Giving up the Fight Mode. Marcel Duchamp‘s Experiment with Chance
Marcel Duchamp‘s practice and visual language is interesting for two seemingly incompatible reasons. Firstly, because the artist via his works commented neutralization of art (by neglecting the rules about what, how and where should something be exhibited, and what should be not), at the first place by the readymade as an innovation that dramatically changed general understanding of an artwork. Secondly, because his artworks acted within the art distribution system. However, the usual ambivalence of critical acting is not of a key importance. Let‘s rather take a look at the (contradictory?) connection between his very individualist creative approach that could be understood as antisocial attitude, and the public dimension of his social engagement that is otherwise inseparable from any kind of publicly present creativity.
Duchamp’s creative production process had respectably evolved, through years, from an exactness of a producer of aesthetic goods to a method of research, reflection and experimental thought in the visual field and (far) beyond it. This is proved by plurality his works (paintings, readymades, kinetic installations, photomontages, modified copies of existing works), techniques and approaches, as well as by permanent care for a kind of continuity, or, a conceptual, sign-related and processual inter-connectibility of majority of his creations. Continuity is underlined by repetition of the key visual elements, signs, objects, materials and presentation contexts—for instance, the coffee/chocolate mill, the standard ‘meter by chance‘, the boxes with archived miniaturized copies of own’s works etc. Repetitiveness and inter-connectibility reflects artist’s durational creative process and a capability of creative re-producing.1
In his researching approach he had been often crossing the art territory borders during the first decades of the 20th century. Jean-François Lyotard in Les transformateurs Duchamp sees Duchamp as somebody who is constantly demolishing the regular order. Each his work is for him something completely new, it is an event after which nothing can be as it has been before. For instance, through Le Mariée mise à nu par ces Célibataires, même he tends to disorganize, fool and ironize any totalizing technological, linguistic and false political machine. That specific totality subversion, in fact, appeals abolishing of hierarchies, being articulated in a visual language, yet open for possible extensions, interventions, commentaries, imagination, therefore opposing the systemic scientific-theoretical dogmas. Pierre Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production sees Duchamp as a multilayered auteur who is capable of far perspective thinking, as a creator who produces artifacts (artistic objects) in which the production of producer-as-artist is the first condition of production of that objects as artworks.
Let‘s take a closer look at one specific artist‘s work. It reflects his creative handling with (or use of) chance (coincidence). It is one of his long-term works that is, in its root, closest to his vision of an-art, as he used to call his own activity. We will apparently see that there is no chance in the art attached to a field of production, and that there is big potential of chance when we overcome the idea of borders.
Herbert Molderings in Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance investigates the role and the use of chance in Duchamp‘s opus, mostly from historian‘s perspective. The basis for his writing is Duchamp‘s 3 stoppages étalon created between 1913 and 1914. The simplicity of the work‘s emergence only amplifies its multi-meaningfulness and cruciality. Duchamp took three one meter long thread strings, let them fall from one meter above on three narrow canvases, and fixed them. He further developed ‘the case‘ (situation!) by making wooden patterns as copies of coincidently created string curves, putting them afterwards together with the canvases into suitable wooden box. He also created few graphic variants of the work. By his opinion, this was one of his key works, but also an escape, as he said, from those traditional expression methods long associated with art (Molderings, p. xi).
The simplicity of creation of 3 stoppages étalon anticipated a new approach in contemporary art. Experimental visual thinking diluted borders between art and science, work and experiment, art and non-art. It put under question the logic and methodology of scientific thought. The three meaningful curves were not hand drawings, but chance-related design (designed by chance projected by artist‘s gesture). At the same time, they were not corresponding with no image of outer world, they were auto-referential.
The series of artist‘s gestures have symbolically changed and therefore relativized the form of the official standard meter made from palladium and iridium alloy, or, transformed that standard measure, already globally used in that time, into a chance-related variable. By doing so, he has commented the rigidness of counting, classification, standardization and canonization. Nevertheless, through that very artwork, variated within some of his later artworks, Duchamp anticipated the artistic activity not-as-production of artworks, but as a creation from the very practice, from artist‘s life. Whilst digging into the domination of scientific explanation of the world, in that playing with the (experience of) chance, ‘the canned chance‘ (this is the work‘s subtitle) that, as he used to say, entertained him, he was focusing on (by his opinion) the only remaining permanent referential factor—an individual (as a creator, thinker, player).
The 3 stoppages étalon is an almost literal transformation of a painting canon emerged as an experimental conceptual matter (and vice versa). This work or, better, a creative process takes the techniques into account, but instead of applying them it opens them up, upgrades them, puts them into the collage and plays with them. The ‘canned chances‘ are and are not paintings/images; from scientific point they are pseudo experiments; as an artistic endeavor they are result of speculations with geometry and perspective, and the chance as a factor that can determine certain new form; they are visualization and objectification of a thoughtful experiment with (non-)artistic tools. Neither on canvases the presence is not of a key importance. It is rather a presentation of the experiment‘s result—the gravitation influenced deformation of the ideally one meter long straightforward line (p. 72). Meter has radically-subtile changed from the straight line into a curve without losing its characteristic of measure unit, only its form has changed, length has kept same. The idea of standardization has been diverted.
Alike two other Duchamp‘s works, Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack, 3 stoppages étalon was not exhibited during the first two decades since made. Those works apparently did not fit expectations and requests of the dominant agenda. In that period, Duchamp had been asking himself in interviews: Why don‘t we let coincidence decide our standard measuring units? Exactly this proposal is the core of the core of his creativity. He perceived official science as mythology, as, by his opinion, scientific proofs are based on questionable conventions. The measure unit made by himself may be understood as a personalized standardization (which is an absurd that exposes the absurdness of standards). His ironic and playful approach toward his antiscientific object could also be understood in the light of the early 20th century crisis of science. He wanted to symbolically show that human mind is not as almighty as we may presume (pp. 105–114).
Maybe he felt himself invited to redefine artistic work, to introduce a work not primarily intended to produce paintings for selling or exhibiting purposes, but rather to develop artistic way of thinking. Being convinced that certain gestures in one‘s life are equally aesthetic as painting (this could be applied to any creation), he added humor in his work—to somehow bring in something serious. That was certainly about breaking every connection with the established conventions.
Art could not be based on socially acceptable criteria on ‘aesthetic‘ and ‘artistic‘, it is an activity that allows an experience of non-comparable, rare, unique. Accordingly, all the rules of ‘right’ form, styles and manifestos are not important. And for Duchamp, no more groups, movements or paths, there is only the work and the one who creates it. Image diluted in a concept. Consequently, he also attributed the established museum-related art preserving and presenting mechanisms to coincidence logic, for the works stored in museum, by his opinion, have not survived because they are beautiful or important, they rather became beautiful and important because they survived according to the law of chance (pp. 118–125). The chance is integrated in ways of selecting artworks. And the rules of integrating into institutional system of exhibiting are still elusive, based on a hierarchy of authorities, they are rather interrelated to coincidence (!) than to an ‘objective‘ (therefore impossible) selection procedure.2
Every selection means a division, therefore it cancels love as a core of any creation, it prevents artistic happening as a live social situation.
Duchamp did not remain faithful to dada movement (they used to relate him to it) as he was convinced that the refusal and protest typical for dada makes the protagonist dependent on his own negation. Unlike dada that wanted to introduce a substitute for non-reason, he wanted to stress the limitations of human reasoning. Instead of negation he rather used to ‘affirmatively ironize‘, and he also named his ‘irony of carelessness‘: meta-irony. Unlike dadaists who tended to destroy subjects of their reflections, he rather used to treat subject in different and self-reflecting light.
For him, our liking of certain artwork, and its ‘trueness‘, were not of key importance, but its ‘possible-ness‘—the idea that we are able to perceive and establish all things in a different way, from (an)other viewpoint. In case of readymades, he said, the idea was crucial. He actually made them to “release ideas”. Sounds like true commitment to pluralism. In that sense he really left traditional aesthetics (the knowledge about beautiful) and advocated the aesthetic of possible-ness, where (artificial) borders between science and art, artwork and experiment, and art and non-art, are redundant and meaningless. Such creative approach led to a radical individualism, as an individual, in the world based only on ‘law of exception‘, is the only reality that counts (pp. 128–133).
For a total individualist art means a special way of thinking, a way of living. Duchamp aspired to make art from his life. However, he did not want to name himself ‘artist‘. He was using coinages non-art and an-art to describe his activities beyond art and anti-art. An-art is analog to an-arch. To make a parallel: for Jacques Rancière, thinking politics and democracy is the same thing, it means to search equality of anyone with whoever within the police order we live in. Democracy (as ‘alive politics‘) is an absence of any arch (greek ἀρχή firstly used to mean ‘beginning‘ and later ‘an ultimate indemonstrable principle‘). Democracy is in the first place an anarchic ‘governing‘ based on nothing less than absence of any address that should be managed (Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, p. 41). It is scandalous as an acclamation that here might not be anything but absence of whatever kind of governance/rule.
Yet there is a question whether such analogy is really rooted. Isn‘t it, rather, a twisted analogy, having in mind that Duchamp was convinced that art could only be practiced radically individually, as an esoteric activity, being ultimately and totally washed off by audience? An-art ‘in service‘ of an-arch (or compatible to it) seem untrue when we know his statements that the artist do not contextualize the role of publicity (audience) and the common (or even social), while, at the same time, we know that his work was/is obviously publicly exposed. If we recall Rancière‘s description of political art based on artist’s affirmative attitude toward ‘part of those that have no part‘ (in society), we could say that Duchamp held the rejective attitude. Could an individual who actually rejects the public dimension of life (while offering works publicly) be understood as emancipated? Duchamp‘s unconditionally individual emancipation seem ‘unproblematic‘ only if he would not put efforts in publicizing his work. In other words, the very public representation of his works interrupts consistency of his self-referentiality (and uniqueness of his life-work) within his radical individualism.
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However, from another and more interesting perspective, this individualism may be seen as specific transcendency. Duchamp, namely, says: “My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but solely what is mine, and it is not general one, but is—unique, as I am unique.” (Molderings, p. 138) The transcendency emerges from affirming the uniqueness, and such affirmation could be seen as unconditional loving of himself (oneself), which resonates with the idea/act of (universal) love, the love that reflects and appreciates the wholeness (every thing and every being is interconnected with all other things, beings, energies), even though (as far as I know at the moment of writing this) this idea was not articulated by Duchamp consciously and literally. Such ‘state of mind‘ resonates also with his attitude that “in a world in which ‘there is no solution because there is no problem. Problem is the invention of man—it is nonsensical,‘ there can be nothing worth fighting for” (ibid.). The audience, within this perspective, could be understood in a radically new way: when there is no division embodied in performer‘s acting, there is no need for differentia between performers and observers.
Giving up the fight mode is the key point of an artistic perspective that includes the audience without taking care of it as an abstraction. This apparent paradox could be crucial (revolutionary) in terms of situating a creation between other (indeed, radically individual) creators (who are not understood and treated as merely observers).
1 Chocolate mill appears as full oil and pencil on canvas Broyese de chocolat nº2 (1914) and as an element of Le Mariée mise à nu par ces Célibataires, même (a.k.a. Le Grand Verre, 1915–23). The standard ‘meter by chance‘ appears within the work packed in a wooden box 3 stoppages étalon (1913–14), and within a network of standard meters on canvas Réseaux des stoppages étalon (1914) that repeats on the down half of Le Mariée mise à nu par ces Célibataires, même. The box also contains Boîte-en-valise (1935–41) that is a kind of Duchamp‘s key works retrospective in form of miniaturized replicas, photographies and color reproductions; the work was made as a series of three hundred identical issues which means that the author consciously included the dimension of (self) reproduction.
2 Duchamp himself contributed to such kind of coincidences, as he used to advise some art collectors, including Peggy Guggenheim, and by doing that he helped shaping the taste of western art after the first world war.
This text is a translation and an update of the chapter Primer 0 from the book Performans-kritika (Performance-Critique: a Turn into Abolishment of Art) by Nenad Jelesijević.