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

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1964 (fourth version, after lost original of November 1915) (MoMA). A conversation with Sal Khan & Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Sal Khan.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Sharon
    So why are the artists of the time not painting things like Guernica; confronting head on the whole thing they are against and saying this is what war does and instead doing things with snow shovels and campbell's soup cans? It seems like you are going so far away from the war which you can't escape; and instead of commenting on what war is and what it does to people you are working with pretty insignificant objects of everyday life.
    (40 votes)
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    • mr pink red style avatar for user James Tribe
      Agree totally. Art is surely in a dire state when two professors can talk about a snow shovel for 10 minutes...

      Furthermore, Duchamp's apparent reference to written art and his approach of 'challenging art' is meaningless. In poetry, the handicraft isn't valuable but the concept is; but this work has neither handicraft nor concept.
      (28 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Bonnie McLeish
    I would be interested to hear other people's take on this but the way I see it the process of creating something is fudamental to what art is. When I look at art I am, and want to be, amazed and inspired by what someone else has created with their hands.

    I have no problem with a snow shovel being considered "Art" but it would have to be a shovel that someone had crafted with their own hands, not something bought ready- made of the shelf. Duchamp should not claim this as his own; he didn't make it, he put his signature on it. If I go out and buy a painting by Raphael and paint my signature on it and give it a fancy title, is it now my work? Duchamp has bought a shovel that someone else made, put his name on it, and has the cheek to call it his. By all means call it art but if possible have the name of the real artist, the man who made this, beside this work or if that is unknown say by an unknown artist; anything else is theft.

    Concerning Sal's "Breath of Air", it could be considered art because Sal made it but on the one hand I think art should be something that we can see and be inspired by, and on the other hand, if we are calling a breath "Art" then what else that is just a product of being alive would we call art? Would we consider the screwed up tissue left after blowing our nose "Art"?

    I totally agree with you Caroline, as I said before, snow shovels can be art. My main problem with this piece is that the artist we say is the author of this piece didn't actually make it; he bought it. I think "Art" is and always should be fundamentally tied to the process of creating. The emotional tie between artist and art, the little details that might not be noticed by the viewer but give pleasure to the artist are what give depth and meaning to artworks.
    In my experience the artworks that I have enjoyed most are the ones that have given me an insight into what the artist is thinking and espescially feeling, through the care and attention (and sometimes innatention) to detail that has been put into it.
    (25 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Ranunculus
    What if he was trying to say, that before you have a broken arm, it's just a snow shovel? That after we've broken our arm, it's no longer useful, and that a lot of art isn't useful? What if he was saying that we spend lots of money on useless items because it's art, when in reality, we should be using that money for better things such as protection?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Rob Malcolm
    I watch (normal) people walk around modern art galleries and I see/hear two reactions, "I could do that... that's not Art" (if they don't like it), or, "Ha! That's clever" (if they do). I think I understand the continuum of handicraft to conceptual, and intellectually challenging the viewer, but where I think modern art has lost its bearings is the importance of Beauty. I'd guess that 90% viewers "Dislike" that this work, "In advance of a Broken Arm". Why? Because it isn't Beautiful. It may be clever, but it isn't beautiful. Whereas a very high majority (90%?) of viewers would "Like" the work by Vincent van Gogh, "Starry Night" (in the previous video). They may have all sorts of reasons why they like it, but summarising those reasons might be a simple word: "Beautiful." So, my questions,
    1. Do you "like" or "dislike" In Advance of a Broken Arm?
    2. On the continuum of Ugly to Beautiful, where 1 is very ugly and 10 is perfectly beautiful, where would you rate In Advance of a Broken Arm?
    3. Do you "like" or "dislike" Starry Night?
    2. On the continuum of Ugly to Beautiful, where 1 is very ugly and 10 is perfectly beautiful, where would you rate Starry Night?
    (6 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Bozgirl
      At Sal and Steven talk about how art in the twentieth century is meant to transform the way we see the world. The shovel is not beautiful, but with an open mind and a little imagination even the mundane can be worth taking the time to appreciate. I think it's fantastic that two professors can discuss a snow shovel for ten minutes! The concept of a skillfully painted landscape for example might not evoke so much controversy though it obviously boasts more handicraft and aesthetics than the shovel. I think the true beauty of modern art lies in the discussion and interpretation.
      (4 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Steven Craig Blide
    Ok, I'm questioning both something from a comment within the string and the video itself so I apologize for my clumsiness and over enthusiasm, but a flip answer of "two professionals discussing a snow shovel for ten minutes" doesn't do justice to the incredible power Duchamp expresses in creating an environment for positive conflict between disparate professions, creeds, sociological backgrounds in a completely, magically non-confrontational setting like a museum. As far as commenting on the war around him and failing "society" in his pursuit, isn't exactly the opposite true in that he would have us agree to question something together, even disagree without the necessity of millions dying. And as an aside, from the video, isn't the title exactly evocative specifically because of the language, the specific wording is absolute perfect. Am I mistaken, or would common usage at the time suggest that another meaning or possible title could be "As an argument for" having "a broken arm"? Meaning, here's a silver lining in having a broken arm, you won't have to use the stupid snow shovel.
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Pat Davis
      I think artist during this period were looking to create and define something new. I think the shovel is just a part of the process to get to the something new. Paying $2 Million for this shovel is no different than someone who is willing to pay more for a house because a movie star lived there. It doesn't increase the real value. It just means it is worth more to only a few. Again, I use the anology of will it stand the test of time. Will anyone care about this shovel 100 years from now? Other than maybe a note in history about the technics artist used during this time which led to ..... It does make you think about tools and how we have invented them as an extension of ourself. But Art? I don't think so.

      I just think things like this are an exploration to find or to define what the next step in art will be.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tyler Lamberth
    I don't think that Duchamp was trying to change art as a whole, just the way that people perceive it. Like he said in the video, art is moving more towards being conceptual. Does anyone else agree?
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Kyle
    Why couldn't someone just dump their whole garage in a museum and say it was art and it has a lot of meaning? It seems like that's what Marcel Duchamp did to his garage, so couldn't anyone do the same thing again?
    (2 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      Ezra has made an important argument and I want to add that art originates in its own historical moment. And, of course, art does not mean the same things at different moments in history. It hardly needs to be said that it is no longer 1913 and that the world has changed a lot in the past century. Duchamp is directly addressing the definition of what art was one hundred years ago. Because of his exploration so long ago, one can now ask Kyle's question.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Artstithian
    Duchamp was questioning at a very deep level, basic governing systems that we take for granted as a civilization. Why? WAR. The absurdity and destructiveness of war was something he needed to mock, to parody, to revolt against in derision. His work is an expression of profound cynicism - a supposedly great civilization like the West seemed hellbent on self annihilation, all the while conducting "business as usual" and these were the two things he attacked: the logic of militarism and the logic of the business market. The absurdity of his work is mild compared to the absurdity of these two overarching logics that led to such destruction. In advance of a broken arm is an emblematic parody. It's a cynical statement: all products of western technology, science, mechanization lead to violence and destructiveness. The war proved that for him.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user alexisnicolem
    I think that is what IS so amazing about this - Duchamp created a ten-minute dialogue between two men about a snow shovel. It's the concept, it's the wonder, it's the transformation of this mundane everyday object into something of consideration. Now that is art!
    (3 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Daniel O'Brien
    Did anyone wonder if the original 'In Advance of a Broken Arm' was lost due to an actual snow storm that came about and the janitor saw this art piece and thought "hey! A snow shovel! This will work great to shovel the snow to open the museum." ?
    (3 votes)
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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]