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Current time:0:00Total duration:10:08

Art as concept: Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN ZUCKER: In years during the first World War, this art movement called Dada began. And one of most-- SAL KHAN: Dada. STEVEN ZUCKER: Dada. Yeah. And-- SAL KHAN: How do you spell? STEVEN ZUCKER: That's D-A-D-A. It was really a nonsense word and that's why it was called that. And the idea was to create a kind of anti-art to kind of challenge what art was. The world was in flames, the war was raging across Europe, and artists didn't want to have any part of it. They wanted to show how absurd and how dangerous the world had gotten. And one of the artists who was a Dada artist, whose name was Marcel Duchamp, began to create what we call ready-mades, or what he called ready-mades. Some of them were assisted ready-mades, where he would take two objects that existed in the world and put them together. And some objects were just pure ready-mades. And one of my favorite is called In Advance of a Broken Arm. SAL KHAN: In Advance of a Broken Arm. STEVEN ZUCKER: And we're looking at it on the left here. SAL KHAN: And you had to explicitly tell me that it was the one on the left . STEVEN ZUCKER: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Yes, I did. SAL KHAN: And so just to make this clear, this is In Advance of a Broken Arm. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's exactly right. SAL KHAN: And you had to point that out, because we have a very similar piece on the right hand side right over here, which I just got off of Amazon, which is a snow shovel. STEVEN ZUCKER: And really they're not much different at all, are they? SAL KHAN: No. They both seem like snow shovels. STEVEN ZUCKER: They are both snow shovels except that Duchamp has taken his snow shovel out of a garage, or out of the hardware store, and relocated it, sort of re-framed it, and said, no, this is a ready-made. This is something to look at and to understand within an aesthetic-sphere. SAL KHAN: I'm thinking what I think many people are thinking. OK he did that. And, I mean, it seems like what he did was a very cynical act, which was like, here's art for you, all you jokers. I'm going to go buy a snow shovel and stick it in a museum. And I don't know. I feel like he's like laughing at people. STEVEN ZUCKER: I think that there is definitely cynicism here. And I think that this is very much related to the objectives of Dada, which was to undermine the way in which we valued art, the way in which we understood art, saying that the world had become a kind of place of chaos and a kind of dangerous chaos. And the artists wanted, in some ways, have nothing to do with that any longer. So how can I most undermine, in a sense destroy the way in which we had defined art, to create a kind of anti-art. I think that's exactly right. SAL KHAN: Was he like the first person-- because we just talked about Warhol. And we said, oh, now if someone took a piece of advertising, stuck it in a museum, it would feel very derivative. But Warhol did that a while after Duchamp. So to some degree, now it feels like now Warhol was derivative, because Duchamp went full-- Warhol actually had to do some work. He actually painted a soup can. But this guy, I mean he's way ahead of his time. He literally just bought a snow shovel and showed up. STEVEN ZUCKER: Duchamp would say, however, that finding a perfect ready-made wasn't an easy thing-- he went on a hunt-- and that most objects did not suit his definition of what a perfect ready-made made would be. He is creating a kind of narrative here. What do you think of when you put that snow shovel together with the title? SAL KHAN: To me it looks like a parody. I mean, In Advance of a Broken Arm-- yeah, he went and bought a snow shovel, and he called it In Advance of a Broken Arm, which is a very kind of fancy-sounding title, which makes you think a little bit. But yeah. Yeah. [BOTH LAUGH] STEVEN ZUCKER: So I think you're absolutely right. I think it's sort of impossible. And here's the even more absurd part. We're looking at a photograph, not of the original In Advance of a Broken Arm, but actually of a later snow shovel that he replaced the original with after the first had been lost, perhaps, to a snowstorm. SAL KHAN: Oh, yeah. We read "August 1964, fourth version, after lost original of November 1915." So I guess-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, can you even have an original? SAL KHAN: Well, exactly, because there's probably a hundred of those originals. STEVEN ZUCKER: So let's play this out for a moment. Imagine that this came up to auction. And it went to Sotheby's. It when Christie's. It went to one of the big auction houses. And it's a Duchamp, it's this important example of Dada. And so the auction is going to start at some very high number, right? It's going to start at $2 million. But then somebody-- SAL KHAN: Is that really what this might go for? STEVEN ZUCKER: These are priceless objects. Except that somebody could walk in to the Home Depot or go on to Amazon, as we just did-- SAL KHAN: Or their grandfather's barn or something. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. Imagine they could get past the guards at Christie's and walk into the showroom with their own snow shovel. And there would be no difference, physically, between the snow shovel that's up on the podium, that's for sale, that's for auction, and that's reaching these astronomical figures, versus the snow shovel that's worth $29.99. SAL KHAN: So that's the fascinating question because exactly-- they are physically identical snow shovels. And one was touched by Duchamp and placed in a museum. And another 1,000 were not. And because of that, this one could go for millions. STEVEN ZUCKER: So you started off by saying, is Duchamp being cynical? And I think in some ways he really is. He's trying to make, in a sense, the apparatus of the art market transparent. He's trying to force us to grapple with how we define what art is and how it's important and maybe that our values are really misplaced in some way. But he's also pointing to something else, which is that art is not necessarily, in the 20th century, located in the practice of its making, located in the proficiency of the artist and their brush work. But it's located in the sort of symbolic language that art can evoke, in the way that art can transform the way that we see the world. SAL KHAN: So I'm actually becoming a bit of a fan of Duchamp. And I'm also thinking of becoming an avant garde artist. STEVEN ZUCKER: [LAUGHS] SAL KHAN: So I want to an art installation called Breath of Air, which is I will go to that location, that little part of volume of the museum, and I'll just exhale right there. And we'll put a little placard that someone had exhaled at this point. That would push thinking in art. Where the art object does not even exist. STEVEN ZUCKER: You know what? SAL KHAN: It can disperse through the museum. STEVEN ZUCKER: You've missed your moment, because art was made like that in the '70s and '80s. SAL KHAN: Oh, I missed that. STEVEN ZUCKER: You missed it already. SAL KHAN: Someone's already done that. Someone's literally created art that does not exist. STEVEN ZUCKER: Or art that exists as a kind of performative act. SAL KHAN: Oh yeah, yeah, but-- yeah. This one's a difficult one. I mean, yeah. [LAUGHS] STEVEN ZUCKER: This is about as tough as it gets. SAL KHAN: What's your take on it? In Advance of a Broken Arm-- what do you make? I mean, I agree, actually, with everything you said, that he has introduced this, he's challenging people's notions of art, challenging the art market, challenging all of these. But it's done, in my mind, it seems like in a very cynical way, that I'm going to put a very mundane object on there and make people like bid on it and think of it as art. I mean, what do you think of this name, Advance of a Broken Arm and that it gets all this special showcase and the fact that it costs the same as $5 snow shovel you can get at Home Depot? STEVEN ZUCKER: When we think about poetry, for example, we don't worry about the cost of the typeface. We think about where that poetry brings us emotionally and intellectually. It transforms us. It changes us. And so it's interesting that in the visual arts, We are still so tied to the handicraft. Duchamp is really distancing art from the handicraft and making it a purely conceptual process. And so he's really sort of forcing that issue in, I think, an important way, that has really challenged the 20th century and made contemporary art possible. SAL KHAN: So that's interesting. So what you're saying is is that he's really, like poetry, poetry is really the idea of the poetry. Someone can copy and paste that poem. We can all share that poetry. There's no physical words there. And he kind of did the same idea. And that's why he was able to take another shovel and do it again and again and again. But it's still-- I mean we say that, but at the same time, the art market does not necessarily view it that way. They view this shovel as being somehow holy verses the other shovel that was made on the same assembly line is nowhere near as holy . STEVEN ZUCKER: I think that's exactly right. And in some ways, Duchamp failed. In some ways, I think the avarice of the art market has prevailed despite his attempt to undermine it. We still would auction this at a very high price. And we would still differentiate the two shovels. And we would still value one over the other. In a sense, we heroicize the object that is somehow connected to the conceptual, even though I think Duchamp in some ways was really focused on separating those things. SAL KHAN: And what about, I mean, just going back to the name. I mean, I can kind of buy some of this in that he's really challenging what is art and this idea of putting focus on something like this. But at the same time, it seems like the title is a little bit uppity. I mean, why didn't he just call snow shovel? Like why can't something just call snow-- or why didn't he just call it Blank? I mean, why did he have to say In Advance of a Broken Arm? STEVEN ZUCKER: I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what his motivations were. But I think that the cynicism that you spoke of before is exactly his point here. He's almost creating a narrative. I mean, some of my students have said they could imagine that somebody slipped on the ice and broke their arm and that there really is this sort of narrative. SAL KHAN: Oh, I can't imagine-- we could call this piece In Advance of a Cherry Pie. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yeah, absolutely. SAL KHAN: I mean, I could imagine that after working a long day shoveling snow, I will go eat a cherry pie. It would be a fun thing to name this piece of art STEVEN ZUCKER: I think that notion of absurdity was really central to Duchamp's practice and what he was interested in. And I think he wanted us to sort of bump up against the absurdity of that title and to be challenged by it. SAL KHAN: Fascinating. [MUSIC PLAYING]