The Creative Act – as seen by a ‘mere’ artist

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
Houston, Texas
April 1957


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.

Links and References:
The Creative Act. [PDF]
– Sound record from: Brainpickings.


11 thoughts on “The Creative Act – as seen by a ‘mere’ artist

  1. Thanks for the post. I didn’t realise an artist cum chess player’s mind could be that smart, hope not being too late to learn more of/from Duchamp, his thoughts and ideas are very stimulating and visionary! The quote of T S Eliot was equally brilliant. I noted and couldn’t agree more with Duchamp’s view on the spectrum of spectator-social value-artist history. He is also very generous by recognizing spectator’s importance in the process; I just totally admire him when he conveys hope that certain “rehabilitates forgotten artists” is always possible in time ahead.

    Of course, before this post of yours, I was not explicitly encouraged that the “pure intuition” is of paramount prerequisite in the artistic execution process (photography inclusive I suppose)! I suddenly feel hopeful to launch another life project of mine (in photography, or perhaps in painting), I get excited by Duchamp’s notion of “unintentionally expressed” when he explains art coefficient.

    1. Hello, to both musiqdragonfly and semi classical: thank you for an excellent post and the comments. I definitely love what Duchamp said in this speech. We in SF are lucky to have one of his most controversial but very famous work, ” fountain”. There is an interesting video posted on the SFMOMA site about the Fountain too.

      In modern art, I am more a fan of Picasso because I have more opportunities to see his work. Also, i love his pre-cubism works, like the Rose Period and Blue Period. I have only begun to learn a little about Duchamp more recently. Since you are both in Europs, you may be interested in the current exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. It is said to be the first exhibition of these two giants in modem art, a celebration of their centennial encounter.

      If musiqdragonfly is going to launch your new project in photography and painting, please keep us updated. May be this is the sign of a future Duchamp…

      Thanks to both of you for giving your fellow bloggers much inspiration to learn, to reflect, and to respond.

      1. Thanks for your input, one constantly feels insufficient when realising how little/shallow one knows, never heard of “Fountain”, in fact so little on Duchamp himself that I know (lots to learn). I was just joking with myself when wishing for new projects …. but one could always dream!

      2. Hello,
        It is ironic that it is still on display and that it’s probably worth millions of euros now… when the point of Duchamp was more theoretical than artistic. I do not think he would have had any respect to someone who would pay millions to buy … a urinal ! This is the problem with art historians, curators and collectors… they (very often) turn art into a stamp collection activity.

        “A joke can become a reality. Who knows!”
        Indeed, and ‘the fountain’ is a perfect example.

        Thanks for your visits and comments :-)

      3. If you are interested, please see the link to the sfmoma site that i sent to musiqdragonly. There are a few videos showing some discussion of Duchamp’s Fountsin, and a few other pieces.

        No matter what, Duchamp has been recognized as a very successful artist, whether it is from an aesthetic or theorectical point of view. The important thing is that he has left behind all these interesting “objects” and “subjects” for people like us to discuss, appreciate, or totally refute. My brother went to SFMOMA with me that day and we attended a docent tour on the Fountain. He was totally unimpressed! BTW he is a big fan of the Impressionists!

      4. Ha ha, I know you will say something, and came back here to read your comments. You know that I wouldn’t get a notification if you comment on another blog although you also addressed to me. I like your comment…” Which direction will it flow…” Can’t help laughing out loud, lady! And gentleman!

        ( this is in reply to musiqdragonfly, as I wrote in the box but there was no sign to send my comment.) thanks!

  2. Thank you lady and gentleman, in my case it is “dream transcends reality”, how tragic! But if I were Ms Duchamp, my aspiration will be more than that “urinal” sorry what’s the name (?) “Fountain” (ha-ha). Wonder which notion Mr Duchamp applies : “intended to realise” / “did realise” / “unexpressed but intended” / “unintentionally expressed” (his Creative Act)? Really interesting just to think. I didn’t go through the videos, I want my imagination on this Fountain to flourish (with water perhaps although I don’t know in which direction should the water flow)…. ~ opinion of Ms-Duchamp-to-be

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