If I Call It Art, It’s Art; or If I Hang It in a Museum, It’s Art

Marcel Duchamp? Janet Malcolm? Raul Gamboa? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The artist provocateur Marcel Duchamp proclaimed that he could transform a prosaic object into an objet d’art worthy of display in a museum. He famously accomplished this feat with a urinal he dubbed “Fountain” in 1917. See the picture above. Would you please help me to find a quotation encapsulating his viewpoint?

Quote Investigator: In 1968 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented a show titled “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage”. An article in “Newsweek” mentioned two works by Duchamp and included a remark from the creator. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

By exhibiting such things as an ordinary bottle rack, Marcel Duchamp revealed the surprising beauty hidden in simple objects. He inserted marble cubes, a cuttlebone and a thermometer into a birdcage and called the result “Why Not Sneeze?” “Everything in life is art,” says 81-year-old Duchamp. “If I call it art, it’s art; or if I hang it in a museum, it’s art.”

The phrasing suggested that the words were spoken to a “Newsweek” reporter by Duchamp at the time of the show in 1968.

Below are two additional selected citations.

In 1976 “The New Yorker” published a piece about photography by Janet Malcolm. She placed a pithy variant statement between quotation marks, but she was probably presenting her own summary of Duchamp’s perspective and not a direct quotation: 2

Photography perhaps more readily than any other medium complies with the Duchampian Dictate—“If I call it art, it becomes art”—whereby a urinal assumes the stature of a work of sculpture. The dullest, most inept and inconsequential snapshot, when isolated, framed (on a wall or by the margins of a book), and paid attention to, takes on all the uncanny significance, fascination, and beauty of R. Mutt’s fountain or the bicycle wheel or the bottle rack.

In 1991 the “Los Angeles Times” published a comparable remark from graffiti artist Raul Gamboa: 3

“If you call it art, it’s art,” Gamboa, 25, said during a lecture at Rancho Santiago College. “Who’s an authority to say what’s art and what is not? It’s like saying I don’t like the way you dress or cut your hair or paint your house.”

In conclusion, QI believes Marcel Duchamp should receive credit for the quotation in “Newsweek” magazine in 1968. The words were probably spoken directly by Duchamp at the time of the MOMA show because the passage specified his contemporaneous age and employed the verb form “says”.

Image Notes: Picture of sculpture Hat Rack (1917) by Marcel Duchamp. Picture of a copy of sculpture Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp. Both images accessed via WikiArt.org. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Elizabeth Barksdale whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Marci Frederick of the Sadie Hartzler Library of Eastern Mennonite University for obtaining scans from “Newsweek” magazine. Also thanks to discussants Elizabeth Barksdale, Marci Frederick, and John Cowan.)

Notes:

  1. 1968 April 8, Newsweek, Dada at MOMA, Start Page 132, Quote Page 132, Column 2, Newsweek, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1976 April 26, The New Yorker, Photography: Diana and Nikon by Janet Malcolm, Start Page 133, Quote Page 136, The New Yorker Magazine Inc., New York. (Archive of The New Yorker at archives.newyorker.com)
  3. 1991 October 2, Los Angeles Times, Graffiti Artist Wants Legal Walls to Come Down by Zan Dubin (Times Staff Writer), Quote Page F2, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)