Posted in Art Theory
September 9, 2019

Duchamp – A Liberating Lineage For Social Art Practice, Part 2 (Jacquelynn Baas)

The following is the second of a two-part series.  The first can be found here.

My thanks to curator Mary Jane Jacob and artist Ernesto Pujol for their skillful editing of this text. Pujol originally proposed the topic of the essay, which will be published in 2018 as part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Chicago Social Practice History Series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. It is currently posted on https://berkeley.academia.edu/JacquelynnBaas.

Marcel Duchamp was not the first westerner to observe that in order to change the world we first have to really see it, and to believe that artists can teach us how. None of the four proponents of the art of life I shall describe were artists in the usual sense. Each of them promoted radically new ways of changing the world by changing perception.

The first was the nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Kaspar Schmidt, better known as Max Stirner (1806-56), whom Duchamp cited more than once as an important early influence (59-62). In 1845 Stirner published The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum), a title that translated more directly from the German reads something like, The Unique [Self] and Its Own-ness.

As is evident in his title, Stirner wrote The Ego and Its Own in a purposefully convoluted style. Stirner’s conviction that language and rationality are limiting creations that restrict individual creativity made him a pariah in the philosophical community, but it was completely in line with the thinking of Marcel Duchamp, who toward the end of his life described Stirner as his “bedtime reading. (14)”

Max Stirner argued that the concept of the self is something impossible to comprehend because the so-called “self” is a “creative nothing.” In realizing that the self is nothing, one can be said to “own the world,” because, as Stirner stated in the last line of The Ego and Its Own, “all things are nothing to me.” He further proposed that social institutions—including the State, the right to private property, and the very notion of society—are mere illusions, or “ghosts” in the mind. With regard to society, Stirner believed that “individuals are its reality. (xiiiff)” He advocated replacing systems of belief with awareness that there is no soul, along with a detached life of non-dogmatic, open-minded engagement with the world as it is.

Uniqueness is essentially creative potential: “I am not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I am the creative nothing, the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything. (7)” Understanding the self in this way means that we are all creators: artists both of the world and of our own lives. Stirner’s stance was anarchistic but not nihilistic. His view of the “I” resembled Indian Vedic perspectives on the Self. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the brahman teacher Yajnavalkya tells his wife Maitreyi, “not for the sake of the universe the universe is dear, but for the sake of the self is dear the universe. … by seeing, hearing, minding, knowing the self, all this (universe) is comprehended. (238)”

Central to Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta is the idea that individual consciousness is continuous with and indistinguishable from absolute reality, which cannot be perceived with the senses and thus cannot be described. If you perceive the self, you perceive the Self—the Absoute. Stirner treated experience of the Absolute not as an idea or concept, but as a state of (Self) consciousness.

The second art-of-life proponent is the surgeon and social activist Dr. James Hinton (1822-75), father of the mathematician and popularizer of the fourth dimension, Charles Howard Hinton (1853-1907). James Hinton was an ear surgeon whose best-known book, The Mystery of Pain (1866), offers the remarkable thesis that everything “we feel as painful is really giving.”

Hinduism and Buddhism informed Hinton’s ideas of spiritual self-surrender, where the “self” was understood not as his own individuality, but the embodiment of a universal consciousness that could be accessed through eros. Hinton regarded indulging in materialist pleasures as selfish and exploitative. Indulging in sexual pleasure, on the other hand, allows women and men to experience the life force of the universe. Desire can be directed towards service by unblocking the natural “pleasures, instincts, and impulses” that society is determined to repress.

Four years after James Hinton’s death, his son published a collection of his father’s essays in a book entitled Chapters on the Art of Thinking (1879). In a chapter entitled “Thought and Art” we read:

Thinking … is no mere mechanical process; it is a great Art, the chief of all the Arts; nay, it is both an Art and a work … Those only can be called thinkers who have a native gift, a special endowment for the work, and have been trained, besides, by assiduous culture.  When others attempt to think it should be understood that the results of such attempts have the same kind of value that belongs to amateur paintings. (43)

Hinton was probably referring to yogic or Mahayana Buddhist mind-training practices involving visualization. Although his great love was music, Hinton’s exemplar for the transformation of life into art was visual art:

It is absolutely untrue to say man uses nature at all. The true statement is that nature uses him, that is what makes him what he is: it is nature operating through the artist that divides art from what is not art. … He is not painting pictures alone; he is painting life, he is painting humanity, showing us not only the art of using the brush, but the art of living. (280-281)

For the artist of life, being willing to be “used” by an ever-changing universe gives rise to what Engaged Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”—the interrelationship of all things.

Among those influenced by James Hinton was the English socialist philosopher, poet, feminist, and early gay activist Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). A leading cultural figure in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain, Carpenter was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Walt Whitman. A feminist and early advocate of sexual freedom, he influenced D. H. Lawrence and Indian nationalist yogi and poet Sri Aurobindo.

Carpenter believed that Socialism should not only try to improve economic conditions, but also aim to expand human consciousness. His so-called “mystical socialism” led him to promote vegetarianism and campaign against animal experimentation and air pollution; he was an advocate of sustainable farming and an environmentalist. Carpenter’s best-known book was Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure, published in 1889. Among his other books were Love’s Coming-of-Age (1896), Angels’ Wings: Essays on Art and its Relation to Life (1898), The Art of Creation: Essays on the Self and Its Powers (1904, revised 1907) and A Visit to a Gnani or Wise Man of the East (1911).

Carpenter’s concept of “The Art of Life,” as he called it, seems to have developed in the course of researching yogic mind practices while traveling through Southern India and Ceylon in 1890. Chinese Taoist perspectives were also important to his thinking, as indicated by his use of a quote from the Tao De Jing as an epigraph to The Art of Creation: “These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their Origin are one and the same.” But it is not easy to perceive the world in this way:

Long and persevering must the practice and exercise be, by which power to direct thought and feeling may be attained, and by which the sense of identity with the universal self may be established … when th[ose] conditions are fulfilled, then strangely obvious is the result and simple the act of Creation. (221-222)

What was Carpenter’s view of the role of art in all of this? It was pretty simple. In a chapter entitled “The Art of Life” in his earlier book Angels Wings, he wrote that the purpose of art is “to make mankind realize their unity, to make them feel it. … Everything in modern Art points in this direction, towards inclusion, towards the accept[ance] of all points of view. (137-138)” But then, all of life, “in proportion as … it is worthy to be called Life,” is “an expression of one’s Self. (211)”

The materials which exist for this purpose are—everything. We can select truly what we want. … Manners, dress, house, occupation, speech, knowledge, skill, sounds, colors, objects, forms, flowers, trees, stars, stones—all these things … may and must serve as expressions of ourselves, as part of the language by which we make ourselves known, and fit ourselves to enter the great Fraternity of intelligent beings which constitutes the Universe. (215)

Carpenter had little doubt where it would all end: “The Time is coming when man will rise into command of materials. … Then, at last and after all these centuries, his Work, his very Life, will become an Art. … The Art of Life is to know that Life is Art, that it is Expression.” (217, 219)

Perhaps the most anarchistic writer to nourish Duchamp’s thinking was the French symbolist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Jarry’s neo-scientific novel, Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, published posthumously in 1911, was a fantastical farce mixing western physics with eastern metaphysics. Jarry defined pataphysics as “the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics, … extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics. (21)”

Faustroll’s epigraph is a seemingly nonsensical passage from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, mentioned earlier in connection with Max Stirner:

There are eight abodes, eight places of sight, eight deities, and eight Purushas. Whoever understands those Purushas in their division, and again in their union, has overcome the world. I ask thee about the Purusha in the Upanishads. And thou explain not him to me, thy head will fall off.” S’akalya knew him not, so his head fell off. Moreover robbers took away his bones, mistaking them for something else.

A foundational text of Vedanta (“end of knowledge”), the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s theme is the Self (Purusha), which resembles Stirner’s sense of the self as a creative nothing.

The Early Buddhist concept of anatman discussed above in connection with Duchamp, influenced the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s holistic conception of Self as simultaneously microcosmic and macrocosmic. For his epigraph Jarry chose the culminating moment of a lengthy back-and-forth between the Vedic philosopher Yajnavalkya, mentioned earlier, and Sakalya, a know-it-all member of his audience. In this exchange, Yajnavalkya presses Sakalya regarding experience of the Absolute not as knowledge, but as a state of consciousness: “This soul [atman], which is neither this nor that, nor aught else, is intangible,” Yajnavalkya declares, continuing:

…itis without contact, for it does not come into contact; it is not limited; it is not subject to pain, nor to destruction.—There are eight abodes, eight places (of sight), eight deities, and eight Purushas.  Whoever understands those Purushas in their division, and again in their union, has overcome (the world). (307)

As Jarry and Stirner both understood, whosoever becomes the Self comprehends the Self and, in Stirner’s sense, “owns” both self and world.


Thanks to Marcel Duchamp’s disciple John Cage (1912-92), the integration of art and life reached a kind of culmination within the discipline of music. We can close our eyes and direct our gaze, but we cannot close our ears. Cage’s breakthrough was to teach us that our listening is as directed by habits of the mind as our seeing; that our likes and dislikes—attractions and aversions, using Buddhist terminology—warp our experience of the flow of reality in all of its richness.

Cage’s compositions might be silent, like his well-known 4’33”, which consists entirely of ambient sound. As initially performed, four minutes and thirty-three seconds was the length of time pianist David Tudor did not play the piano. Or they might contain overwhelmingly loud feedback sounds—Cage suggested that loud sounds in a concert hall might help people deal with the loud sounds they encounter in their daily lives. For Cage, art was about changing the only thing he could change: “When I find myself … in the position of someone who would change something—at that point I don’t change it. I change myself. … instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration. (139)”

Cage first met Duchamp in 1942, when they were fellow houseguests of Peggy Guggenheim, who had agreed to pay Cage’s expenses in connection with a concert at the opening of her Art of This Century Gallery. When she learned that Cage had also promised to give a concert at the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim canceled the concert and refused to pay the shipping expense to get his instruments to New York. Some thirty-five years later, Cage recalled the moment:

I burst into tears. In the room next to mine at the back of the house Marcel Duchamp was sitting in a rocking chair smoking a cigar. He asked why I was crying and I told him. He said virtually nothing, but his presence was such that I felt calmer. … He had calmness in the face of disaster. (12)

Since his youth, Cage had been seeking this kind of emotional centering.

Duchamp helped Cage understand that art is fundamentally a social act. As Cage told an interviewer in 1983, “Marcel Duchamp said it was the function of the observer, or the listener, to complete the work of art; so that he brought this social aspect of music over into the art of painting. (42)” But Cage felt his own version of art-dharma was more socially engaged than Duchamp’s:

What I like very much to think about in this connection is the final image from the Ox-Herding Pictures, the Zen text that teaches by means of illustrations instead of words. There are two versions of the Ox-Herding Pictures, you know. One version ends with an empty circle—nothingness—the example of Duchamp. In the other version the final picture is of a big fat man, with a smile on his face, returning to the village bearing gifts. …The idea being that after the attainment of nothingness one returns again into activity. (57)

This generous attitude was one of the reasons Cage gravitated toward the more social discipline of music. He did not create a significant visual art project until 1969, one year after Duchamp’s death. Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel consists of two lithographs on black paper and eight screen prints on Plexiglas panels that can be arranged in any way the viewer wishes.

Fortified by the teachings of Zen Buddhism, which he took up seriously in 1950, Cage broke ground in three areas. First, he attempted to erase the boundaries between art and life by aggressively incorporating chance into his work. Second, Cage eliminated the hierarchies between composer and performer, and performer and audience by “letting go” of creative responsibility and by incorporating his audience into his performances. Third, and perhaps his greatest legacy for visual artists, was the experiential, performative nature of his work, which emphasized the process of creation over product:

It reminds me of what Thoreau said, and I feel so too. “It’s not important what form the sculptor gives the stone. It’s important what sculpting does to the sculptor.” People can be plumbers or street cleaners or be like artists if they do their work as their lives; what and how they do makes how they live, and gives them the love and pleasure of living. (33)

Through his work, his teaching, and his friendships, John Cage influenced many of the New Music artists emerging in the 1960s and 70s. And like Duchamp, he inspired visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as artists involved with Happenings, Performance Art, and Fluxus through a course in experimental composition that he taught at the New School for Social Research from 1956 to 1960.


You don’t have to consider yourself an artist to be one, for according to the neurologist Oliver Sacks, consciousness itself is an artistic process:

Experience is not possible until it is organized iconically; action is not possible unless it is organized iconically. “The brain’s record” of everything—everything alive—must be iconic. This is the final form of the brain’s record, even though the preliminary form may be computational or programmatical. The final form of cerebral representation must be … “art”—the artful scenery and melody of experience and action. (148)

People don’t need art to make their lives works of art. Whatever else they may be, everyone is, unavoidably, an artist, whether they think of themselves that way or not. How good an artist will depend on the choices we make: how we act and react to the pleasures and perils and injustices of life.

There is an understanding in Mahayana Buddhism that important texts recording the teachings of the Buddha existed during and for a while after the Buddha’s lifetime and then, having liberated everyone within their reach, went underground, ready to be rediscovered when needed.

Duchamp’s ultimate goal, both for art and for himself, was to disappear. Yet today he is more present than ever, permeating the art world like a genius loci or Kami—a presiding spirit. His body is buried in Rouen, under a family grave marker. Above his name is an epitaph, his last message to us: D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent, “Besides, it’s always others who die.” Even from beyond the grave Marcel Duchamp is still humorously prodding us to think not about him, but about our relationship to others, about our attitude toward life; still trying to make us aware of our own perspective. This is how art changes the world: by changing our minds.

Jacquelynn Baas is an independent curator, cultural historian, writer, and Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.[1] She has published on topics ranging from the history of the print media to Mexican muralism to Fluxus to Asian philosophies and practices as resources for European and American artists.

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