The great challenge: recovering our capacity to dream

Monday April 26th, 2004, Buenos Aires.

If you visit MALBA (The Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires) with a 5-year-old child, you would discover that he or she could become a fine art critic, capable of perceiving the experiences of art of the beginning of the century. The child is warned about the strangeness of what they will see, which will be different from anything they’re familiar with, such as Berni’s or De la Vega’s art. The child, who hasn’t yet received the systematic education of elementary school, will observe and say: “This is not hard at all. Here is a wheel, here a shovel, and this is a twisted rope. I really enjoy this exhibition.” 

Now, what happens to people who after turning six begin to lose the capacity to dream? André Breton, in his surrealism manifesto wonders why we neglect the world of dreams if we spend almost half of our lives sleeping. He and all those people who around 1914 got together and created the dada group first and surrealism later, understood that there is another world, which is not only in dreams, but also in daily life. They were able to “dream with open eyes,” as this exhibition is titled. 

Mister Marcel Duchamp puts a wheel over a stool in an art environment, and not in a hardware store. It is like going to a hospital and finding yourself in a movie theatre, or going to the Colón Theatre and realize that it has become a grocery store. 

Duchamp presents what we expect to find somewhere else. This is what we call de-contextualize, or remove from context, and then the spectator feels as if the stage has been shifted or switched. It is similar to a loss. Daily life continues, but there is a sort of exile in one’s own territory, because each place that used to be very meaningful is now losing its symbolic weight. This is what Duchamp does. Facing the idea of the anecdote’s semantic density, the narrative – a representation of a Christ or one of Monet’s sunsets- for example, he chooses objects that have no stories or lack aesthetic tradition. He uses manufactured objects and builds his readymades, something already produced industrially. But, where is the art in this? It resides in the selection of those objects that, despite being completely extra-artistic, have “a little something” that catches our eyes and makes us stop and observe the scratches on the snow shovel, or the comb’s perfect shine. Or maybe it’s our own need to find the aesthetic element, especially if in the front of the building there is a sign that says “Museum” or “Art gallery”. It’s impossible to set categorical definitions about this topic. Otherwise, Monsieur Duchamp would be turning in his grave showing the current interpretations of his work and the sight’s solemnity.

Dada’s transgression

The first de-contextualization, inevitable in this type of exhibitions that intended to shock the bourgeois spectator, is to show them in a museum, with historiographical character, a catalogue raisonné and all the elements that define the art world dada tried to get away from. But, how to explain the transgressive spirit? The first step would be to provide context: 1913, the First World War is approaching; Freud has already written his book about the interpretation of dreams; Wittgensten tells us that language is not always a suitable tool to describe the world; and art is understood as something that demands a lot of sweat. It’s oil on canvas —these are times of a strict Art Academy— and should depict a “glorious” historic event or be the portrait of a king of a cardinal, and if it were a genre painting, it should always carry a festive tone. Art must be a happy world of wealthy and important people, and if shows poor people, they must be happy.

In this place, and with this historical and philosophical context, Duchamp & Co. decide to shake things up because a war that would be the start of one of the most violent centuries in history is closing in. At this time Monsieur Duchamp writes “The choice of these ‘readymades’ was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste. I was aware at that time, for the spectator even more than for the artist, art is a habit-forming drug and I wanted to protect my ‘readymades’ against such contamination.”

The “Duchamp Misunderstanding” style

First, and here comes the possibility of seeing his work beyond concept and de-contextualization. Duchamp speaks about indifference, of going beyond appearance. It is a strike against good taste and beauty. Avoid art. He himself said that if Braque’s cubism is art, then his own production was surely anti-art. And here begins the vertigo that makes us doubt all our beliefs about the artisticity of objects located in a museum. Art is a habit that changes depending of each period’s taste. Or is every trend temporary? If taste is a habit, then art is a habit. In a quite cynical and witty way, we are told not to worry, that if we don’t like it today, we will be interested in it tomorrow and the next day, we’ll be fans of conceptual art. It is like when Picasso portrayed Gertrude Stein, and the American art patron feeling a bit upset questioned that the image didn’t look like her. The Spanish artist replied: “Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.” A couple of contemporary art courses, a few discussions about Dadaism, books, and lots of theoretical help will allow us to recover the point of view of that 5-year-old who was taken to MALBA. Because today’s man is so deformed by information and noise, that he needs to be showed the simplest things in a complex way in order to begin to dream with his eyes open again, that is if external reality hasn’t yet destroyed all his utopias. The proposed exercise at the beginning of this article was to go beyond the appearance of things. Like in a mantra, where by repeating a phrase, its content is gone while the mind is filled with nothingness, one can observe Duchamp’s Fountain and discover the porcelain’s shiny finish or the beautiful coldness of the metal in the snow shovel that hangs from the roof. Going beyond a pretty face can lead us to look for the delight in contemplation joined to the sensual pleasure of aesthetic enjoyment. It’s an art of ideas because we must go beyond appearance. The idea is that a shovel can also be a kiss, an object that shines similarly to other objects in museums. And in this way we can also regain the Mona Lisa’s smile. If during the Renaissance Leonardo wrote “painting is an intellectual activity,” today, we should begin to rethink how we speak about conceptual art. That is, why we should pay close attention to dates. Duchamp sets the bicycle wheel over a stool in 1913 and firmly declares that it is anti-art. And he goes even further because he makes more than one of these pieces. The public’s worn-out phrase here is “even my son could do this”. But it remains to be seen if someone can create something so ground-breaking. If we take a look at the past, we must reinterpret it. What better idea than taking a reproduction of the Gioconda and painting a beard and a mustache on it? In addition, the artist uses a play on words and titles it L.H.O.O.Q. (elle a chaud au cul), of course, hot (“chaud”) from being stuck at the Louvre watching people pile up in front of her unaware that Saint John the Baptist, a quite prettier painting, is hanging right beside her. But Duchamp makes fun of art’s validation circuit, not of Leonardo, who he admires. 

Behind the humorous appearance hides the idea. The later misinterpretation of Dadaism is to mistake an idea with a silly thought, which added to the easiness of a manufactured object bought in a store, produced in some cases the “Duchamp Misunderstanding” style, the “contemporary Academy” of conceptual art that comes from the 21st century anonymous style. Everything looks like something already seen before. 

In any case, we can deceive new spectators who know little about art history. This has always happened and isn’t really too important. What matters is to be able to see this exhibition without asking more of it than allowing ourselves to recover a child’s fascination for games and laughter. Here, we will find the way out and the true revolution that Bretón spoke about when he finished his 1924 manifesto saying: “This is the war of independence I am proud to participate in. Surrealism is the invisible ray which will one day enable us to beat our opponents. This summer, the roses are blue; the wood is made of glass. The earth, covered in its greenery, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. Living and ceasing to live are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.”