time but we never knew it? Were we believing a fiction?
Kids today are engaged with screens more than ever with online schooling. Parents are attempting to navigate the economic carnage of a year without an open economy. It is wildly stressful for millions of people all at the same time. Kids are watching programs on Netflix. Good parents try to limit that time, and with good reason. They are watching a world that no longer exists. It is training them to live in a way that is not accessible to them. It is setting them up for disappointment and unhappiness.
We need new art and culture now more than ever. We need an entirely new type of art and media that teaches us how to live in our new circumstances and leads us in the direction of empowerment and the ability to direct social change.