“However persuasive it may seem to some, this argument, which is pure art world realpolitik, has the effect of shutting down the discussion we really need to have, which is about the ideas and (dare I say it?) the ideals of the Dadaists, and the significance of anti-art a hundred years ago and its potential significance today. Frankly, I wonder if those who hail Koons as the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art really know what anti-art is all about.
Dadaism, which erupted a hundred years ago in the midst of World War I, may be one of the most misunderstood developments in twentieth-century art. There is a purity, almost an innocence, about the carnivalesque impurity of the original Dadaists and their objects and their ideas. So far as I am concerned, Jeff Koons has as little to do with Duchamp as he has to do with Bernini or Praxiteles or any of the other historical figures whose names are invoked in relation to the follies he calls art. Koons’s show-offishness is almost the exact opposite of Duchamp’s reticence. Art, Duchamp worried, is “a habit-forming drug,” and with the readymade he somehow hoped to break the habit, which is perhaps what every artist hopes to do by inventing art anew.
Jean Arp, one of the very first Dadaists—he was also and almost simultaneously one of the great classicists of twentieth-century sculpture—wrote that “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order.” The delicacy with which Arp describes an old reason being destroyed in order to discover a new, “unreasoned order” (ordre déraisonnable) has nothing whatever to do with the chilly, pompous certainties that fill the Whitney. Koons’s overblown souvenirs are exactly what Duchamp warned against, a habit-forming drug for the superrich.
Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art.”