June 2008

Museum Miseducation

Perpetuating the Duchamp Myth

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

In an effort to reach students by engaging them on the electronic turf they familiarly traverse, art museums are developing sophisticated online resources, many of them interactive, geared specifically to young children and teenagers. Attractive though the idea may seem, the value of such efforts is no better than the quality of the content offered, however. And that quality leaves much to be desired. Parents and teachers--not to mention students themselves--should be wary.

A case in point is the Red Studio, an outreach effort by the education department of New York's Museum of Modern Art. As described on its website, the Red Studio was developed "in collaboration with high school students, and explores issues and questions raised by teens about modern art, today's working artists, and what goes on behind the scenes at a museum." One of its features, titled Behind the Scenes, presents small groups of students in conversation with MoMA staff and curators, exploring such weighty questions as What makes modern art modern? and "How do we define what is and is not art?" The entire apparatus is designed to convey an aura of insider expertise. What follows, sad to say, is anything but expert.

In a discussion of Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, for example--a discussion led by Joachim Pissarro, a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture--a student inquires [click on Enter Site, Joachim Pissarro, Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, then Public Response]: "What was the response by the public when it was made in 1913?" To which, curator Pissarro responds with a combination of quiet authority and engaging informality: "Huge outrage, scandal, incomprehension. 'What's this bizarre piece of crap doing in an art exhibition?'" He then briefly draws an analogy with other modern artists who were initially misunderstood, such as van Gogh and Cézanne. "That's the quick answer to your question," he concludes.

Well, it is quick, but it's also dead wrong. And it betrays an appalling ignorance on Pissarro's part. Duchamp's first Bicycle Wheel was never publicly exhibited in 1913. In fact, the work (if one can call it that) was not seen by the public until decades later--in the form of a replica exhibited in a gallery show in 1951--when it suited the purposes of an artworld on the cusp of postmodernism. Nor does there appear to be any evidence of "huge outrage" provoked by that event.

Yet Pissarro goes on to inform his attentive circle of students that in the view of many art historians, "This may be the single most important art object of the twentieth century." Such a claim is true of course only if Bicycle Wheel is in fact an "art object."

Most instructive in that connection is what the students were not told regarding what Duchamp himself actually had to say about this object generally credited with changing the course of art history:

When I put a bicycle wheel on a stool the fork down, there was no idea of a 'readymade,' or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn't have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it or describing anything. (Quoted in Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 47, emphasis mine.)

In case that were not clear enough, students might have further benefitted from hearing that when asked how he had "come to choose a mass-produced object, a 'readymade,' to make a work of art," Duchamp had replied in no uncertain terms: "Please note that I didn't want to make a work of art out of it." At that point they might have engaged in a truly probing consideration of how and why something never intended as a work of art has become in the minds of many art historians today "the most important art object of the twentieth century."

Instead, the students were led to regard Bicycle Wheel as a work of art. One of them was even congratulated on having progressed from initially regarding it as "crap" to viewing it as a "pretty interesting" art object, because Duchamp had rendered both the bicycle wheel and the stool "useless"--which, all were assured by Pissarro, is an essential attribute of artworks.

Such miseducation is all the more disturbing when one considers that Pissarro is not a volunteer docent or mere member of the museum's education staff. A great-grandson of the noted French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, he is the author of an important biography illuminating his great-grandfather's contributions to the Impressionist movement. And he is one of the three curators who were charged with the task of guiding the Museum of Modern Art following its major expansion and renovation a few years ago. According to the University of Texas, Austin, where he earned a Ph.D in art history, "his scholarship in modern art has received widespread acclaim."

Clearly, there are major gaps in that scholarship.