Duchamp's letter

I came across the following letter which Marcel Duchamp sent to his brother-in-law Jean Crotti when asked about his opinions on an art piece. Duchamp was a trailblazing artist of the earlier part of the 20th century and has arguably done more than anyone else to shape the artistic sensibilities of the modern Western world. He has been a polarizing figure and I have had more than my share of snickering disapprovals (mostly at the hands of MV) for being fascinated by this artist. Something tells my that the ideas in the letter apply more generally to life.

You were asking my opinion on your work of art, my dear Jean - It's very hard to say in just a few words - especially for me as I have no faith - religious kind - in artistic activity as a social value.

Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of them through and ruins others - To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about - It's a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser.

I do not believe in painting per se - A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing - There is no outward sign explaining why a Fra Angelico and a Leonardo are equally 'recognized'.

It all takes place at the level of our old friend luck - Artists, who in their own lifetime, have managed to get people to value their junk are excellent traveling salesmen, but there is no guarantee as to the immortality of their work - And even posterity is just a slut that conjures some away and brings others back to life (El Greco), retaining the right to change her mind every 50 years or so.

This long preamble just to tell you not to judge your own work as you are the last person to see it (with true eyes) - What you see neither redeems nor condemns it - All words used to explain or praise it are false translations of what is going on beyond sensations.

You are, as we all are, obsessed by the accumulation of principles or anti-principles which generally cloud your mind with their terminology and, without knowing it, you are a prisoner of what you think is a liberated education-

In your particular case, you are certainly the victim of the 'Ecole de Paris', a joke that's lasted for 60 years (the students awarding themselves prizes, in cash).

In my view, the only salvation is in a kind of esotericism - Yet, for 60 years, we have been watching a public exhibition of our balls and multiple erections - Your Lyons grocer speaks in enlightened terms and buys modern painting -

Your American museums want at all costs to teach modern art to young students who believe in the 'chemical formula'-

All this only breeds vulgarization and total disappearance of the original fragrance.

This does not undermine what I said earlier, since I believe in the original fragrance, but, like any fragrance, it evaporates very quickly (a few weeks, a few years at most). What remains is a dried up nut, classified by the historians in the chapter 'History of Art'-

So if I say to you that your paintings have nothing in common with what we see generally classified and accepted, and that you have always managed to produce things that were entirely your own work, as I truly see it, that does not mean you have the right to be seated next to Michelangelo-

What's more, this originality is suicidal as it distances you from a 'clientele' used to 'copies of copiers', often referred to as 'tradition'-

One more thing, your technique is not the 'expected' technique - It's your own personal technique, borrowed from nobody - And there again, this doesn't attract the clientele.

Obviously if you'd applied  your Monte Carlo system to your painting, all these difficulties wouldl have turned into victories. You would even have been able to start a new school of technique and originality.

I will not speak of your sincerity because that is the most widespread commonplace and the least valid - All liars, all bandits are sincere. Insincerity does not exist - The cunning are sincere and succeed by their malice, but their whole being is made up of malicious sincerity.

In a word, do less self-analysis and enjoy your work without worrying about opinions, your own as well as of others.

Affectionately,

Marcel

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