Attack on Duchamp Work: A Dada Act?

A French man has been ordered to pay a large fine for cracking one of Marcel Duchamp's most famous works of art with a hammer. The man says Duchamp would have approved of his "performance art."

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A French court has ordered a man to pay a fine of more than $200,000 for whacking a famous piece of art with a hammer. That damaged piece, now slightly cracked, is none other than one of Marcel Duchamp's urinals, urinals he turned into art.

The judge says Pierre Pinoncelli's actions amounted to vandalism. Pinoncelli claimed it was performance art. He said he met Duchamp in 1967 and told him about a future attack on the artist's urinal. He says Duchamp would have approved.

Caroline Cross is author of the upcoming book MARCEL DUCHAMP. She joins us now, and Caroline, before we get to the question of what Marcel Duchamp may have thought of this action, give us a little background. Tell us about his urinals.

CAROLINE CROSS: Okay. So the name of this piece is called Fountain. It was something that Marcel Duchamp had sent to an international fellow in New York in 1917, and the salon rejected this piece. So it has always been a piece that generates some polymix (sic) and some rejection.

NORRIS: And what is the importance of this piece?

CROSS: It was something that Duchamp had started to think about in 1913 when he was still in Paris, that he had this idea to pick up, you know, a very ordinary object in the store and to say that this object is a piece of art because he has decided, as an artist, to say it's a work of art. And he find, of course, this urinal, which was very common in a store in New York, and he used to talk about the idea of a rendezvous, you know, between him and an object.

NORRIS: Marcel Duchamp was someone who was very interested in shaking up the art world. What do you think he would think about these actions taken by Pierre Pinoncelli?

CROSS: Well, I think as a — I think, you know, Duchamp was very detached with all the things that are material, so I think he would have a quiet smile or would have had a very pacifistic reaction to that violent gesture. Duchamp was a very polite person. You know, in a way French people can be very distinguished and very discreet, but that does not mean he would approve. So I find more the attitude of Pinoncelli is something that is very rude and is missing a lot of Duchamp's finesse, you know?

NORRIS: Marcel Duchamp, through his work, seemed to raise the question what actually defines art? and I'm wondering what it means for a piece to be revered but also be the object of this kind of response a century later.

CROSS: No. Well, that I don't agree with that. If he wants to bring a source of inspiration, he can make a film. He can write something in the press to explain, but not to destroy it, especially in a museum, you know, where the purpose is to preserve this work. The museum is a place where you must have a free relationship with art. Vandalism can happen in the streets. I mean, this is another problem, but the museum is sort of a temple, you know, for respect and for freedom and the way you are dealing with work of art.

NORRIS: But Pinoncelli isn't attacking this art because his dislikes it. In fact, quite the opposite, and if art is meant to inspire some sort of emotion, to stir the emotions in some way, as someone who's actually studied very carefully the life of Marcel Duchamp, would he take some satisfaction in that? Would he be moved by that?

CROSS: No. Well, that I don't agree with that. If he wants to bring a source of inspiration, he can make a film. He can write something in the press to explain, but not to destroy it, especially in a museum, you know, where the purpose is to preserve this work. The museum is a place where you must have a free relationship with art. Vandalism can happen in the streets. I mean, this is another problem, but the museum is sort of a temple, you know, for respect and for freedom and the way you are dealing with work of art.

NORRIS: Caroline Cross, thank you so much for talking with us.

CROSS: You're welcome. Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Caroline Cross is the author of the upcoming book, MARCEL DUCHAMP.

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