Marcel Duchamp: An Early Transactionalist

Marcel Duchamp may be considered as an early “transactionalist”. Reflecting value and a fascination for financials was a trait of Duchamp, which accompanied him throughout his production.

In 1919 Duchamp paid his dentist, Daniel Tzanck, a passionate art collector, with a hand drawn enlarged facsimile cheque as compensation for services rendered and as a piece of art at the same time. In 1924 he issued 30 “Monte Carlo Bonds” over 500 Francs each , and apparently raised funds from his friends in order to play Roulette at the Monte Carlo Casino promising 20% p.a. interest redeemable in three years. However, his gambling strategy did not beat the odds, but he didn’t loose either and paid only once 10% interest, one year later. 


According to written records, Duchamp did never pay back the principle and, if the numbers are correct, made a profit of 13.500 Francs (initially 15.000 raised, paid back 30x50= 1.500). 


In purely financial terms, the purchase of the bond for the investors may appear as a loss, but considering the deal as the acquisition of an original Duchamp artifact (that even earned a 10 % return) it may be construed as a great buy. As with his ready-mades, the accomplished artist Marcel Duchamp creates value by an act of declaration - here in the form of an amicable deal (a contract represented by an artistically designed and signed bond certificate) with his audience, i.e. collectors.

This deal is actually crafted along a variety of interpretations of the notion of value: that of Duchamp’s conceptual and artistic work in creating the bond, the value of an “original” Duchamp art piece for a collector and on the art-market, the aesthetic value of the pleasures of being inspired (open also to non-possessors) and the price or face value for which the bond is sold. The complexity of this transactional art object is derived from the interplay of the various forms of capital. Interaction becomes transaction manifested as a financial instrument, issued and authorized by a self-empowered artist who actually benefited financially. Self empowered, since the privilege of issuing of financial instruments is normally reserved for organizations within a highly regulated domain in an economy.

Artworks with a transactional component tend to challenge a fundamental western aesthetic conception demanding art to be entirely separate from the economic sphere. Thus was Duchamp repeatedly accused of lacking detachment from material concerns, though he appeared to be mainly interested in the speculative and provocative aspects of his works. Does transactional art automatically violate the principle of the autonomy of art? If art today can reflect any subject and strategy of any context in society, then why not the economic transactions which ubiquitously surround us?

Kant requires the aesthetic judgment to be “disinterested” and art should also not serve any external means, it is considered a means in itself. Therefore an art form which allows generating profits and is based on all sorts of incentives seems to be profoundly violating the postulates of this aesthetic tradition. Many interactive artworks and certainly transactional arts involve aspects of intentionality, desire and will. And as we saw in the Duchamp examples they may even involve some kind of deal-making. If one assumes with classical economics a “rational agent”, they appeal to the rationality of a somewhat motivated agent pursuing his goals.

However the strict postulates of disinterestedness and the autonomy of art as demanded by Kant, Schopenhauer and others have been weakened over time. Nietzsche mocks strongly the disinterestedness as the “philosopher’s prudishness”. Pragmatists like Dewey rejected Kant’s approach and state that artworks serve a variety of functions, such as entertainment, edification, religious inspiration, decoration, personal and social expression.

For transactional art we may argue, there is always potentially the aesthetic value, which the recipient may gain, therefore even transactional art does not – theoretically - have to violate the prerequisites of being judged as “beautiful”. Similarly to conceptual art, however, the beauty of transactional art may lie more in the inspirational value than in its’ material implementations.

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