The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted July 17, 2002 with permission of the author and The Art Museum at Florida International University. The essay is excerpted from the illustrated exhibition guide for the exhibition Richard Duncan, on display through August 18, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, or if you wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition guide, please contact The Art Museum at Florida International University directly through either this phone number or web address:
Richard Duncan and the Legacy of Modern Art
By Richard A. Schwartz, Professor of English, Florida International University
Reexamination of basic concepts, assumptions, and beliefs has been a core activity of modern thought and modern art. These reexaminations have often yielded results that were unsettling in the short term but eventually affected human civilization in ways that were literally earthshaking. For instance, in 1905, Albert Einstein smashed the cornerstone of Isaac Newton's commonly accepted view of physical reality when he posited that space and time are not the same everywhere and under all conditions, but instead vary depending on the velocity an object moves relative to the speed of light. Moreover, whereas Newton regarded matter and energy as mutually exclusive opposites, Einstein showed them to be different states of the same phenomenon, a viewpoint that was further amplified in the 1920's by quantum theory. That same decade astronomers and geologists also overthrew long-held core assumptions about their disciplines and thereby changed the way we conceive the heavens and the earth. Even before then, at the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud challenged conventional notions about human nature when he proposed that, far from being fundamentally rational creatures who assert conscious control over their lives, as maintained by proponents of the 18th century Enlightenment, human beings are driven primarily by irrational urges and neuroses that reside in our unconscious libidos. Contemporary historians now routinely examine the experiences of women, minorities, and others who had been excluded from more traditional approaches to history in earlier eras. Even today's nutritionists contradict the meat-and-potatoes approach to a healthy diet that was so widely promulgated in previous generations. These and changes in other disciplines have vastly altered how we view ourselves as individuals and as a species and how we conceive what is real, possible, moral, and desirable. (left: Richard Duncan, In the Eye of Charon, 1999, etching, 14 x 17 inches)
Modern musicians, performing artists, and writers have likewise reconsidered the fundamental "particles" of their disciplines. Such composers as Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, choreographers as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Allen Ginsberg, among many others, have compelled us to rethink our essential notions of what music, dance, and literature are. In Finnegan's Wake, for example, Joyce assaults the very notion of the word-the fundamental particle of language-by fusing syllables from disparate words to create new ones, and Cage's use of vacuum cleaners, audience sounds, and silence challenges us to rethink the concept of a musical note and thee notion that music is produced only by musical instruments and the human voice (as opposed, for example, to a human sneeze or belch).
Practitioners of the visual arts have also returned to the fundamental components of their media and compelled us to conceive anew such basic concepts as color, texture, form, positive an negative space, and even what is art, who is an artist, and what role the viewer plays in completing the artistic creation. The early 20th century Dadaists assaulted Plato's notion that art should promulgate truth, goodness, and beauty, because they felt that these had been co-opted by big business and big government as means of social control. Prominent among, and most enduring of the Dadaists was Marcel Duchamp, who compelled viewers to question what is art by displaying in galleries such everyday objects as bicycle wheels, coat hangers, and even a urinal that he notoriously signed and entitled Fountain. By constructing his works from mass-produced, machine-made consumer goods Duchamp deliberately undermined the long-held notion of the artist as a consummate craftsman who could do things that ordinary people could not. A political leftist, he believed that artists should be of the masses and not apart from them, and he compelled us to recognize that art is the product of what and how viewers perceive, as well as the result of what the artist creates. His legacy extended throughout the 20th century in figures such as Andy Warhol, the 1960s pop artists, the 1970s conceptual artists and today's installation artists.
Of course, not everyone accepts Duchamp's viewpoint. In My Name is Asher Lev (1972), American novelist Chaim Potok, who is also an accomplished painter, assails Duchamp for polluting the artistic landscape. Asher, a young artistic genius, describes traveling to Manhattan galleries in the 1960s where he saw "the beginning of a mocking art which I disliked. Jacob Kahn [Asher's mentor] called it nihilism. He despised it. He regarded it as an undisciplined destruction of aesthetic values. Duchamp was to blame for this, he said bitterly." Later Asher complains about galleries filled with pop art, "Zombie art. Garish. Cold. Non-art. Duchamp's Fountain overflowing into the world."
John Barth, another American novelist who is known for his experimental style, addresses the same problem in his influential essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967). Although he does not allude to Duchamp directly, Barth identifies as "technically up-to-date civilians" those who produce thought-provoking works whose "meaning" one might discuss over beer but which require no particular skill or craftsmanship to construct. Among those he places in this category are his neighbor who makes large Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed bears and impales them on spears. For Barth these are mildly interesting, but overall he'd rather go to the circus and be astounded by the virtuosity of the trapeze artists. On the other hand, Barth describes as "technically out-of-date artists" those who demonstrate consummate skill but reveal in their form and content no particular awareness that the modern age has even existed. He notes, for example that were the Chartres Cathedral to be built today as an originally conceived work of architecture, it would be merely an embarrassment. Finally, holding up Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges and Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett as literary examples, Barth identifies "technically up-to-date artists" as those who, like Duchamp, are attuned to the "felt ultimacies" of their times but adeptly express their responses with consummate craftsmanship comparable to that of the Old Masters.
So, where do the works of Richard Duncan fall within this discussion? Part of his achievement as an artist is his range not only of media-all manner of drawing and printmaking -- but also his variety of styles and artistic concerns. His general preference is for old-fashioned media: pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, lithographs, and etchings. He eschews electronic means of image-making in favor of techniques that compel him to create his images through direct, physical contact with the media. As one who has not only viewed his work but also team-taught with him in an innovative course that paired writing and drawing, I know him to be a highly accomplished craftsman who has put in countless hours making marks on the page and insisting that his students do likewise. In this regard, much of his work may, very deliberately, fall into Barth's category of the old-fashioned artist. Duncan does not feel apologetic about this, as he believes that image-making that is literally hands-on permits a uniquely direct and visceral means for personal expression. It becomes a way to retain the "personal touch" in a modern world that seems increasingly to abandon it at every level.
On the other hand, in some of his most recent pieces Duncan adopts a minimalist style that I regard as an ironic response to Duchamp, but that might also explore some of the possibilities in Duchamp's approach to art. Finally, as one living in an age of environmental activism, Duncan is deeply attuned to nature and to his environment at-large. Nothing exists in a vacuum, he constantly reminds his students in class and his viewers through his work. And by employing his superb craftsmanship in innovative ways that sensitize us to the contexts in which things appear, he both shows some affinity to Duchamp and remains engaged with the concerns of his times. In this regard, he falls into Barth's conception of the technically up-to-date artist.
At his best, I think Duncan achieves the goal that Barth describes in Chimera (1972), a collection of three novellas that, among other things, discuss philosophies of art. "Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal," says the genie who is clearly Barth's mouthpiece. "...so does heartless skill. But what you want is passionate virtuosity."
About the author
Professor of English, director of the Film Studies certificate program, and fellow of the Honors College at Florida International University (FIU), Richard A. Schwartz received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, where he wrote his dissertation on the redeeming energy and vitality in the otherwise nihilistic novels of John Barth. An amateur artist, Schwartz has taught numerous courses on twentieth-century fiction, film, and interdisciplinary studies and has published books on the creative work of Woody Allen, the films of Ridley Scott, and American arts and culture related to the Cold War. He was privileged on two occasions to team-teach with Richard Duncan courses on creative writing and drawing.
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