Erasing Duchamp


Arts & Culture

On Marcel Duchamp, Mad Libs, and conceptual writing online.


Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1917.

As Marcel Duchamp had it, an artist is nothing without an audience. No work of art—no balloon dog, no poem mentioning cold-water flats, no four-minute-and-thirty-three-second performance by silent musicians—is a great work until posterity says so. In a 1964 interview between The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins and Duchamp, the latter remarked, “The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, ‘You have produced something marvelous.’ The onlooker has the last word in it.”

This is also a tidy summary of Duchamp’s short lecture “The Creative Act,” given in Houston in 1957, in which he calls the artist a “mediumistic being,” one whose “decisions in the artistic execution of the work … cannot be translated into a self-analysis.” Analysis is the work of the spectator, who “brings the work in contact with the external world.” Posterity decides if an artist’s works are deserving enough of an extended solo show at the Whitney, or should be reprinted in every iteration of the Norton Anthology until the end of time. The “creative act” is a transaction between artist and onlooker, and in it, again, the onlooker has the last word.

This is literally true in Joe Milutis’s new conceptual project Marcel Duchamp’s The [Creative] Act, released last month via Gauss PDF. Milutis’s text is a free fourteen-page PDF file that takes Duchamp’s 1957 lecture and turns it into a sort-of Dadaist Mad Libs:

Millions of artists [verb]; only a few thousands are [passive verb] or [passive verb] by the [noun] and many less again are [passive verb] by [noun].

In the last analysis, the [noun] may shout from all the rooftops that he is a [noun]: he will have to wait for the [noun] of the spectator in order that his [noun] take a [adjective] value and that, finally, [noun] includes him in the primers of Artist History.

Between each page of text are images of the error messages and broken links familiar to anyone who’s ever used the Internet: “We’re sorry, this image is temporarily unavailable”; “No Image Available”; “Sorry No Pic.” Of course, nothing is “temporarily unavailable” here. There were never any images in the first place.


From Joe Milutis’s Marcel Duchamp’s The [Creative] Act.

It’s not a typical erasure, if such a thing exists; it isn’t like Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb, for example, a book-length poem derived from erased passages of a Charles Lamb biography. It seems more what we might call pop-Derridean conceptual writing. In the blank spaces he’s made, Milutis could have simply written “[redacted]”—instead, he supplies labels as guideposts of a sort, announcing exactly what kind of absence he’s presenting. And it’s crucial to remember the context here: this is a speech about how we lend meaning to a work of art. By excising certain words like this, Milutis forces us to do the very thing that Duchamp has asked of us.

But we shouldn’t take this to be all so cerebral. Milutis’s gesture is by and large a playful one. For instance: Where Duchamp repeatedly uses the expression à l’état brut (“raw state”) to refer to art before it is deemed good or bad by an audience, Milutis redacts the French, replacing it with “[french phrase].” We might decide à l’état brut should be avoir le cafard (have the cockroach) or si ma tata tâte ta tata, ta tata sera tâtée (if my aunt feels your aunt, your aunt will be felt).

This is the kind of niche project that the digital publisher Gauss PDF is becoming known for among a small set of literary netizens. The site itself looks deceptively minimal—it’s built using a simple Tumblr template, displaying almost no information about the authors or the works published. It would be easy to land on it from another page, think, What?, and move on.

And your What? wouldn’t be misplaced. Available for download right now on the site’s front page is a JPEG file that, when opened, displays the words BÊTE NOIRE dozens of times in various sizes and colors. There’s also The Comedy of Hamlet, in which the consonants in each line have been replaced with the letter h, so that every character’s utterance is reduced to giggles. Gauss PDF’s founder, J. Gordon Faylor, has established what is, in some ways, an initiative with a Dadaist spirit. A PDF published earlier this year, Adam Braffman’s “Bestseller,” compiles hundreds of one-sentence summaries of books that have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list over several decades. The names of the books themselves are never given; the summaries are simply strung together as a disorienting narrative. (“Men seek the green turtle with the sea around them. The exploits of a woman and her two daughters from pre-World War I Paris to present-day Los Angeles. King David tells his story in comic and irreverent style.”) And Dandyisms, a short poetry collection by the conceptual writer and poet Felix Bernstein under the name of his Victorian camp character, Leopold Brandt.

The most effective conceptual writing, as with all conceptual art, alters a thing’s accepted context. Critics would have you think that all this is merely silly, but in the best cases there’s a method to the madness: these artists are doing the very basic, very necessary work of helping us see with new eyes. When Kenneth Goldsmith transcribed, word for word, baseball sportscasters narrating the longest ever nine-inning game (Yankees vs. Red Sox, 2006), and then published the transcript with no edits—even the commentators’ stuttering is preserved—as a book called Sports, readers didn’t open it hoping for a riveting depiction of that game. Likewise, in 1917, when Duchamp took a urinal, signed it R. Mutt, and then submitted it to be presented in a show by the American Society of Independent Artists as Fountain, the committee of curators didn’t approach it looking to pee. Of course, we can glean a lot about sports coverage from Sports—and about circumlocution and observation and the human need to keep things interesting. And anyone is certainly able to pee on reproductions of Duchamp’s urinal—many have tried. But we understand these works as having new meanings beyond their original context.

Milutis has complicated Duchamp’s famous ready-made, which has, of course, seen no end of complications since its debut. “Marcel Duchamp’s The [Creative] Act” isn’t already-made. It’s still in the process of being made. However tongue-in-cheek this Mad Libs approach is, though—and however many eye rolls it, along with the rest of the Gauss PDF list, might garner—it’s a transaction I think Duchamp might enjoy.

Rebecca Bates has written for Guernica, Nylon, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. Her poems have appeared in the Believer, Gigantic, Gulf Coast, Best American Experimental Writing, and other places.