Enigmatic Genius — Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance: Art as Experiment by Herbert Molderings

Duchamp

Duchamp and the Aesthetics
of Chance: Art as Experiment

BY Herbert Molderings
TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN
BY John Brogden
(Columbia University Press, 2010)


From the Publisher:

“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….

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.”

When a definitive art history of science is written I would hope Herbert Molderings’ Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance gets a major entry. This charming, erudite and academically thorough volume takes a single work of the brilliant French artist Marcel Duchamp and stretches it across both biographical and art historical terrain all the way into the metaphysical. A towering figure of modern art (and example of what Foucault would call an episteme) Duchamp has been the irresistible subject of numerous books. This study traces the ideas and work of the seemingly effortless Duchamp through a single, lesser known experimental piece called 3 Standard Stoppages, which Moldering regards as “the guiding principle of his artistic thinking.” According to Molderings, from 1913 until the revelation of Étant donnés, this work best demonstrates Duchamp’s art as indicated in the book’s subtitle: Art as Experiment.

Was it art? Was it a science experiment? Was it a joke or a playful reference to the Surrealist artists who were accused by a disbelieving public of literally not being able to draw a straight line?

The creation of 3 Standard Stoppages was simple enough. Three white threads were dropped randomly onto three canvasses and then fixed in the position they fell. Was it art? Was it a science experiment? Was it a joke or a playful reference to the Surrealist artists who were accused by a disbelieving public of literally not being able to draw a straight line? In the course of the book the author explores all these possibilities. Molderings begins by suggesting the piece was initially a “by-product” of aesthetic investigations on behalf of Duchamp’s masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass). He regards this work as Duchamp’s version of a large scale painting in the classical mode. The fact that it was not, in any real sense, a painting, suggests it was philosophical and theoretical issues, and not technical prowess that preoccupied the artist, whose previous work seemed to be dealing a gleeful deathblow to the classical tradition of painting. Yet, unlike some other current commentators, Molderings does not see Duchamp as an anti-art. Instead, his books suggests that Duchamp, while working against the core values of classicism, remains part of a long tradition of artists who found intrigue and inspiration in the science and inventions of their times.

The times during which 3 Standard Stoppages was made were certainly electrifying. Periodicals, books, performances and lectures luxuriated in ground-breaking scientific and mathematical theories in physics, psychology, biology and many other disicplines. These, in turn, had an unforeseen impact on the nature, duty and meaning of every aspect of art. In the modern century, the Enlightenment mindset suggesting Man’s fate was in the steady hands of rational science was crumbling under new world views put forth by Darwin, Freud and Einstein. No longer driven by either religion or rationalism, but rather governed by such uncontrollable forces as evolutionary urgency, relativity and subconscious impulse, these new views seemed to shatter the notion that Man was at the helm of anything.


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