Wessel Huisman, Dieren

Let ‘s get rid of Duchamp!

In recent discussions in the world of art production and art critic there is a growing opposition against the common arrogance of the global cultural elite and many of the values they stand for. The New Florence Biennale plays an active role in this, by redefining the relationship between art and society, and the position of the artist at the beginning of the 21st century. In a number of discussions I had with its staff, I noticed we share a lot of insights. It is not the context to give extensive argumentations; read this text as a Manifesto, as a ‘cri de coeur’!

‘Vital Gestures’, the title of my presentation at the Florence Biennale in 2011 intended, in a positive sense, to oppose the fashionable cynicism and decadency in Western culture. Instead, it was meant to re-establish the notion of beauty in an actual way. Let’s agree on this: an experience of beauty is an individual experience. No piece of art can claim to be beautiful on its own account. A beautiful painting, object or piece of music refers to personal sensitivities, and by doing that, it reveals you who you are. Experiencing beauty brings you much more than just a cosy moment; it is none less than the recognition of your own existence. People who deny beauty, deny themselves. In the world of art critics and curators, however, for quite some years it is fashionable to proclaim that we have done with beauty and that art is more than ‘just to please people’. But is it not the greatest achievement of art, that it affects the individual self, and contributes to the consciousness of your own existence in such a powerful way?

Not only my experiences as an artist, but also my background as an historian helped me to see things in the wider perspective of time and development and not to embrace the trendy opinions. Since more than a century making art pretends to be a pseudo science; the creative process is limited by concepts, and by opinions. Art reflection is strongly affected by new trends in philosophy. As a consequence, artists and critics feel the need to refer to contemporary philosophical systems to explain or to justify their drives and convictions. Although I appreciate Marcel Duchamp for his artistic achievements – not doubt about that! - he was ‘simply’ a child of his time, an insight hardly any art historian and many artists will agree with. Like B.C. and A.D., in modern art critic the distinction is made between before and after Duchamp. Let us have a closer look at the present criteria by which contemporary art is judged. Art has to renew, to be modern/provocative/it’s time ahead/avant-garde, but at the same time it has to reflect the Zeitgeist, it should be flexible like fashion with its constant changing trends. But who is aware of the fact that it was the other godfather of Modernism, Baudelaire - as Peter Gay explained in his book about Modernism(2007) - who proclaimed these criteria over a century and a half ago! No one will oppose to the statement that the social, political and mental conditions of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century differ fundamentally from those at the beginning of the 21st century. So why still use these old fashioned criteria uncritically as absolute standards to judge contemporary art?

As an historian, for many years I studied the phenomenon of social uprising. Among others, one thing became very clear to me: real renewal, real changes in society are never introduced by the ruling elite. Because its existence and interests are deeply rooted in the status quo. The art world is no exception, even though its representatives paradoxically claim provocation as their tool and innovation as their ultimate goal! I am convinced that real changes in this situation can only be initiated by independent, individual artists sensitive to their time.

Let’s free ourselves from the darlings that put us in chains, let’s get rid of the dominance of the old convictions of a century and more ago. Let’s oppose against the dictatorship of the lackeys of Duchamp and Baudelaire in the same way those artists opposed against the 19th century cultural elite. Let’s get rid of the compulsion to formulate concepts as the only justification of your artistic activities. Be aware of the fact that experiencing reality is so much richer than any concept can contain. Real autonomy, real freedom means that, inspired by historical consciousness, as an artist you grasp the only moment you have – the now. While giving shape to that here and now, you create Reality! In doing that, you redefine the art criteria and esthetical standards, valid for this era!

Wessel J. Huisman Dieren/The Netherlands, September 2013