February 5th, 2011 / 11:22 am

“what Duchamp did to the history of art is comparable to the impact of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs”

At The Marcel Duchamp Studies online journal, Francis M. Naumann begins his volatile evisceration of Wayne Andersen’s Marcel Duchamp: The Failed Messiah (Geneva: Éditions Fabriart, 2010) with:

This book is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who believes that Marcel Duchamp was an important and influential figure in the history of modern art in the early years of the 20th century.

And ends with:

I find myself in an equally complex dilemma in writing this review, for allowing its publication can only serve to draw more attention to a book that presents no legitimate justification for its existence.

Between those two phrases, Naumann pretty much chops the book to shreds for being uninformed, unauthorized, prudish, self-published, you name it. Except, in the one and only passage he quotes from the book, Naumann fails to accuse Anderson of flagrant misogyny, despite the utter repulsiveness of the quote:

How is it that modern art, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century starts and finishes its first fifty-year phase with representations of women not for adoring and seducing or even raping but for just plain fucking? And ends its second fifty-year phase with a urinal pretending to be a fountain while asking to be pissed in. It is of course biological for a man to approach a urinal as if it were a woman. Each time he steps up to one, he open his fly and takes out his member.

Instead, Naumann glosses right over the sheer repugnance of those words in his feverish endeavor to chastise Anderson for being hypocritical and shortsighted. You ask me, Naumann should have spent a minute unpacking that paragraph to uncover a salient textual reason for discrediting the work, rather than focus so heavily on the ad hominem attack.

But, I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read this review. And because I dig Duchamp, I’d probably disagree with Anderson’s premise anyway. Of course, disagreeing with something never precludes me from engagement. On the contrary, I often purposefully read things that radically disagree with my thinking. It gives me fuel. It requires me to think harder, especially about the gaps in my position. And although I try not to get pissed off, sometimes I do. Thus, I can empathize with Naumann’s delirious machete swipes. But what I always try to do is see my pissed-offness as a sign of something valuable: if a work causes me to get blind mad, which is how I’m interpreting Naumann’s reaction to Anderson’s book, I consider that work a success. If for no other reason, it has proven successful at affecting me, thus, worthy of my time. Things that have no impact on me either way are the things I see as failures. When I sit down to write about a book, it is because that book has spurred me to write about it. And the fact that it has done this should indicate a modicum of success. Unfortunately, Naumann ain’t having none of that. I looked again, and I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t offer a single positive word about Anderson’s book.

What’s just as interesting as the review is Anderson’s long ass rebuttal, which can be found at the bottom of the page in the comment section, and begins with the salutation “My dear Mr. Naumann.” I often read the author rebuttals in the New York Times book review and feel sort of embarrassed for the author who felt compelled to defend their work. It’s such a reactive position to be in. I understand the impulse, but it seems sad to me. This particular rebuttal is especially sad because you can tell Anderson was truly hurt by Naumann’s review. Unlike the typical rebuttals you’d find in the NYT book review, this one reads like a man who desperately wants to set the record straight, who desperately feels as though he’s been mischaracterized.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what to make of this exchange, this review, the idea of negative reviews, the idea of rebutting a review, the idea of ad hominem attacks in reviews, etc. What I do know is that this particular review captivated my attention this morning, and for that I’d consider it a success.


  1. Sean

      The most insane aspect of this is the open letter by Mr. Anderson. I mean WTF, dude. Talk about taking your self esteem out to dinner.

  2. deadgod

      That concluding ramble on “vagina” is great, but this:

      (I am presenting you the booklet on that exhibition, Forbidden Fantasies of the Straight White Male, for you to see that, in spite of this bitter exchange, we do share certain interests.)

      and this:

      the first one written at the age of 14 that was the winner of the 1942 Iowa State Middle School Essay Contest managed by the writing program of Iowa State College (home of The Writer’s Workshop)

      – is the exchange a put-on?? – a Duchampian comedy?

      Certainly, the Andersen character is portrayed as not understanding what people usually mean by “academic”.

  3. Wjwj

      “Things that have no impact on me either way are the things I see as failures.”

      That’s about as obnoxious a sentiment as I have ever heard.

  4. Christopher Higgs

      Really? How so?

  5. Christopher Higgs

      I know. The whole thing is so over the top. I do almost wonder if the whole thing is a put on…but I don’t know. It rings sincere to me. Which is why reading it feels like looking at a mess of big yellow and purple bruises.

  6. deadgod

      – although, if the exchange is an art-world Fountain, one thing about it is not “Duchampian” – its l o n gwindedness.

  7. Francis M. Naumann

      I do not understand why you read my review as an ad hominem attack on Wayne Andersen? He seems to have thought that as well. I have never met Mr. Andersen and, as you can well image, have no desire to do so. I am only familiar with his writings and the Editions Fabriart website, and the information I provide in my review is extrapolated from those sources only, and not from any firsthand knowledge of the man. I also realized that the quotation I cited contained a misogynistic remark, but they appear in abundance throughout the book, in passages that are far more offensive than the one I cited. I thank you, nevertheless, for having read the review and commented upon it. I apologize for your having had to read his long-winded response, however, which at over 10,000 insufferable words, was over three times the length of my review.

  8. Namirha
  9. Wayne Andersen

      My final response to Naumann and for that matter to Higgs is the final chapter of the 2011 eidition of my book, now in paperback, “An Inflamed Appendix.”

      Wayne Andersen (note spelling)