Tempest in a teacup: Plumbing the depths of Duchamp’s politically charged art

Words by Darren TYNAN

Throughout the many periods of art history, there have perhaps been few figures more influential and contentious than Marcel Duchamp. His avant-garde legacy and involvement with Dadaism has paid invaluable contributions to the way in which modern artworks are created, perceived and valued. The amusing, conceptual and always provocative oeuvre of Duchamp produces varied responses; whether it is praise equivalent to deification, or an onslaught of abject disdain from appalled cynics. His artistic endeavours represent a symbolic liberation from the rigidity of artistic tradition, and operate as an eruptive force which defiantly breaks all artistic conventions and taboos. In this sense, Duchamp explores the terra incognita of the art world with an intrepid indifference, and his fearless explorations have produced a number of revolutionary ideals. One of these ideals rejects the idea of pigeonholing certain art forms into specific categories. Even the uncertain origins of the term ‘Dada’ seems to undermine the significance of artistic movements with a maddening absurdity; Dadaism itself is a “mocking symbol on established movements, whether traditional or experimental” (Arnason, 1969, p.291). It is therefore necessary to state the irony in attempting to define Duchamp’s work as something which is actually categorically definable. Although he insisted that above all, art is “something which needs no definition” (Falconer, n.d), there are aspects of his work and creative processes which show parallels to the Surrealism movement. Through a close analysis of Duchamp’s artwork, a critic can examine the key similarities and differences between Dadaism and Surrealism in relation to their socio-historical contexts.

To explore the intertextuality between Dadaism and Surrealism, it is first necessary to outline some of the tropes of the movements. As Abrams (2012, p.392) highlights: “the expressed aim of Surrealism was a revolt against all restraints on free creativity, including logical reason, standard morality, social and artistic conventions and norms, and all control over the artistic process by forethought and intention”. Although Surrealism grew out of the Dada movement briefly after the First World War, it should be noted that their aims and intentions as artistic revolutions were vastly different, albeit similar in some aesthetic and theoretical aspects. During the First World War, a group of young men and war exiles converged in Zurich, Switzerland. Zurich became a meeting place for these cultural revolutionaries and for the origins of Dadaism, as a talented selection of artists, writers, painters and sculptors collated their ideas and expressed the need for an artistic revolution. This was fuelled by their reactions to “the spreading hysteria and madness of a world at war, in forms that were intended as only negative, anarchic and destructive” (Arnason, 1969, p.291). The Dadaists looked upon the wartime atrocities with a brooding and misanthropic disdain, and felt that a reconsideration of the values of reason, logic and scientific progress was necessary. Because the Enlightenment had produced a somewhat imperishable faith in scientific progress and reason, the Dadaists argued that paradoxically, it was this unreliable ‘reason’ which was the true destructive force against humanity, and it imposed disastrous consequences through the chaos and death of the war. Thus, the Dadaists saw “the way to salvation was through political anarchy, the natural emotions, the intuitive, and the irrational.” (Anarson, 1969, p.291), and that public protest through their art, sculpture, poetry readings and absurdist theatre was a way to achieve this.

The motivation of the Dadaists was based on scepticism toward humanity in regard to scientific progress, and as such, they sought a new vision which begged for a critical re-examination of human values. The logic and reason that enabled the Industrial Revolution to build machines was the same logic that fuelled the endless bloodshed of the First World War; it was the churning cogs of violence which allowed invention to destroy inventor in unprecedentedly belligerent ways. Numerous questions loomed in these dubious prospects. How was this newfound industrial age enabling progress when it was seen to drive such destruction? Was global progression and the purpose of humanity’s existence ultimately undermined by such war? Was there any validity in ‘redemption’ through such violence? Such questions bored into the mind of the Dadaists as the “traditions, premises, rules, logical bases, even the concepts of order, coherence, and beauty that guided the creation of the arts through history” (Anarson, 1969, p.291) were seen to be fallible and unreliable. The shock value of Duchamp’s art, such as his 1917 piece Fountain, in which he purchased a mass-produced toilet, signed it under the ambiguous moniker ‘R.Mutt’ and submitted it to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, is a decisive mockery of such concepts of beauty and artistic tradition. The work is in many ways an ‘anti-art’ piece and a compelling paradox, as Fountain requires “the arrogance of the art world context in order to be read as art, but its readability as art sought to debunk the arrogance on which it thrived” (Bradley, 1997, p.14). Not only was Duchamp mocking the power relations within artistic institutions, that “since both the artist and the art gallery define and legitimate this urinal as a work of art, it must be one” (Inglis, 2005, p.90), his work also exposed the values of the bourgeoisie as absurd and misguided; the renewed aesthetic beauty of a trivial and everyday object was valued as beautiful during a time when bodies were piling high from the war.

Although Fountain was originally rejected by the 1917 exhibition, it was immortalised through photography and replicas. A similar work in his “ready-mades” art is a sculpture entitled Bottle Rack (Bonk, 1989, p.85), which as the name suggests, is a readymade bottle rack sculpture which Duchamp purchased himself and displayed as his own art. The work again, questions the validity of art itself, and can be interpreted as a derisive attack on artistic tradition and conventions. Here, Duchamp is implying that his sculpture is just as ‘valid’ as Michelangelo’s David or the classical sculptures found at the Parthenon. The intention of Duchamp’s art was to also create a shift away from physical and aesthetic beauty toward intellectual stimulation, and there are aspects of Fountain and Bottle rack which reflect Duchamp’s convictions; his attitudes toward the human condition showed a “conviction of the absence of purpose and meaning in existence” (Bonk, 1989, p.21). Such a conviction is also evident in his work L.H.O.O.Q (Bonk, 1989, p.97), a notorious Dadaist portrait. The portrait itself is a replica of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, in which Duchamp drew a flamboyant moustache and goatee over the top of the subject’s enigmatic face with a pencil. Duchamp emulates the madness of the human condition via his art, and his anarchic and destructive attitude toward the Mona Lisa is the same anarchy and destruction of the war which he revolts against. Defiling a well-respected and canonical artwork such as this can be described in many ways. Whether it is frustrating, ridiculous, impudent, moronic, amusing, or clever, it is above all the intentions of Duchamp which separates this from being a crude ‘defilement’ to being an intellectual and political statement.

It should be stated that the fundamental difference between Dadaism and Surrealism lies in the intentions and motivations of the movements, which are in turn reflective of the time in which they were founded. With its roots in the First World War, Dadaism was driven by a churning angst toward the merits of reason, and the cultural artefacts produced by the movement expressed a dire political and social protest. Surrealism was founded in 1924 with the launch of Andre Breton’s Manifesto on Surrealism (Abrams & Harpham, 2012 p.393), six years after the First World War came to an end. Because of this, the artwork produced in this period can be interpreted to be a cathartic response to the destruction of the war, guided by highly individualistic explorations into the unconscious. As opposed to Dadaism, there is not the same intense political motives and artistic aggression espoused to Surrealism. In his Manifesto, Breton highlights Surrealism as a “way into a mental world of endless possibility” (Bradley, 1997, p11), and proposes that within a surrealist context, binary oppositions cease to exist as the observer seeks the ‘marvellous’ via the “irrational and the illogical, deliberately disorientating and reorientating the conscious by means of unconscious” (Bradley, 1997, p.9). As Falconer (n.d.) elaborates:

The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage a psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious

Dadaism reflects a nihilistic view, one that highlights the fallibility and superfluity within tradition, logic, reason, meaning and morality. Surrealism, on the other hand, does not deny meaning or undermine reason, but instead strives to encounter the profundity of the elusive layers of human consciousness, in particular the subconscious, or the Id – in Freudian terms. There is a distinction here between dismissing and denying logic, and there are similarities between Dadaism and Surrealism in that they both dismiss logic and artistic conventions as a means to channel new artistic ideas. A Surrealist may dismiss logic in order to encounter profound and highly imaginative subconscious states that can be reflected in a piece of art, but this does not mean that a Surrealist denies logic altogether, like a Dadaist does.
If we consider Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 work Object (Fur Breakfast) (Bradley, 2007, p.43), to illustrate these distinctions, we are presented with a non-sequitur – a strange and jarring juxtaposition of a cup, saucer and spoon lined with fur. The object seems absurdist. It does not deny logic, but rather dismisses all logical explanation by relying on a psychological interaction between the conscious and the unconscious; the inevitable effect the object has on its observer is an active sensation, cerebrally activated through ‘imagining’ what it would be like to raise the cup to ones lips. Oppenheim’s fur teacup also shows the interconnectivity between Surrealism and Freudian psychology, as the object symbolises potential psychosexual fetishism, where “the dreams and unconscious mind are places of incipient metamorphoses where objects, symbols of irrational desires, are subject to sudden mutation” (Bradley, 1997, p.41). We can draw comparisons between Duchamp’s and Oppenheim’s art and suggest that perhaps in an obvious sense, they are similar in that their creative processes both require the ‘dismissal’ of logic, which is in itself a surrealist trope. A fur teacup is highly illogical, as is signing a pre-manufactured toilet and submitting it as a piece of art, but it should be recognised that it is above all the ‘intention’ of the artists that distinguishes their work from being specifically Dadaist or Surrealist.

Duchamp’s art dismisses and denies logic to illustrate a kind of social protest – against art itself – art’s conventions, preconceptions, traditions and so forth. Fountain, Bottlerack, and L.H.O.O.Q may be considered surrealist in the sense that they all revolt against logical reasoning, but it is important to emphasise that Surrealism also revolts against “all control over the artistic process by forethought and intention” (Abrams & Harpham, 2012, p.393). It is this forethought which distinguishes these aforementioned Dadaist works from being artworks which employ Surrealist tropes, to being definitively Surrealist. Duchamp clearly has a political intention when producing the work, concurring with fellow Dadaist Hans Richter’s statement: “I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty” (Marcel Duchamp: biography, n.d.).With its roots in the horrors of the First World War, Dadaist works are based around social protest and political statements commenting on the ‘reality’ of a world at war. Oppenheim’s work dismisses logic also, but does not operate in any political spheres; it instead operates to explore the psychological and unconscious mind of its observer, and in doing so, transcends the ordinary object into a term the Surrealists have coined the ‘marvellous’.

An exploration of Dadaism and Surrealism through selected works of the movements, Duchamp’s aforementioned artworks and Oppenheim’s Object (Fur Breakfast), can highlight some of the key similarities and differences when respectively comparing them. As cultural artefacts, all of these works are similar in theoretical and aesthetic aspects, but are vastly different when examined within their socio-historical contexts. Theoretically, they are all similar in the creative ‘processes’ they demand, by which the dismissal of the traditional artistic conventions reflective of the time they were created is necessary. Aesthetically, they are also familiar in the sense that they are objects and works which have become intellectually stimulating rather than being solely aesthetically beautiful, and offer an uncanny ‘de-familiarisation’ or new perspective toward an everyday object. However, socio-historically, the key difference between these artworks is that the movements in which they were created were fuelled by different motives and artistic intentions. Dadaism is politically charged and operates to achieve salvation from the abased social conditions of the time, whereas Surrealism differs in the sense that it is not overtly political, and is instead a ‘psychological retreat’ and cathartic response to the First World War; a regressive response which delves into the subconscious mind without any prior intentions or political messages. Although Surrealism is in essence, an extension and evolution of certain principles of Dadaism, both of these movements inherently reflect the historical occurrences during their founding. Conclusively, Duchamp’s artworks are Surrealist in the sense that they dismiss artistic conventions, restrictions on creativity and logic as means to convey a message, but the political messages behind the works are distinctively Dada and will continue to shock and delight art critics for many years to come. After all, Ars longa, vita brevis.


Abrams, M. H., & Harpham, G. G. (2012). A glossary of literary terms. (10th ed.).Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Arnason, H.H. (1969). A history of modern art. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Bonk, E. (1989). Marcel Duchamp. (D. Britt, Trans.). London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Bradley, F. (1997). Surrealism. London, UK: Tate Gallery Publishing.

Falconer, M. [n.d] . Your guide to modern art: Marcel Duchamp. Retrieved from The Art Story website: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-duchamp-marcel.html

Inglis, D. (2005). Culture and everyday life. London, UK: Routledge.

Marcel Duchamp: Biography. [n.d.]. Retrieved from The European Graduate School website: http://www.egs.edu/library/marcel-duchamp/biography/

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