Marcel Duchamp as a predecessor of conceptual art by Natalia Shapkina

Conceptual art is one of the most influential movements of contemporary art. As a predecessor of conceptualism it is important to mention Marcel Duchamp – may be the most influential and enigmatic artist of twentieth century. This century is marked by linguistic turn, turn toward to language and new understanding of its capacities in art and all humanities including philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis, sociology, political studies etc. No wonder the revolutionary artist made his impact to examining language in his works. Lets recall for instance his famous moving disks that were filmed by the artist in collaboration with Man Ray. Those discs were inscribed with phrases rotate in slow motion. Four of them were on view at the historical part of the exhibition “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” in the MoMA museum in New York in 2012. As said MoMA web site “Duchamp was interested in the malleability of language; here he offered a fanciful alternative to our conventional way of reading, one that invites expanded meanings and free association among words and forms”.


But interestingly that for conceptualists truly iconic status got Duchamp’s ready-mades. Objects that are steel far from easy-reading and understanding.
Why ready-mades are so important? Let’s recall the notorious program text of Joseph Kosuth, one of the key-figures of conceptual art. The text “Art after philosophy” was written in 1969. Kosuth’s famous saying takes place there:
“The ‘value’ of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art.” Originally to question the nature of art was crucial for conceptualism.
It was already mentioned by one of the authors of this blog that for Kosuth great importance also has the idea itself. The question important for him is what this particular piece of art tells us.
Let’s take as an example work of remarkable representative from another generation of conceptual artists – Jenny Holzer.


The artist is more well-known for her truisms and quotations projected to buildings and interfering with the public sphere. Those famous works have many notional dimensions and one can read them from poetical, political, philosophical, artistic or psychoanalytical perspective. One of the most famous projected saying was “Protect me from what I want. Advertising slogans fulfill the space of our private and social life. Their targets are our desires. To remind that our desires are not always so nice is at least one of the aims of the work.


Another work of her I would like to think about is “Lustmord Table” (1994). For me it is very strong peace which displays human bones on the table with silver bands impressed with words by rape victims, perpetrators and witnesses. I think it is a very rigor work. Human bones says to us unsayable and makes us think unthinkable. Words here are too week and too ridiculous to protect from enormous trauma, so one can almost physically feel pain and horror. One of the psychoanalytical notions of the psychic trauma is the situation when words didn’t make their job, when something important happened but nothing important was said.


To conclude lets recall Kosuth’s idea of questioning the nature of art.
If Duchamp’s ready-mades raise the question “what is art?” by bringing everyday-life objects to the museum, Holzer asks equal question “what is human” pointing by the”Lustmord Table” that the sources of art can be horrible traumas.

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