Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Duchamp, Dutch Calvinists, crime fiction

In his crime novel The Brutal Art, Jesse Kellerman (son of thriller-writing duo Jonathan and Faye) gives us this intriguing passage (among many).

Watching him [an expert draughts player] I felt a thrill similar to what I felt the first time I saw Victor's drawings. That might sound strange, so let me explain. Genius takes many forms, and in our century we have (slowly) come to appreciate that the transcendence given by Picasso is potentially found in other, less obvious places. It was that old reliable provocateur, Marcel Duchamp, who showed this when he abandoned object-making, moved to Buenos Aires, and took up chess full-time. The game, he remarked, 'has all the beauty of art, and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer.' At first glance Duchamp seems to be lamenting the corrupting power of money. Really, though, he's being much more subversive than that. He is in fact destroying the conventional boundaries of art, arguing that all forms of expression - all of them - are potentially equal. Painting is the same as chess, which is the same as rollerskating, which is the same as standing at your kitchen stove, making soup. In fact, any one of those plain old everyday activities is better than conventional art, better than painting, because it is done without the sanctimony of anointing oneself 'an artist'. There is no surer route to mediocrity; as Borges wrote, the desire to be a genius is 'the basest of art's temptations'. (pp.280-1)

So, Duchamp was only a couple of centuries behind the Calvinists, and only 1850 years behind the apostle Paul.

Still, can't expect even a decent crime novelist to know everything about intellectual history!

What he then says about genius is less true, in my opinion, because I don't accept the ethic of the pure act, but it gets one thinking...

According to this understanding, then , true genius has no self-awareness. A genius must by definition be someone who does not stop to consider what he is doing, how it will be received, or how it will affect him and his future; he simply acts. He pursues his activity with a single-mindedness that is inherently unhealthy and frequently self-destructive. (p.281)

That is probably, sadly, historically accurate for many people, but genius doesn't have to be like that...