Beyond Photography: Marcel Duchamp, Meet Brian McCarty

Marcel Duchamp, "Fountain," photo by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy SFMOMA
Marcel Duchamp, "Fountain," photo by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy SFMOMA

Maybe because of my choice of subject matter (much of it inanimate) or my choice of gear (camera, lenses, and not much else) I wonder sometimes if I’m somehow “cheating” at photography, especially when I look at work by other photographers whose work clearly involves backdrops, complicated lighting setups, staging, makeup, an assload of post-production, and God only knows how much else. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?

Or maybe not. I got to thinking recently about Marcel Duchamp, the artist and provocateur whose “Readymades” (like Fountain, the repurposed urinal pictured above, plus other works that incorporated things like bicycle wheels and bottle racks), and decided it probably wasn’t worth the worry. There’s a long tradition of using found objects in art (collage and montage are two good examples), allowing “found” detritus to express itself as art by recontextualizing itself. What Duchamp did, in my opinion, was to take this a step further.

Where Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (a.k.a. Large Glass) at least nodded in the direction of figurative art, the Readymades are simultaneously found art, meta-art (art about art, if you will), and a poke in the eye at the avant garde of the time. Rather than creating an art object from whole cloth, if you will, Duchamp seems to argue that artistic intent creates its own context, and its own objects. Put in simpler terms: Why’s this art? Because I said so.

Image by kind permission of Brian McCarty/McCarty Photoworks

Like Duchamp, Brian McCarty is less concerned with defining art than with simply making it. And like Duchamp, rather than creating art objects, McCarty’s art springs from the recontextualization of mass-produced objects. Like Duchamp’s urinal, McCarty’s objects aren’t from the hand of an artisan or craftsman; they’re manufactured, and their artistic value comes first from the frame in which they’re placed (Fountain caused quite a stir in the context of the 1917 Armory Show, and McCarty’s photos are as likely to figure in galleries as magazine pages), and second from the artist’s intent.

Let me clarify what I mean by that second point. These objects — a urinal, an injection-molded plastic rabbit, or any other mass-produced object you’d care to mention — aren’t what we’d generally look at as “art” in their own right. They’re commonplace to the point of banality.¹ We pass by these things daily, without giving them as much as a second thought. What’s shared between Duchamp and McCarty² is a willingness to put a frame around the banal, and to assert that it’s worthy of consideration in its own right; the object can be more than what it was designed for, and can in some sense transcend its purpose. In contrast to Warhol, who we’ve discussed elsewhere, neither Duchamp nor McCarty draw quotation marks around what they’re depicting; Duchamp, especially, has irony to spare, but there’s not the same sense of distance in his work that there would be in Warhol’s.

Let’s bring this back down to Earth for a minute, and circle back to where we started. Your photography doesn’t need a studio, a thousand-dollar lighting setup, and a cast of thousands. As long as you’ve got a camera and eyes to see, you’re set. You’re not cheating if you’re taking shots of classic cars, faded signs, or Tinkertoys; you are, whether you realize it or not, working in a tradition that dates back nearly a century. As was written about Duchamp’s piece when it first appeared: Whether Mr Mutt [Duchamp had signed the piece “R. Mutt”] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object. Sometimes it’s not up to you to make the art so much as to find it, frame it, and share it.

On the web:

Brian McCarty
McCarty Photo Works
The Marcel Duchamp World Community, an online resource of all things Duchamp

¹They should, however, be differentiated from something that’s created as art but only rises as far as banality.

²But is by no means limited to them; much of Dada and Pop art, for instance, rely on a similar ethic and esthetic.