“The Creative Act” by Marcel Duchamp

Here’s a brief but interesting essay to think about by Marcel Duchamp in which he discusses the role of the artist and the spectator (viewers, critics, historians) in what he describes as “the two poles of creation” in the creative process. Near the beginning, he makes a rather bold assertion about the artist:

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond space and time, seeks his way out to a clearing.

If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.

He quotes a line from T.S. Eliot in an essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where Eliot says, “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

If this definition of the artist is hard to swallow, that’s because it is. After all, it doesn’t really seem reasonable for a person to create anything significant without deliberation and intentionality. Following this definition, how could an artist ever produce art? Duchamp recognizes this dissonance and proceeds to talk about what he refers to as the “art coefficient,” the difference between what the author meant to create, what has actually been created, and how the viewer interprets the work (I’ve heard Elliot Earls describe this same concept as “slippage” in one of his Studio Practice videos). Duchamp says the artist is not conscious of this difference. This is where the viewer comes in—the creative act does not end once the artist finishes a piece, but instead extends into the viewing, when a spectator completes the art coefficient (which until now is in its raw state, or à l’état brut) by interpreting a work. It’s through this process that the spectator judges the piece (i.e. critiques) and transmutes the ideas of the artist into ideas of the viewer.

I think there’s a lot to unpack in this relatively short essay, but one of the things that I first began to think about was how prevalent the tenants of Modernism played into Duchamp’s ideas. An interesting omission from this essay is any acknowledgement of talent or skill in the creative process (in fact, the thought of an artist developing his or her skill or practicing a certain technique almost seems like it would go against his concept of an artist), and instead insisting that the ideal artist would act without awareness.

This is where Modernism diverges from previous understandings of art art. After all, that’s how art used to be made—if you wanted to paint a tree, you’d have to go out and study the leaves. If you wanted to paint a field, you’d have to go out and learn about perspective to capture the field. Here, however, we start to understand that art is no longer just about representing something tangible, but about being a conduit for the artist’s mind. The mind is the interesting part here, not the trees or the field. Art is a medium for communicating ideas, emotions, or anything else which escapes words. Artists must inexorably find some medium to transfer these ideas through, but it’s still possible to be mindful of the limitations that come from manifesting thoughts.

Postscript: After writing this response it occurred to me that there may be another profession which fits the bill for Duchamp’s ideal “unaware practitioner:” the athlete. In one of my favorite David Foster Wallace essays, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” DFW contemplates why we so often ridicule athletes for being unable to speak gracefully about their sport, often reciting what we view as clichés or trite, vacuous comments in interviews or in their memoirs. Perhaps, he says, the reason why these athletes speak this way (e.g. “just gotta keep your eye on the ball,” “we just have to play our best and work together”) because to them these phrases are comprehensive (in DFW’s words, “exhaustively descriptive”). These athletes are not only naturals, but they’ve also dedicated so much time to practicing and perfecting these movements that they’ve come to understand them as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They don’t think deeply or profoundly about these topics because to them there just isn’t anything to think—they just do. I think this fits perfectly with what Duchamp is searching for: a being who operates in a state of semi-consciousness, their body simply a canvas through which they practice their craft. As DFW states it, “those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”