The Heir & the Cowboy: Social Predisposition, Mediation & Artistic Profession in Marcel Duchamp & Jackson Pollock

January 26, 2009 | No Comments

From the original Spanish by Dr. Nuria Peist, as translated by Joseph Robertson

In his analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Pierre Bourdieu compares the positions of the protagonist Frédéric Moreau and his friend Deslauriers. The opposition is manifest in the distinct origins of each —the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie— and their echo in the social space of mid-19th-century Paris —the lack of interest in success and the excessive ambition of the one and the other. For Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock, two of the most emblematic artists of the first and second waves of the 20th century avant-garde, the timing and manner of their access to success have much in common with Bourdieu’s analysis of the two characters from Flaubert’s novel.

Marcel Duchamp enjoyed the security and the support derived from his family’s station and from having the social and cultural capital he accumulated throughout his personal evolution. As a result of this inheritance, the artist was able to postpone remarkably the moment of his consecration. Jackson Pollock hailed from a family of farmers and had to go to great lengths to make a place for himself in the avant-garde art of the mid 20th century. The social space Duchamp is in a position to ignore is the antithesis of Jackson Pollock’s need for success. Lacking a social life guaranteed by right, economic security, and the comfort to move with ease in the intellectual circles of the times, he cannot afford the luxury of pulling back from opportunities as they present themselves. The American painter’s need for recognition takes on the form of a conquest of a space to which he is not the rightful heir. “What Frédéric can have by merely wanting it,” notes Bourdieu, “Deslauriers must achieve by force of will” (Bourdieu, 1995: 40).

Once the comparison is established, it becomes necessary to ask ourselves whether the relationship is, in effect, immediate, and why. Can we be sure that the struggle to achieve or to reject consecration is commonly tied to the possession or lack of capital arising from the social development of the individual? Are the cases of Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock isolated examples, or do they fit the characterization of types that follow the comparison proposed by Pierre Bourdieu? To answer these questions, we must observe how each artist’s mechanism of mediation was activated, in order to work out a qualitative analysis of three basic points: the form taken on by the career of artist, how the person of the artist and his dispositions relate to the field of art in order to occupy the spaces available to him at any given moment, and the effective obtaining of consecration.

Vocational Career & Mediation

One of the most interesting factors in defining an artistic career is the question of how to analyze a position not usually held by normative evaluations —academic degrees, more or less defined or stable positions, determined salaries, etc.— found in other professions (Menger, 2002). This low degree of codification of artistic careers is a reality associated with a concrete moment in history: the emergence of an autonomous field of art, in the last third of the 19th century. Nathalie Heinich suggests three moments in the history of the configuration of the artist and the profession. The first develops in a “corporativist regime” whose profile is that of an artisan who normally carries on a family tradition learned through apprenticeship. Next is the “academic regime”, whose profile is that of a professional who, by way of a practical and intellectual schooling, responds to a given academic project. Finally, within the “vocational regimen”, born in the context of romanticism and consolidated toward the end of the 19th century, the profile is defined in connection with the concept of vocation. In this moment, apprenticeship and schooling no longer come into play, and the definition of the artist revolves around values such as inspiration, innovation and artistic genius (Heinich, 2005).

The figure of the artist is no longer subject to the definitions and normative evaluations that come with the corporation or with academia. Without supportive, influential institutions at the start of the artist’s development —and even moreso before the first modern set museums were created after 1930— the artist’s search for recognition and artistic identity falls on the nearest agents. During the first half of the 20th century, the network of mutual support extends not only to artistic peers, but also to those who have begun to establish their positions and to define and defend the new criteria for what has value in modern art. The first critics, as well as the first dealers and collectors of the avant-garde, compete to determine their positions in an emerging field, even as they compete to establish their own definition of modernity (Author, 2005).

This entire network of definitions and mutual support at the start of the century is what we call “mediation”. For the producers of modernity, mediation takes on extreme importance in production, or, more precisely, in the “sub-field of restrained production”, as Bourdieu refers to it. It imposes itself as part of artistic production, by intervening in the definition of both the artist and the work, as mediation as such by acting as conduit for the meaning of both the work produced and the producers of the work, and as recipient, which is to say, as the first and for the moment, the only, audience for the would-be innovators of modernity.

The recognition of this network of mutual support becomes one of the fundamental components in the constructing of the artist’s identity. An axiological regime, sustained by individual values (vocation, originality, innovation, singularity, etc.), brings to the fore the person and the individual dispositions of the artist. At first, the avant-garde is rejected or unknown outside a specific circle, and the artist is understood and accepted only within an internal network in which “the recognition of one’s peers transforms incomprehension into a social position” (Heinich, 2005: 43). In other words, without stable, defined positions, established economic compensation, institutional backing, or some assessment from outside the field, the person and the identity of the artist only achieve in this temporary arena the sanction of certain peers —in the broad sense of the term: artists, the first dealers, collectors and critics— in what might be called a “first moment of recognition” (Autor, 2005).

Analyzing the way in which an artist relates to a mediation of recognition can give a measure of the recognition achieved, of the definition of the career of an artist and of the state of the field in general. On the other hand, the mode of conversion of social, cultural and economic capital to those that permit access to recognition in the art world, should not be seen as the result of a equation wherin having a high degree of various sorts of capital equates to consecration or potential for long-term success. The key is to analyze systematically how what the individual brings from his social development interacts with the form and degree to which he relates to the field. Or rather: how the initial capital must be converted into a capacity to relate to mediation.

Social Development & Entry into the Field of Avant-Garde Art

Duchamp’s indifference to success and Pollock’s constant struggle to achieve fame translate into distance from and integration into the structure of mediation, respectively. Distancing and approach are closely linked here with the elaboration of the artist’s identity, as well as with the degree of recognition achieved. But the paradox becomes apparent when we observe that if effectiveness in relation with mediation collaborates in the construction of identities and in obtaining the first and indispesnable recognition for the artist and his career, how can it be that an artist like Marcel Duchamp, distanced from the art world for so many years, with no exhibits, reviews or dealers, until well into the 1960s, could be one of the most important artists of the 20th century? A brief analysis of the paths followed by both artists would help to illustrate the contradiction.

Duchamp’s paternal grandparents, proprietors of a café in a small French village, cultivated the hope of achieving, like so many other families, an upward social “declassification”, via their children. Eugéne, Duchamp’s father, would achieve his family’s ambitions by marrying the daughter of an affluent maritime agent from Rouen, and by being certified as notary for the town of Blainville. In time, Eugéne Duchamp would become mayor of the town. Well positioned in the social strata, the Duchamps would invest in their children’s education. The brothers would spend seven years at the Lycée Corneille, receiving a well-rounded education that introduced them to the arts and, among these, to academic drawing. The three brothers, Gaston, Raymond and Marcel, would begin to study arts upon finishing high school, despite the reticence of their father. Like so many other children of the middle bourgeoisie, their father’s opposition would not translate into an absolute rejection of the children’s aspirations. The three brothers received economic support from their parents —as well as moral support in the form of validation— even well into their careers. This support translated into the availability of the time needed to establish the relationships that would give them a place in the artistic circles of the day.

Once in Paris, the three Duchamp brothers would begin their journey as artists. The first to go are the older two, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon (the pseudonyms adopted by Raymond and Gaston, respectively). Both will show their work at the Salon des Independants and would join a group of artists that met in the Duchamps’ house in Puteaux and came to be recognized as part of the cubist movement. Villon becomes a member of the board of directors of the 1908 Salon d’Automme and Duchamp-Villon one of the judges of the sculpture category. When Marcel arrives in Paris in 1904, his brothers introduce him to the Puteaux group and to the Salon exhibits and the “cubist” exhibits specifically, which had by then become an independent part of the Salon. Nevertheless, and despite having achieved a few, but notable, moments of recognition in the art world, Marcel Duchamp decides to turn his artistic career upside down.

In one of the many interviews that Marcel Duchamp gave, once he was a consecrated figure in the art world, he makes clear his disposition to distinguish himself from his brothers: “His goal was fame” he would say of his brother Gaston. “I had no goal. All I wanted was to be left in peace to do the things I wanted to.” (Tomkins, 1999: 42) Duchamp distanced himself from the art world; what he “wanted” was to play chess, travel, work on his Le Grand verre, distance himself from the world of his brothers, from the struggle to be seen as avant garde, making clear his gratuitous attitude toward the art world and his rejection of fame. Nevertheless, and as is well known, Marcel Duchamp will be consecrated despite himself. The artist adopts in a radical way one of the available postures in the artistic organization of his times; his distance is a long-term investment.

Jackson Pollock’s origins, development and entry into the art world present very different characteristics from Marcel Duchamp’s. Jackson was the youngest of five brothers. His father, Roy Pollock, was descended from a lineage of farmers. Pollock’s mother, Stella MacClure, came from a family that, according to the painter’s biographers, “had spent many years struggling to climb the social ladder.” (Naifeh and White Smith, 2001: 35-36). The couple was not matched in terms of life goals. Roy, though a graduate, would never abandon the family tradition of farming the land; while Stella, heir to the social pretensions of her family, did everything possible to lead a middle-class lifestyle. “Though she made things difficult for the children with her urge to travel —so Pollock’s biographers tell us—, Stella would always promote their studies [...] and had always hoped at least one of them would enter what she proudly called ‘the cultured professions’.”

Despite being a trained painter and achieving recognition as one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, Pollock never came to terms with that part of himself occupied by his father. When Charles, the oldest brother, goes to Los Angeles and enrolls in the Otis Art Institute, he sends various copies of the avant-garde journal Dial to his younger brothers, Jackson and Sande. They begin to draw and to plan a future as painters. But beyond dreaming of being artists, Jackson and Sande also play very seriously at being cowboys. In 1925, Sande buys a car and, dressed as cowboys, he and a group of friends head out into the country. Later, in New York, and already known as a painter, Pollock would find a compromise solution for facing the gaze of the world. His parents’ values will for the first time reach agreement in him. Pollock will become famous as the “cowboy painter”, because of his technique (tossing ‘lassos’ of paint across the open plains of the canvas) and because legend had it he had actually been a cowboy.

The Duchamp and Pollock models, though defined as typological objects of study in the present research, respond to the relationship or homology between degree and type of accumulation of capital, over the course of an artist’s development and type of relationship with mediation. The hypothesis we propose is that Pollock, without the dispositions, or resources, necessary to position himself, by right, in a relevant space in the field of art, he could not reject an intense support —personified above all by the figure of his wife, Lee Krasner, and his critic, Clement Greenberg— to gain the recognition of his peers. With respect to Duchamp, we consider that the artist did not do without the most immediate mediation, that of his peers, in the broad sense of the word, in order to achieve success. The artist internalized mediation in his own person, and in his work, and as such was able to do without intermediaries when it came time to activate the strategy that would, if not consecrate him in the short term, deliver him to posterity.

Duchamp did not go without the help of his group, but rather used it to construct, within his own person and in his work, the figure of the most important part of the vocational regime: mediation. What Duchamp did without were the habitual roads taken to become visible in the “sub-field of restricted production”: exhibits, reviews, sales to collectors, etc. In this sense, the artist made a double break: with the traditional unilateral path to consecration, but also with the structure of consecration within modernity. Duchamp, as we will see further along, was a step ahead of contemporary art, not only in his work, but also in the internalization of the most effective and refined mechanisms of consecration.

Marcel Duchamp: the French Heir

Now, we will analyze how Duchamp, his person and his dispositions interacted with the field of the avant-garde of his time, where he came by the information necessary to set himself up as mediator, for his peers and for himself. “To be availed of useful information, it is necessary to belong to the circles where it is circulating, and to possess the necessary capital to belong to those circles”. (Mauger, 2006b: 248) Duchamp, as we have seen, possessed the necessary capital, in various forms, but especially social capital, thanks to the relationships he began to establish in his brothers’ environment. The key is to analize the manner in which he positioned himself in his circle to extract the necessary information for him to be able to choose the role of mediator and future artist.

Duchamp is also the paradigm of the process of “personalization” which took place with contemporary art. The material nature of the object is no longer the locus of creation, now displaced to the person of the artist, who is the one who erects “in the work that which had never been conceived to be such” (Heinich, 2005: 288). The gesture of the urinal is the most outstanding example of Duchamp’s internalization of mediation. It is no longer the dealer or the critic or the museum director who lends value to the work, but rather the artist himself who gives the work the recognition and the valorization necessary to initiate its path toward entry into history, or success…

  • The rest of this article is available in print, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission, only as a translation sample

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