Art of England has published a short piece of mine on older, and late-blooming artists. Art of England, issue number 64.
“Tu m’” by Marcel Duchamp is a good example of how this artist played with our sensibilities. Karl Gerstner, in his Puzzle Upon Puzzle, which examines Tu m’ in exquisite
detail is an example of an analytical critique that may just miss the point.
I read this book through with great interest, as the author constructs page by page, the Tu m’ layer by layer.
However, from an artist who disdained art itself, we find a game being played with the viewer. My guess is that this painting is, partly as Gerstner suggests, about perception. But the real analysis must be done in 3D — we actually should think of this like a blueprint for an object. The clue I think actually lies in the bolt in the middle. If you get this misoriented in space, all is wrong. It is not flat to the painting plan as G. suggests. Indeed, if the painting is perspective-neutral, then no one fixed point of reference is available to the viewer. Excitingly, of course, this is the point that relativity makes about the relativity of frames of reference.
The painting was designed for a specific location on a wall, hence its size, and that suggests it may have been intended to be a projection into the room space itself. That there are shadows from outside the frame of the painting hint that they are ‘in’ the room. A projecting 3D object would naturally interact with objects in the room in this way.
Or perhaps it is an anamorph of sorts (Craig Adcock has commented on this)? Keeping in mind the period of the painting (1918) and the scientific zeitgeist of the period, this may be seen as a play on the same scientific roots of cubism, that is, of course, relativity theory.
Whether the title itself is solipsistic, or self-referential, usually adding a verb so the title to become “you bore me” or something else, is another matter, unless the ‘you’ is art, and the painting is the anti-painting made form. But there are many ways of forming a sentence in French in ways that use this partial construction. Perhaps the verb is more about the passing of a form of perception than an attitude itself. For the period, too, the personal use of ‘tu’ suggests intimacy with the perceptions involved, so they must be ‘mine’ in some form. It could also be “tu m’appelles”, avoiding the cynicism and embracing the possibility that this is less a rejection than a hinge-point for Duchamp. The ultimate label. Or perhaps ‘tu’ is the patron of the work, and Duchamp is saying that she “gets it”.
As Fermat might say, the rest is left for the reader to work out.
When an artists ‘does art’, what are they thinking? Are they merely in the moment or are they constructing some sort of story (narrative for the remaining post-modernists out there)? I continue to have a problem with art that is mute, because it makes me wonder if the artist was also mute, perhaps without thought even. The challenge for artists is convincing dispassionate viewers of their work that they have engaged cognitive faculties within the artistic process.
What would it be like for there to be art without mind behind it? Easy. Attach your computer printer to a computer running a programme that produces various images, pictures, etc. in an automated mode. Digital art, without the evidence of intelligence behind it. A bit like the room full of monkeys at typewriters (remember those?) inadvertently producing Shakespearean prose.
The problem art critics have is that they must assume that there was intelligent life in the studio when art was being produced. The evidence that this is not always the case is the never ending efforts by critics and art historians to find the artistic merit in often quite mediocre works. Indeed, to ascribe high artistic values to work of technical quality, perhaps (I’ll grant them that), but of quite mindless content. Academics can slag off mediocre writing by calling it journalistic; other writers can be accused of writing pulp. Bad visual art is, what?
So the evidence for me that some artists do not think is that in other fields of human endeavour we have ways of making sense of this, but in art, it seems anything goes.
Do you recall the film, The Moderns, where the actor John Lone as Bertram Stone says: “I don’t give a damn for your silly opinions on the value of art. There is no value except what I choose to put on it. This is art because I paid hard cash for it. Don’t you understand? Your precious painters mean nothing to me. I could have Natalie’s mutt shit on a canvas and if I pay five thousand dollars for it, you critics would call it a masterpiece.” The joke, if you know the film, is on them.
Maybe Bruno Frey is right.