24 JUNE 1966, Page 11

Dada Knew Best

A visit to the new Marcel Duchamp exhibition at the Tate is much to be recommended, for this unique assembly of his work makes a formid- able comment on the history of this century. Walking around it is like stepping across an old • battlefield. Here displayed are his monuments to the death of ideas and disciplines which western • art held sacred for an age. These mocking works are the tombstones of a tradition.

There is some irony in the way the passing of time brings respectability, and thus this respect- ful exhibition at the Tate. The present year brings the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Dada group, in which Duchamp was pre-eminent. Its formation (in Zurich, city of dire signifi- cance!) was, as Sir Herbert Read has written, the first conscious negation of the aesthetic principle in art—against meaning, against reason, against reality. Of course, destructive power can be be- nign as well as damaging; the splitting of the artistic atom in this respect paralleled the other discovery of fission, and the view of art which Duchamp embodies has been not only destruc- tive, but liberating too.

Still, it seemed appropriate that the opening of this exhibition should have chanced to coincide with a paragraph in a London newspaper offer- ing light-hearted advice to do-it-yourself home decorators: it told them how to create, in an amusing evening's work with inexpensive materials, a large and authentic-seeming speci- men of 'modern art' to fill up a blank wall.