“Art has side effects,” I said. • Empty Mirror

Art has side effects, I said - Bobbi Lurie - Marcel Duchamp

“Art has side effects,” I said.
quitting art finally at death

I woke up at the end of a dark hall … a man was staring at me intensely … I felt a shock run through me … it was a guy from the street … I remembered him chasing me …

I remembered the crash …

I looked down at my right leg, wrapped in bandages; my left arm was connected to a drip … an image came back to me of visiting my younger brother … after it was too late, after he was unconscious, on a ventilator in The I.C.U …

“ ….what happened …” I tried to speak to the man. My voice was weak … but he heard me.

“Some jerks beat me up cause I said I voted for Trump” … he was pointing towards bandages wrapped around his abdomen … “but I didn’t even vote. I don’t even know if my service served anyone here in this land of the free, especially me. I can’t even say if I’m alive or dead.”

“My name is Pete,” he said. “Just because I sleep on the street doesn’t mean I wasn’t once one of those dudes sipping lattes from a straw. I asked those Starbucks clones to make me a Macchiato like they do in Italy, where I lived, in Rome. But their coffee tastes like crap, except for the sugar-foam at the bottom of the cup.”

What happened to me?

A stooped old lady came beside us, pushing a cart loaded with trays of food.

“This crap smells of something institutional and instant!” screamed Pete. “That genetically modified crap just gives us a glimpse of mechanical man doing all he can to destroy what little it takes to live.” The stooped old lady seemed not to hear Pete’s screams. “Take that shit away!!” Tears were streaming down Pete’s face.

“Me too,” I said to the old lady when she came up to me with a tray of putrid food. But she left a tray anyway. “I don’t want to eat,”I whispered to the nurse who came to check my drip. “I’m in too much pain and my body is cold and the food smells old. I want to go home.”

… I thought of my brother at the end of his life… he could no longer absorb nutrients, not even from a drip …

“You are not allowed to leave,” snapped the nurse. “Bring her some tea,” she shouted at the stooped old lady with the trays.

“It could be worse,” said Pete while the nurse injected him with something I hoped would make shut up, “you could be living on the street. You could be met by people you don’t want to meet. You’re safe here at least … ”

I hated Pete.

I thought of my brother’s funeral, the one I was too sick to attend. I’m sure I would have been reminded how I always looked for my brother at family gatherings … I knew he would have found a way to laugh with me … even about death …

The stooped old lady handed me a cup of tea. I wanted to touch her arm and thank her but she vanished before I could reach her. I poured four packets of sugar into the styrofoam cup, stirring in the sugar’s sweetness, soundlessly, with the plastic spoon.

When I finished my tea, I felt a shadow creeping over me… I knew it was a man from his shadow as he took my teacup and put it down at the side with a grace that I had never felt from anyone before… *

“I live the life of a waiter.” I turned around to see who was speaking. **

My God! It was Marcel Duchamp!

I could not say a word.

Duchamp continued to speak “It’s the imagining of the movement or of the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It’s completely in the gray matter.”

“Are you one of those intellectual types?” demanded Pete.

I did not understand how Pete could see Marcel Duchamp. I thought it was only me.

“For me “intellect” is too dry a word, too inexpressive,” said Duchamp, speaking to Pete.

“Then for sure you’re an intellectual,” said Pete.

“I like the word “Belief,” said Duchamp, “I think in general that when people say “I know,” they don’t know, they believe.”

“Are you one of those dudes at Starbuck’s who suck down an eight dollar latte while the men who defend your freedom are forced to sleep on the street?”

“Non,” said Duchamp.

But then he laughed and contradicted himself. “Mais, oui,” Duchamp agreed. “It’s what I call the integration of the artist in society, which means he’s on a par with the lawyer, the doctor …”

Duchamp pulled a lit cigar out of his pocket, inhaled once, then exhaled the smoke into Pete’s face.

“Hey,” Pete made a fist but Duchamp ignored him.

“I believe,” continued Duchamp, “that art is the only form of activity in which man as man shows himself to be a true individual. Only in art is he capable of going beyond the animal state because art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space.”

“Don’t tell me you are not ruled by time and space. You stink of time and you stink of death,” shouted Pete. “I-saw-death-I-made-death-I-lived-death-I-live-death!” shouted Pete, as if each syllable was a bullet.

“I hate you,” I said beneath my breath.

“… what’s the use of hating?” asked Duchamp, turning toward me. “You’re just using up your energy and die sooner.”

“What happens when we die?” I asked Duchamp, my eyes tearing up from the pain in my jaw, the pain in my leg …

“… when you’re an atheist,” said Duchamp, “you’re impressed by the fact that you’re going to completely disappear.”

“But I can see you so you’re here,” I said.

“I don’t want another life or metempsyhosis,” said Duchamp, blowing smoke in my face, “it’s
very troublesome.”

“So are you okay with being dead?”

“I am very happy,” said Duchamp.

Duchamp flicked some ashes on the floor, “All this twaddle, the existence of God … death … are all pieces of a chess game called language, and they are amusing only if one does not preoccupy oneself with “winning or losing this game of chess.”

Duchamp dragged deeply on his cigar, exhaling the smoke into his pocket.

I couldn’t help but laugh; Duchamp laughed as well.

I reached out to touch Duchamp’s arm. “My brother never told me much about himself,” I said, “but he was easy to be with … maybe because we had the same sense of humor. We always did laugh.”

“It’s true, of course, humor is very important in my life, as you know. That’s the only reason for living, in fact,” said Duchamp, looking down at me, then taking another puff on his cigar.

At that moment, Duchamp reminded me of my brother. “Like you,” I said, surprised by this revelation.

I looked over at Pete; he was quiet.

“I was poking fun at myself most of all,” said Duchamp.

I reached for Marcel Duchamp’s sleeve, just to feel him there, as my brother no longer was. But I found myself grasping an absence, an absence far lighter than air.

“He didn’t like to talk about himself,” I said, watching Duchamp move away from me, “and I never pushed him to speak … so now I feel we never bonded.”

Duchamp took another puff on his cigar, seemingly unaware of anything but his internal world.

“I’ve never been a bond-ish man,” said Duchamp, “because I never believed in talking. Here we’ve been talking … But don’t believe what I say.”

“What do you mean you don’t believe what you say?” I had been collecting Duchamp’s words for five years now.

“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.” I wished I could get out of bed and hug Marcel Duchamp. He
never failed to cheer me up.

“How did you manage to live with such a contradiction?” I tried desperately to ignore my pain and take in whatever Marcel Duchamp had to say.

Duchamp stared at his cigar then put it in his pocket.

“One changes. one accepts everything, while laughing just the same,” said Duchamp. He pointed at Pete who had fallen asleep, “I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak. These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was 20 or 15, but I realize, after many years, that this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do.”

“That’s an easy thing for you to say,” I said through sudden tears, longing for the pain to end, “you’re already dead. Pete can do what he wants because he only cares about food. I have no idea what to do.”

Duchamp squeezed my hand though I did not feel a hand; it was more like electricity.

I looked up in shock, “You cannot define electricity,” said Duchamp, reading my mind. “The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.

I felt myself blush.

“The danger,” said Duchamp, reaching out to hold my hand in his, “is in pleasing … “

I could feel my blush deepen.

“… in pleasing an immediate public,” said Duchamp, “the immediate public that comes around you and takes you in and accepts you and gives you success and everything.”

“I don’t have an immediate public,” I said, defensively.“I just need more pain meds.”

Duchamp leaned over and rang for a nurse.

Tears streamed down my face from his kindness, from my pain, from my shame …

“I can’t give you anything else for another hour,” said a nurse, answering Duchamp’s call.

I watched her as she left.

Something in my throat made me choke. I reached for Duchamp, “I n-n-never lived my life like a work of a-a-art,” I was stuttering over almost every word, overwhelmed with pain … but I needed to confess. “I’-I-I hid in art instead …I feel s-s-so s-s-stupid. I feel so alone. I-I-I don’t w-w-ant to write or d-d-d-draw anymore. I n-n-no longer want to express my point of view to world I imagine in my head; I want to live in this world, here, now,” I said.

I thought of my brother and how secretive he was, except when it came to my work.

“My brother was angry at some of the poems in one of my Business Relationships,” I said.

I wasn’t sure Duchamp could hear me; Pete was screaming at a nurse.

“He seemed to inspect every word, drawing parallels where none existed in my mind, in the least.” Even if I was talking to myself, the words had their own need to form at my lips.

“His anger lasted years,” I said.

Duchamp was looking at Pete.

“I believed,” I tried to raise my voice, but the pain was too intense. Tears fell instead.

“I believed,” I continued, “I believed he lost respect for me because I spent my life making art
while he was a respectable attorney.’

Duchamp flicked ashes on the floor.

“But, after his death,” I said, “we found a poem he’d been working on for twenty-five years. He never let me see him as an artist. … he condemned me for making art w-w-while a-a-all te time he w-w-was m-ma-a-k … “ I choked on my words.

“It’s not what you see that is art,” said Duchamp. “Art is the gap.”

“What do you mean? What gap?” I was desperate to know. “The gap in time? The gap in communication?”

Duchamp smiled sheepishly, “I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do,” he said.

“ … I-I-I-I didn’t mean that,” I said. “His poem feels very real to me. I could never say it died for him. I-I-I just don’t know …” the pain was unbearable; no nurse in sight.

“This concern which interests us more than anything else: the blurring of the distinction”

“You are so wise,” I tried to reach out to touch him. “It is that blur-r-ring.” I longed for my pain meds. I could barely focus on Duchamp.

“You have to approach something with indifference,” said Duchamp.

“What do you mean?”

“The most interesting thing about artists is how they live”

“But I asked my brother if he was still writing, I asked him for years, encouraging him to keep writing, but he always acted like I was asking a ridiculous question, as if writing had nothing to do with him.” I longed for Duchamp to understand my point of view.

“The life of an artist is like the life of a monk … it is an ordination … you must go underground,” said Duchamp.

“The last we spoke,” I told Duchamp, my brother was angry about the book I published after mother d-died. He was the one person I wanted to understand it. But he didn’t.”

“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” said Duchamp “…the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications, … and thus,” said Duchamp, “adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives its final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.”

“My brother objected to what I wrote and now he’s gone,” I said.

“ … the only refutation is indifference,” said Duchamp, taking another cigar from his pocket. It was lit.

“You should wait for fifty years or a hundred years for your true public,” said Duchamp.

I started to cry.

“I-I-I have already wasted too much time. I don’t want to live this covert life of an artist, attempting to communicate with people one can never communicate with – Life is only this moment now, you, tin front of me, are my life right now. I don’t want to live another twenty years of secrecy. It would have meant more to me to share my brother’s life with him. I need to be free, in the open, and art forces me to imagine myself s as I’m not. I hope you can see this,” I wanted to convince Duchamp of my reasons for not living life with the painkiller of art.

Duchamp leaned over the hospital cot, pulling a blank journal out of my purse. “Art is useless!” I yelled at Duchamp, pushing the notebook away. “I’m giving up art – like you did.”

Duchamp reminded me of his secret work, the work which took up the last 20 years of his life.

“That is like my brother,” I reached for Duchamp’s hand. “… after he died we found he worked on a poem for 25 years, keeping it secret … ”

“The life of an artist is like the life of a monk … it is an ordination … you must go underground,” said Duchamp.

“But I asked my brother if he was still writing, I asked him for years, encouraging him to keep writing, but he always acted like I was asking a ridiculous question, as if writing had nothing to do with him.” I longed for Duchamp to understand my point of view.

”…art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space,” said Duchamp. “…the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.

Duchamp’s words were meaningless to me.

“Art is a drug, it’s very useful,” said Duchamp.

“How is it useful? I wasted my life on art. How can it be useful?”

“Like aspirin or something for the headache of life?” Duchamp started laughing uncontrollably.

“Art is an excuse. Please!! I need my meds,” I said.

Duchamp stood very still.

I forced myself to drop the pencil, intentionally making it more dramatic than it needed to be.
“Art has side effects,” I felt I needed to repeat myself, to make him hear what I needed to say.

Duchamp looked taken aback by my words, as if hearing them for the first time.

“We aren’t the same,” I whispered to Duchamp, not wanting to admit it.

“Art is a sedative drug,” Duchamp repeated himself, pointing at my arm, tied to the drip, “It’s a sedative for the life we lead,” he said, ringing the nurse’s bell again.

“I’d rather live with the pain,” I said. “Please don’t be offended.”

Marcel Duchamp bowed like a gentleman who had to have lived in another time and place, a place I longed to be.

“My dear Marcel D-Duchamp, I have to let go of the pencil and the p-paper, the computer and
Twitter… I just want to live alone with what exists now, before words turn them into things. Please don’t tell me you have another solution for a problem which is mine and mine alone.”

Duchamp focused his attention on me like he never had before.

“There’s no solution, because there’s no problem,” said Marcel Duchamp.

I felt someone press a needle in my arm, warmth rushing through my body like kindness …

I can’t remember anything else.

* these words were spoken by Beatrice Wood when she first met Marcel Duchamp
** all quotes from Marcel Duchamp are his real words as recorded in written interviews and YouTubes

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