24 Feb

Charles Saatchi’s up to something. I don’t know what. I have speculated somewhere that his schtick is the PT Barnum shuffle, separating fools from cash. Background in advertising, figures. But I’ve been poking thru his I Am An Artaholic designer book and there’s more to him than that. What? I shouldn’t wonder. But there’s more than meets the eye.

He makes a point of telling us he had the opportunity to buy a Basquiat cheap when the dude was still alive. He declined. Derivative, he said. Decorative was another word he used. He decided that Basquiat was shite. What’s the strategy? He doesn’t mention Robert Hughes but does reconfirm that Damien Hirst is a great artist. On “For The Love of God” he condescends: My dear the money is the message.

The money is the message? Has it come to this? It has. Let’s go back to where it all began…


“Fountain”, 1917 (copy)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

This is the original ‘work’ of conceptual art. I put work in quotes because Duchamp didn’t actually make it, he found a urinal, signed it with a false name intended to evoke the barbarism with which modern art was at the time associated and plonked it in a gallery. Actually the above is not the original. So what? It doesn’t matter. With Con Art what matters is the idea.

Duchamp’s biographer, the art critic Calvin Tomkins has compared the ‘work’ to a Buddha sculpture and to Renaissance Madonnas. The annals of 20th century art criticism are stuffed full of comparisons of various bits of conceptual arrangement with Old Masters. And all of of this is entirely ‘valid’. The last time I did anything in a gallery it was video stuff in support of a pair of artists who’d been canned for the ugliness and banality of their installation at a Fed Sq NGV showcase of emerging talent. This happened on the ABC’s arts show and Channel 9’s two-cents-worth populist moralizing Breakfast spot. On the ABC, the host inevitably came to the artists defense with the inevitable ‘anything can be art schpiel.

This is what I think Duchamp was getting at when he plonked his pisspot down in the New York art scene. If the rules of the Academy and the religious tradition that formed its oeuvre are gone than anything can be art. Even a pot to piss in.

Maybe he was making fun of the Americans who fawned over it. Those art students who’d pursued the modernist path in the late 19th/early20th century remember their American colleagues as clueless and conservative: as in they wanted to paint properly. Perhaps Duchamp was having a go at these new fans of modern art. Americans who didn’t get it and could be fooled by anything. Perhaps he was also making a point in a new country that lacked ancient history. Anything will be priceless if it’s old enough. I don’t recall as I’ve seen many pre-Columbian urinals or ancient Egyptian chamber pots but if they existed they’d be in a museum someplace.

Still Duchamp’s urinal is much like ones we still find in unreconstructed public toilets all over the world. It has no ancient mystique. It’s banal and you piss on it. Hello?


Piero Manzoni is a name that lives in the history books because he famously canned his own feces in order to demonstrate something about the gullibility of the art market. The art market responded by shelling out for these tinned goods proving his point. Among the buyers we find the Tate Modern which, buying it, made it legitimate. It was art. Officially. Years later and someone shells out one hundred and twenty-thousand Euros for one of these items at Sotheby’s. Did the auctioneer have to repress laughter?

The original of “Fountain” is lost. It’s said that the gallery owner and photographer Joseph Stiegliz threw it out. He had good taste. His photograph of the original is the only trace left of it:


Still Duchamp ‘made’ copies. Or, rather, he authorized other urinals making them official. In the swamp of the dominant early 21st century trend some group ominously described as ‘British art world professionals’ has voted it the single most influential work of art of the 20th century. It severed the link between work and merit. Apparently.

I think not. In years to come it will be a curiosity. An item in the catalog of the world of lost souls that was the 20th century. Finer people than us will one day look at it and pity us.


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