Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance

Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance: Art as Experiment

Translated by John Brogden
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/mold14762
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  • Book Info
    Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance
    Book Description:

    Marcel Duchamp is often viewed as an "artist-engineer-scientist," a kind of rationalist who relied heavily on the ideas of the French mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré. Yet a complete portrait of Duchamp and his multiple influences draws a different picture. In his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914), a work that uses chance as an artistic medium, we see how far Duchamp subverted scientism in favor of a radical individualistic aesthetic and experimental vision.

    Unlike the Dadaists, Duchamp did more than dismiss or negate the authority of science. He pushed scientific rationalism to the point where its claims broke down and alternative truths were allowed to emerge. With humor and irony, Duchamp undertook a method of artistic research, reflection, and visual thought that focused less on beauty than on the notion of the "possible." He became a passionate advocate of the power of invention and thinking things that had never been thought before.

    The 3 Standard Stoppages is the ultimate realization of the play between chance and dimension, visibility and invisibility, high and low art, and art and anti-art. Situating Duchamp firmly within the literature and philosophy of his time, Herbert Molderings recaptures the spirit of a frequently misread artist-and his thrilling aesthetic of chance.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51974-8
    Subjects: Philosophy, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Whenever art critics and art historians speak about the role of chance in modern art, they invariably cite Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) of 1913–14: three threads, each having a length of one meter and held horizontally were each dropped from a height of one meter onto a piece of canvas and fixed in position by means of varnish.¹ After their first exhibition in 1936, the 3 Standard Stoppages became a constituent point of reference in the aesthetic theories behind all movements in art that accorded chance an important function in the artistic process, from surrealism...

  5. 1 THE IDEA OF THE FABRICATION
    (pp. 1-6)

    Duchamp’s idea for the fabrication of the 3 Standard Stoppages is written on a piece of notepaper in the “Box of 1914.” The latter was originally a box for photographic plates, measuring 18 x 28 cm, in which Duchamp collected photographic reproductions of the manuscripts of fifteen sketched ideas and a drawing (see fig. 1.1).¹ The note reads as follows: “The Idea of the Fabrication: If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter on to a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length.—...

  6. 2 THE 3 STANDARD STOPPAGES IN THE CONTEXT OF THE LARGE GLASS
    (pp. 7-32)

    Like everything produced by Duchamp between the years of 1913 and 1915, the 3 Standard Stoppages were a by-product of his preoccupation with his main work, the large-format glass painting La Mariée mise à nu par ses Célibataires, même (see fig. 2.1). A strenuous tour of the collections of the public art museums of Basel, Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna during a three months’ stay in Munich in the summer of 1912 had inspired the then only twenty-five-year-old artist to turn his back on the prevailing avant-garde tendency toward a deliterarization of painting and “to put painting once...

  7. 3 THE 3 STANDARD STOPPAGES AS PAINTINGS
    (pp. 33-62)

    Today the 3 Standard Stoppages at the Museum of Modern Art, with their three wooden templates shaped to the patterns formed by the dropped threads, are displayed like the instruments of some scientific experiment, the three threads themselves having been fixed to long and narrow canvases and mounted on strips of glass like specimens on huge microscope slides (see fig. 3.1). In short, they have all the appearances of results of scientific trials performed with an experimental setup. However, there is much to indicate that the 3 Standard Stoppages were originally conceived not as a work of object art, as...

  8. 4 1936: Duchamp Transforms the Painting Into an Experimental Setup
    (pp. 63-82)

    In 1936, Duchamp decided to change the 3 Standard Stoppages in such a way that their appearance would come as close as possible to that of the Readymades. Indeed, toward the end of his life, Duchamp counted this work among his Readymades and even considered it to be his favorite one.¹ Even the original 3 Standard Stoppages, as prototypes of serial imagery, would have been an art-historical sensation in 1913–14. By 1936, however, this was evidently no longer sufficient for Duchamp, or rather it was no longer what he intended, for it was, after all, his declared aim to...

  9. 5 HUMOROUS APPLICATION OF NON-EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY
    (pp. 83-98)

    On the questionnaire from the Museum of Modern Art, Duchamp had answered the question about the significance of the 3 Standard Stoppages not only with the explanation, “first step toward depersonalizing straight lines,” but also with further explanations and source references that could not possibly have been decipherable without a good grounding in mathematics and philosophy: “A joke about the meter—a humorous application of Riemann’s post-Euclidean geometry which was devoid of straight lines. Not firsthand but part! Cf. Max Stirner—Le moi et sa propriété.”¹ In his slide lecture, “Apropos of Myself,” delivered at the City Art Museum of...

  10. 6 THE CRISIS OF THE SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT OF TRUTH
    (pp. 99-116)

    In the philosophical world of France of the last decade of the nineteenth century, Henri Poincaré, the outstanding scientific authority of his time, put forward the theory that not only the axioms of geometry but also most of the principles of physics, such as Newton’s laws and the law of conservation of energy, were based on mere “conventions.”¹ This theory triggered a heated debate on scientific truth and objectivity, a debate that during the first decade of the twentieth century had assumed—according to the philosopher Abel Rey in his treatise La Philosophie moderne of 1911—the character of a...

  11. 7 PATAPHYSICS, CHANCE, AND THE AESTHETICS OF THE POSSIBLE
    (pp. 117-132)

    The seminal work of pataphysics is Alfred Jarry’s “neo-scientific novel,” Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, first published, posthumously, in 1911. “Book Eight,” entitled “Ethernit锹 and beginning with the chapter “Concerning the Measuring rod, the Watch, and the Tuning Fork,” had already appeared as a preprint in the magazine Vers et Prose in autumn 1910.² In this novel, Jarry defines the new discipline of pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions. . . . pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will...

  12. 8 RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM
    (pp. 133-144)

    In a world in which only the “law of the exception” has any validity, the individual is the only reality that counts. This combination of tychism and ethics helps us to understand why a work by the German philosopher Max Stirner, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own), was so important for Duchamp.¹ Duchamp had read the works of Poincaré at a time when the positivist notion of science as a new religion and a substitute for philosophy was in a deep crisis.² Poincaré’s writings were doubtless a source of manifold inspiration for Duchamp’s art, but with...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 145-192)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 193-210)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 211-214)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-222)