Thursday, October 6, 2016
My Wandering Mind
From Duchamp to the N-Word
To segue from Marcel Duchamp to the use of the n-word in life and in literature might seem quite a leap, but it came about quite naturally as I let my mind wander away from the art review I was thinking about writing.
I’ve referred to Duchamp often when talking about how we got from the art of the 19th century to the art of the late 20th century and beyond. I’m convinced that without Duchamp — more specifically, without his “ready-mades” and even more specifically his “Fountain” — there would have been no Andy Warhol, no Allan Kaprow, no Marina Abramovic, no Joseph Beuys, no Christo, no Jeff Koons. Some might argue we’d be better off without any of those.
Thanks to Duchamp, art today is anything you can get away with, which is liberating but which also opens up the hellhole to terrible crap that passes as art. The good, the bad, and the what-monsters-have-we-spawned.
Everybody who has studied modern art history knows about his “Fountain,” from out of which all of post-modern art has flown. Duchamp purchased a urinal from a plumbing supply store, signed it R. Mutt, and entered it in an art exhibit. When it was rejected. An anonymous letter sometimes attributed to Duchamp and sometimes to Beatrice Wood explained: “Whether Mr.Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary 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.”
This opened the floodgates for found art, performance art, and conceptual art. Ironically, Duchamp often stated that he had no interest in aesthetics, but only in the idea; and yet many artists and critics have talked about the formal beauty of “Fountain.”
While thinking about this, I recalled my graduate thesis written in 1970. It was called A Ground for Today’s Art: An Alternative to the Frame-Pedestal Aesthetic. Pretty grandiose sounding, huh? In the book were some illustrations, including a collage I created. It pictured an African-American kid wearing a football uniform and a white youth in a baseball uniform. The caption reads: “Now son, you go down this way for two blocks and turn right. That’s the n….. ball park.”
I didn’t use dots or dashes after the n.
Today I would be embarrassed for anybody to see that collage because it contained the n-word. But at the time it was intended as a statement against racism and as an illustration of how insidiously that word had been insinuated into society and how casually it was used in my native South.
Thinking of that led me to a remembrance. It was 1977. I had recently returned home to Mississippi from New York with my new bride. There came a time in a conversation when my mother, a kind soul who would never intentionally hurt or belittle anyone, said something about “that sweet little n….. girl.” My wife was shocked at that. I was a little put off by it as well, but I knew she did not mean it in a vicious way. She was as casual about it as Mark Twain was when writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — one of the greatest books in American literature, which has been banned in many places because of Twain’s use of the n-word.
At the time I was having these thoughts, I had recently finished my latest novel, Tupelo, which is set in the Deep South during the time of lunch-counter sit-ins and protest marches and the forced integration of schools and other public places. I could not write an honest book about that time and place without using the n-word, and yes, I spelled it out; I felt like I had to. During the time I was working on it I re-read a lot of Eudora Welty’s stories and Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline, and I was surprised at how often they used the n-word. In my book, only racist characters use that word, but with Welty and Conroy it came out of the mouths of their narrators and characters who were not depicted as racist, but was used in the way my mother used it when she said “that sweet little n….. girl.” That was the way of the South. I wonder if Welty and Conroy and many other Southern writers of the mid- and late-20th century would use that word more sparingly or in different ways, if at all, if they were writing today.
In art and life and literature, from Duchamp to whomever comes along next, I guess we never stop changing.