Tuesday, March 15

It Was a Shovel

Even though the city I live in is small, it's a capital, so we have some advantages that come with our capital city status. Things like Marcel Duchamp exhibits, for instance. (Although, really, what else is like a Duchamp exhibit?)

The piece in the photo is one of Duchamp's shovels. It's not the shovel, the one called Shovel, the one with the helpful explanatory inscription: In Advance of the Broken Arm; but rather, it's one of the Replicas, the Replica, 1964 to be exact. Is it the shovel that was in the exhibit that was here a few years ago? Well, it looks like it, but that doesn't mean it is it, since a shovel is a shovel is a shovel, and Duchamp had several. There was the aforementioned Shovel itself, and at least a few Replicas, distinguished by their dates.

The various shovels were part of Duchamp's Readymades. Making the Readymades involved displaying something already made--a comb, a hat rack, a bicycle wheel, or whatever suited his fancy.

He had a series of fountains, too, in his Readymades. Mr. Duchamp, it seems, called a comb a comb, and a hat rack a hat rack, and a shovel a shovel, but he couldn't bring himself to call a urinal by its real name. And of course, no one can actually use his Fountain for its readymade purpose. Even I can tell by looking at it that the results would be disastrous. But who am I to complain? I'm not an artist.

Can you tell I wasn't overly impressed with the exhibit? Perhaps you think it's only that I didn't understand it--and you would be right about that--but those who think they understand a Duchamp exhibit probably cause Mr. Duchamp to roll over in his grave. Giving the* answer to the question "What does it mean?" misses the point.

I have shovels. I can think of eight or so, and there might be more. My shovels have meaning. There are few spades--long-handled and short--that I use for gardening. Those spades help produce potatoes and carrots and broccoli and other veggie treasures. The little sandbox shovels sit unused in the shed now, reminders of days that were, when they filled buckets and helped make roads for the Tonka trucks. The snow shovels clear decks and walks and driveways so we can go about our business. And so far, none has been in advance of a broken arm.

I like my shovels. They don't look like the Readymades, which, you must admit, are nice looking shovels. Nope, my shovels have worn handles with cracks, and the spades are a little rusty, but they do their job, and that's what counts, isn't it?

I'd like to think Mr. Duchamp's shovels are doing the job he had in mind for them. I suspect, however, that they most often fail. Every time someone comes away from an exhibit of the Readymades believing they understand it, the shovels have failed. Everytime someone enjoys a Readymade exhibit, the shovels have failed again.

And there's nothing sadder than a shovel that fails to do its job. A fountain that fails isn't a good thing, either.

*Edited to the from a in response to a justified criticism in the comments.

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