The Book in Three Sentences

This book is a collection of transcriptions from a series of interviews between writer Calvin Tomkins and artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp believed strongly in doing work that was free from tradition and starting with as much of a blank slate as possible. He was also quite playful, worked slowly, and saw laziness as a good thing.

The Afternoon Interviews summary

This is my book summary of Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews by Calvin Tomkins. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • This book is a collection of transcriptions from a series of interviews between writer Calvin Tomkins and artist Marcel Duchamp.
  • Duchamp on staying perpetually young: “You must remember, I am ten years older than most of the young people.”
  • “My thinking was changing all the time.”
  • Duchamp believed that art was more than something that appealed to the eye. He thought it should live in the mind and emanate from there more than merely basing art on what looked good.
  • According to Tomkins, the legacy of Duchamp is about freedom from tradition and dogmas of any kind.
  • Duchamp took nothing for granted. He doubted everything and in the process of doubting came up with something new.
  • Duchamp lived extremely simply and on very little money.
  • Duchamp was trying to understand through his work, and sometimes through not working, how to live life in a way that was going to be satisfying.
  • “He wasn't trying to tell you how to live as much as he was trying to figure it out from himself.”
  • “Such an abundant production can only result in mediocrity. There is no time to make very fine work.”
  • “I feel that things of great importance have to be slowly produced.”
  • Interesting insight on art collectors, but probably customers in general: “Collectors tend to feel things. They are feelers, not intellectuals.” In other words, people buy things based on how it makes them feel.
  • Duchamp believed that the monetary influence on art could “melt genius away” and that it ruined the creation of art. In his opinion, the best way to make something great was to completely remove the possibility of making money on it. In other words, go underground and work in private.
  • Interesting take on who determined the value of art: “The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, “You have produced something marvelous.” The onlooker has the last word on it.”
  • “If there is no onlooker there is no art, is there? The artist looking at his own art is not enough. He has to have someone look at it. I give to the onlooker more importance than the artist, almost, because not only does he look, but he also gives a judgement.”
  •  On artists being egotistical and already thinking they know everything: “I hate to argue in general. You don't argue with artists, you just say words and they say words, and there is absolutely no connection.”
  • Duchamp makes a distinction between someone as a person and their “essential quality” as a profession. For example, he says many art collectors are nice people, but that the essential wuality of an art collector is to be a parasite on the artist.
  • Duchamp loved playing competitive chess. He enjoyed how clear cut it was. Unlike art, which always had reasoning and conclusions about a particular piece, chess was logical and clear. There was a winner and a loser. Duchamp thought the two opposing interests provided some balance to his life.
  • Duchamp believed slower work resulted in better work. “I produced so little and everything I produced took me quite a long time.”
  • “Everything is becoming mechanized in this life.”
  • Duchamp graduated early and took the fastest route through his required time of military service. He was only an average student, but he believed in getting through the things you were required by society to do as quickly as possible.
  • On seeking praise and reward for your work: “That's another chapter of life, the chapter of ambition. But you have that in business too. You have that everywhere.”
  • “Anything systematized becomes sterile very soon.”
  • “I mean, what's the use of hating? You're just using up your energy and die sooner.”
  • “I remember asking him, “Since you’ve stopped making art, how do you spend your time?” And he said, “Oh, I’m a breather, a respirateur, isn’t that enough?” He asked, “Why do people have to work? Why do people think they have to work?” He talked about how important it was to really breathe, to live life at a different tempo and a different scale from the way most of us live.”
  • On the human tendency to overthink things and our ability to assign meaning to anything: “Words are taken and repeated and after a certain number of repetitions the word takes on an aura of mysticism, of magic. And it goes on because men love to do that.”
  • “You do not know at twenty what you are going to do at forty.”
  • It took Duchamp about one month to finish one of his most famous works, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2.
  • Duchamp was a very innovative. At one point, after creating a variety of highly regarded works on canvas, he abandoned painting on canvas all together because “canvas and oil paint were the instruments that had been so abused in the last nine centuries.” He abandoned the whole medium in an effort to come up with something completely new, which is how he invented his glass pieces.
  • Duchamp believed art should not follow tradition. “Tradition is the prison in which you live.”
  • “Why should man work to live, after all? The poor thing has been put on earth without his permission to be here. He’s forced to be here… That’s our lot on earth, we have to work to breathe. I don’t see why that’s so admirable. I can conceive of a society where the lazies have a place in the sun. My famous thing was to start a home for the lazies — hospice des paresseux. If you are lazy, and people accept you as doing nothing, you have a right to eat and drink and have shelter and so forth. There would be a home in which you would do all this for nothing. The stipulation would be that you cannot work. If you begin to work you would be sacked immediately.”
  • On his principle that people shouldn’t have to work: “A mother generally gives and never takes from her child except affection. In the family there is more giving than taking. But when you go beyond the concept of the family, you find the need for equivalences. If you give me a flower, I give you a flower. That is an equivalent. Why? If you want to give, you give. If you want to take, you take. But society won’t let you, because society is based on that exchange called money, or barter.”
  • On the differences between art and science: “I don’t know why we should have such reverence for science. It’s a very nice occupation, but nothing more. It has no noblesse to it. It’s just a practical form of activity, to make better Coca-Cola and so forth. It’s always utilitarian. In other words, it hasn’t got the gratuitous attitude that art has, in any case.”
  • “I don’t believe in art. I believe in the artist.”

Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews by Calvin Tomkins

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