When I was a college freshman I took a basic art history survey course as an elective. Most of the class was spent in the dark staring up at the ghostly images of slides shined on a screen while Dr. Kay rambled on and on in her monotone voice about the historical and cultural importance of each artwork. I enjoyed the angle on history the class gave us, but after a time it turned a little repetitive.
But then along came Marcel Duchamp.
We only looked at one work of his that semester. At first glance the class, including myself, didn't get it. We looked at the screen and saw yet another blow-up of the Mona Lisa. One person started to chuckle, and then another and finally I saw why. This Mona Lisa was different; this one had been slightly defaced with a painted-on mustache and goatee. At the bottom of the work Duchamp scrawled what's now considered the title: L.H.O.O.Q. Dr. Kay informed us we were looking at not a painting, but a postcard defaced by Mr. Duchamp that was exhibited in magazines and galleries as art. The letters at the bottom, Dr. Kay said, when read phonetically in French loosely translate as "She''s in hot pants" or even "She has a hot ass".
I had no idea you could be both funny and smart in art and still be taken seriously. For someone whose exposure to art was limited to trips to the hallowed halls of museums, it was quite a mindblowing concept to me. Whether or not Duchamp intended it his childlike addition of the mustache and goatee is a joyous reclaiming of art. Anyone can, and most people have, graffitied an image on a postcard or magazine. Art is something not only for but by the people at large. And his caption reminds us that while we consider the Mona Lisa one of the penultimate works of Western Art, chances are Da Vinci chose to paint her simply because he liked the way the woman looked.
I was forever hooked after that, and much to the confusion of my parents became an art history major. Duchamp led me to other lines of art that I probably wouldn't have considered otherwise. Of course I checked out his fellow Dada cohorts like Tzara, Picabia, Crevel. But that one little defaced postcard led the way for me to musicians and bands like Mr. Bungle, John Zorn. Writers like Williams S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Lance Olsen, Andre Breton. Visual peeps like Rauschenberg and Warhol. Without that one work of art I probably wouldn't have the same tastes that I have now.
So I can't begin to tell you how excited I am that L.H.O.O.Q. is temporarily on display right down the street from where I work at the NGA as part of the massive Dada retrospective. If you need to find me between now and May, you know where I'll be.