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'The Whistler of Cubism'? Reviewing Duchamp from the perspective of law

Cartoon by John McCutcheon, Chicago Tribune, 3 April 1913

Wednesday 16 February 2022, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Professor Michael White (University of York)


Just days before the opening of the Society of Independent Artists first exhibition in New York in 1917, Marcel Duchamp was described in a magazine article as 'the Whistler of Cubism.' Unlike Whistler, Duchamp's behaviour as an artist was never debated in court but this paper will use that description of him as a prompt to reconsider the now infamous submission of a urinal to the Independents exhibition from the viewpoint of the legal problems it raised, in particular questions of obscenity and infringement of intellectual property rights. Although these were addressed just weeks later in an editorial in the magazine The Blind Man titled 'The Richard Mutt Case,' they have remained remarkably little examined by both art historians and legal scholars. Meanwhile, the prevailing interpretation of the submission of the object solely as a test of the Society's understanding of what could be considered a work of art has perpetuated its status as a paradigm for the otherwise largely discredited Institutional Theory of Art, the dominance of which I will challenge by examining the extent to which law is an institution that defines art and controls expression. 

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