Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance: Art as Experiment (Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts)
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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.
have been the case. Evidently Duchamp himself was for a long time not sure about the status of the 3 Standard Stoppages in his oeuvre. Although they were “tableaux”—paintings—and not drawing instruments, he did in fact use them as instruments when working on the painting Network of Stoppages and on his studies for the nine malic moulds of the Large Glass. This contradiction also finds expression in the three small contact prints of the “décistoppages” in the Box of 1914. Duchamp photographed the
lithograph (no. 2/30), 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Source: Private collection. © Succession Marcel Duchamp/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008. winnings failed to materialize and what remained of the mathematical “control” of chance were an artwork and a wonderful bon mot: “As you can see,” Duchamp wrote at the time to his friend Francis Picabia, “I haven’t quit being a painter. I’m drawing on hazard now.”43 As we know, a further fifteen years or so went by before quantum mechanics brought the experience of the
I n d ivi d uali s m I n 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
Thereafter, Stirner’s ideas were publicized regularly in the political magazine L’Anarchie (1905–1914)7 and in the short-lived (from February to November 1913) arts magazine L’Action d’art, the authors of which were in close touch with the cubists of Puteaux.8 Contrary to the political collectivist anarchism of Kropotkin or Proudhon, the leading lights of the group around L’Action d’art, the writers André Colomer and Gérard Lacaze-Duthiers, propagated an intellectual anarchism inspired by
facon provisoire. Sans rien retirer de ce qu’il avait dit auparavant, M. Poincaré montre clairement que, si la Science est relative à l’homme, elle n’est pas relative à un individu, ce savant, qu’elle n’est pas une oeuvre artificielle, mais bien le produit naturel d’une entente.” Musée des Arts et Métiers, Inv. No. 3296. Cf. Adcock, “Conventionalism in Henri Poincaré and Marcel Duchamp,” 251, 257; Henderson, Duchamp in Context, 187–88. While Adcock does in fact draw attention to certain