Art is: A Tube of Paint. On first blush, this makes sense, at least when it comes to painting: Most paintings start with a canvas and a tube (or tubes) of paint. But, before Marcel Duchamp and, perhaps, Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky—credited with producing the first abstract paintings—a painting also needed an idea and/or a subject. A work of art had content.
Across the centuries, the subject changed—from saints and gods, both holy and mythical, the noble, rich, or famous that were later added to the mix, on to the latter half of the 19th century, when ordinary people and nature became an artist’s preoccupation. Even when techniques changed (from realism to impressionism, for instance) and subjects became distorted or unrecognizable (as in cubism), a subject was still evident somewhere in the painting.
When provocateur Duchamp asserted that painting is a tube of paint, he was dissociating the making of art from the idea/subject and calling attention, once more, to his view of readymade as art. What is happening here? The dissociation from an idea/subject frees painting from its former burden of representation which constituted content, focusing instead on the process or act of making art. From here, progression into abstraction, minimalism and all those other subject-less art isms seems logical.
If art is nothing but what you do with paint on canvas, then you can make any kind of mark you want and call that a painting. It follows also that since everyone can do that, just about anyone can call himself an artist. Confounding, isn’t it? Does skill come in anywhere in this process? Thierry de Duve, in Kant after Duchamp, says that Duchamp agonized over the impossibility of painting his subjects realistically. The finished work never really reproduces the subject matter faithfully. De Duve thinks this is partly because Duchamp was not exactly a skillful painter like Titian, Picasso, or Matisse. Duchamp knew it, too, and it may be why he turned to readymades and, by so doing, redefine what painting is.
After Duchamp, all a painter needs to do , confronted with a canvas, is grab that tube and, with a brush, palette knife or other objects, or even directly from the tube, slosh, smear, or slop, that paint around. Any gesture will do. You can just flick it, splatter it, or drip it, as Jackson Pollack did. He no longer relied on a tube, either, because his total-body gestures needed the accessibility of, and abundance in, a bucket of paint. At least one art critic thought Pollock’s way was a stroke of genius, an expression of total artistic freedom. The body as an instrument for pouring one’s powerful emotions on canvas. The quintessential example of what is now often called action painting.
Creativity does come in, in paintings seemingly devoid of content, at least in the decisions an artist makes on what tube of paint (read: color) to grab, how to make that mark, and where on the canvas to put it. Art historians who have studied the work of Pollock see structure and control in his drip paintings (see, for example, Split, Spackle, Plop): He did not merely fling his paint randomly on the canvas. He made decisions about how to load his painting instruments, where and how to make his marks. The curious thing is some art historians think Pollock happened upon drip paintings because, like Duchamp, he did not quite have the gift for conventional art techniques that someone like Picasso had, techniques that require years of study and practice.
A tube of paint, Duchamp also pointed out, is another readymade, a manufactured mélange of pigments, binder, and medium of oil or another emulsion that comes in a manufactured tube. Gone were the days when painters (or their assistants/apprentices) ground and mixed their paints. If you subscribe to this idea, then painting has been rooted in readymades since the manufacture of tubes of paint in the early 1800s.
Whether he realized it or not at the time , in equating a tube of paint to art, he is also saying that that tube itself now becomes the subject matter of art. A readymade, the urinal, is art; a tube of paint is a readymade; and, therefore, a tube of paint is art. This is, in fact, the interpretation that some artists—Warhol and Rauschenberg with his use of found objects—take from the declaration that art is a tube of paint.