The Creative Act  

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"[...] art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion." --"The Creative Act" by Marcel Duchamp.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"The Creative Act" is the informal title to a speech on the concept of creativity given by Marcel Duchamp on April 5, 1957 in Houston, Texas on the occasion of the Convention of the American Federation of Arts.

The text emphasizes the role of the spectator in the making of a work of art.

"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists."

Duchamp's fellow symposiasts were three famous academics: William Seitz, Rudolf Arnheim and Gregory Bateson. Duchamp referred to himself as 'mere artist.'



Famously, Duchamp proposed a calculation, the determination of an "art coefficient" as the difference between the "unexpressed but intended" meaning of the artist and the "unintentionally expressed" meanings perceived by the beholder.

The essay cites T.S. Eliot's Tradition and Individual Talent: ‘The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.’

Calvin Tomkins summarizes the speech as follows:

"The artist, Duchamp said, is a "mediumistic being" who does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work's inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle." --The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde , p.9.

The idea that the creative cycle involves the spectator goes back to Tolstoy's essay What Is Art? (1898):

"Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression... Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them." --[What Is Art?, translated by Aylmer Maude, Oxford University Press, London, 1930, pp. 120-122]


The speech is published in Writings of Marcel Duchamp.


A recording of Duchamp's speech was made and inserted as a flexi-disc in Aspen (New York), nos. 5-6, 1967. Today, the recording is made available through Belgian label Sub Rosa.


The web art project Errata Erratum (2002) by DJ Spooky uses the speech. "Encore" (2012), the musical composition by Nicolas Jaar samples the phrase "from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing."

Dutch translation

"De creatieve handeling wordt niet alleen door de kunstenaar uitgevoerd; de toeschouwer brengt het werk in aanraking met de buitenwereld door zijn innerlijke eigenschappen te ontcijferen en te interpreteren en voegt zo zijn bijdrage aan de creatieve handeling toe." translation JWG

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Creative Act" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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