The Art of Shame: Without an aesthetic or intellectual experience, is there anything left to art?
Marcel Duchamp was a Romantic artist. If this statement shocks you, you are not alone. When Duchamp turned a urinal upside down in 1917, signed it R. Mutt, and tried to display it in an art show, most people took it as a challenge to established norms of art in the name of what is modern, new, radical, 20th century. Romantic art, by contrast, stinks of the 19th century. It is burdened by its obsession with big subjects like Nature and God. The Romantic artist is the solitary genius gazing with a troubled heart at some sublime landscape, perhaps a towering and cloud-covered mountain peak. A Romantic artist has little interest in urinals.
Calling Marcel Duchamp a Romantic is further complicated by the fact that it has never been easy to give a thumbnail definition of Romanticism. Baudelaire once said, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.” But what is the Romantic way of feeling? Is it big feelings? Hard-to-explain feelings? It is fine for Baudelaire to talk about feelings, but feelings can be notoriously difficult to pin down.
A quote from Clement Greenberg can be helpful in understanding Romanticism. Greenberg was no fan of Romanticism; he found it silly and self-indulgent. But he was a perceptive man. In one of his essays, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Greenberg tried to explain what was going on in Romantic painting of the late 19th century. He wrote:
The painted picture occurs in blank, indeterminate space; it just happens to be on a square of canvas and inside a frame. It might just as well have been breathed on air or formed out of plasma. It tries to be something you imagine rather than see…. Everything contributes to the denial of the medium, as if the artist were ashamed to admit that he had actually painted his picture instead of dreaming it forth.
Greenberg meant this an insult. Greenberg thought that painting should revel in the sensuous qualities of paint, not evaporate into a dream world. But the true Romantic accepts the charge of denying his medium. Romanticism is an expression of the ineffable — be that God, or the feeling of being alive, or the mystery of the fact that language conveys meaning. Sometimes Romantics simply want to convey the feeling that no matter how much we say or show we have always missed something. What Greenberg says here about Romantics is thus extremely perceptive. He says that some Romantics of the 19th century were making paintings, but that they painted as if they wanted to deny the medium of painting even while they were using that medium. They painted, Greenberg says with a sneer, as if they would rather have dreamed the picture forth.