In 1957, Marcel Duchamp took part as a mere artist in a conference about art and gave a talk on ‘the creative act’ in the session of the same name. The talk was short and concise, yet it encapsulated most of the thoughts of this great figure of art.
I have deep respect for Duchamp as an artist and thinker and this text is one of the most important ones I have ever read on the creative process. Duchamp is one of the few men who could put one feet in the realm of pure intuition and creativity and the other in the realm of analytic reasoning and excel in both of them.
The views he expressed are so deep and eloquently put, that they seem obvious a posteriori. However, the common views on art (and especially art history and critique) seem to completely ignore them. I will not elaborate more on Duchamp and his ideas here, because I’ll write dedicated posts about that at some point, rather I’d like to share the full text of the talk plus (pure delight!) a recording of M. Duchamp, himself, reading it.
NB. Pay close attention to what he says about the spectator and the crucial role he plays!
Professor Seitz, Princeton University
Professor Arnheim, Sarah Lawrence College
Gregory Bateson, anthropologist
Marcel Duchamp, mere artist
Session on the Creative Act
Convention of the American Federation of Arts
THE CREATIVE ACT
by Marcel Duchamp
Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity. To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, 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.
T.S. Eliot, in his essay on “Tradition and Individual Talent“, writes: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”
Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.
In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.
I know that this statement will not meet with the approval of many artists who refuse this mediumistic role and insist on the validity of their awareness in the creative act – yet, art history has consistently decided upon the virtues of a work of art through considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanations of the artist.
If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?
This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.
But before we go further, I want to clarify our understanding of the word ‘art’ – to be sure, without any attempt at a definition.
What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.
Therefore, when I refer to ‘art coefficient’, it will be understood that I refer not only to great art, but I am trying to describe the subjective mechanism which produces art in the raw state – à l’état brut – bad, good or indifferent.
In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.
The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of.
Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work.
In other words, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.
To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this ‘art coefficient’ is a personal expression of art à l’état brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be ‘refined’ as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict.
The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubtantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.