In 1917 Marcel Duchamp said art is what an artist chooses it to be. He said that an art object doesn’t have to fit a culture’s criteria or even be created by the artist; he or she just has to declare it so. To prove his point he declared an off-the-shelf urinal to be art.

But since Duchamp paid an exhibit entry fee, re-named the porcelain potty “Fountain” and set it up for display wholly out of its intended context, he really did more than simply dub something common “art.” He did try to conform to some of Artworld criteria. Needless to say Artworld didn’t go along with him. Duchamp had played by the exhibitors’ rules, so they had to accept his entry. But they didn’t have to show it; they hid it and probably discarded it after the show.

Only after 30 years did Artworld come around to Duchamp’s premise. With his blessing, several replicas of the lost mass-produced original were carefully handmade and these “creations”—as opposed to the found nature of the original—have places of pride in several world-class museums. One of those replicas of “the most significant art work of the 20th century” sold for $1.7 million in 1999—a replica, mind you a replica, $1.7 million, really.

But that is spare change compared to the $58.4 million that a different replica sold for in 2013. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” is a ten-times life-sized copy of the birthday-party-clown-made ephemeron, constructed circa 1997 in shiny steel rather than rubber. It, like “Fountain,” must be art because an “artist” says it is. But, this time, the 80-years more sophisticated Artworld went along with the artist right away.

Duchamp humorously mocked Artworld with his “creation.” But with this supersized simulacrum the Balloon Dog Guy (BDG) intentionally inveigled Artworld and bemused it with intent to monetize. Noted art critic Stephen Colbert mocks the younger artist when he asked him why he likes art, the artist replied “I like the way it makes me feel.” Critic Colbert countered with “It makes you feel rich, man.”

And a rich man he is, I’ll assume, as rumor has it the former (?) commodities broker lives in a mansion on the upper east side of NYC; is represented by several classy dealers and produces his investment-quality aesthetic instruments in a Chelsea factory aided by 90-to 120 workers.

I don’t begrudge BDG his temporal fame and wealth. First, he only takes money from rich folk, but he has become rich himself, failing Nietzsche’s, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Second, he hires artists, assuming he’s not an egomaniacal despot—fat chance of that, him being an artist and all—and pays them a living wage, what could be wrong with that?

“Balloon Dog (Orange)” as well as the rest of BDG’s efforts, lack the intellectual depth of Duchamp’s art, BDG’s work does not speak for itself, it just chuckles, sneers even—all the way to the bank. He has to tell you what it all means. But does he care whether you buy his explanation? Probably not, not as long as someone buys the work itself.

One hundred years from now, he will as forgotten as Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier is now. That artist, famous and well paid in his time, was beloved by wealthy Americans too, quite unlike another artist working in the late 19th century, the now super famous Vincent van Gogh.

So where is today’s Vincent? Is he trying in vain to sell paintings to tourists in the south of France or suffering a hipster’s Künstlerleben east of Manhattan? Perhaps blogging unnoticed in York, Pa., even? A nice irony would be that she is working for BDG, polishing puppies on his assembly line. This would make a funny cartoon, oui?

My Point: I‘d prefer it if the main reason/need for making art is not to make money. That makes it a job no different philosophically from flipping burgers. Tis true that most folks need a way to make a living and if one has talent sufficient to do so by art, all the better; we surely need more art and less fast food these days.

But let’s try keep art a personal expression or impression recorded and a call to experience something good or to change something bad first, and a source of income second. To make art just to make money just doesn’t seem right, impossible even. Isn’t art, since Duchamp anyway, what an artist choses it to be? Expanding on that if you are commodities broker first, wouldn’t what you are doing a financial instrument not art?


About the title: R. Mutt is the pseudonym that Duchamp used to sign “Fountain,” and argent (R. Gent, get it?) means money or wealth in French.


Sites I looked at in advance of this blog post: