3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913-14, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages is the most explicit work about the importance of chance that I’ve ever seen. It also might be the first. Duchamp dropped three one meter threads onto a prepared surface and used these lines to make his meter sticks. The following came from the Tate’s website:

In 1964 Duchamp explained: ‘This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ (Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.273-4.)

It’s interesting how Duchamp referred to the creation of a work as an imprisonment. It occurred to me once, while listening to Thelonious Monk, that sometimes making art feels like a crime. His exquisite, pauses before committing to a note can make my hair stand up. Art can be very, very serious. The artist is culpable. What’s done is done, and it can’t be taken back. When the move is made, the idea of it is no more. It’s a murder of sorts, and a museum is a morgue.

I hesitate to mention dialectics, but this is the experience of aufhebung, the dialectical move of raising up and preservation through destruction. That’s all nonsense of course, because the dialectic is about feelings, not thinking – a complicated memoir dressed as bad philosophy argued from the personal experience of “it seems like”. Notwithstanding Hegel the Reprehensible, Marx has said many perceptive things, “In no sense does the writer regard his work as a means. They are ends in themselves: so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs” FN 1

Art is important.

Embracing chance may seem like an evasion of responsibility, but chance is unavoidable. An artist should love fate like Nietzsche and permit art to be a premeditated arrangement that allows chance to occur. Sometimes the latitude for chance is limited to merely the chanciness of skill, but at other times it is given huge scope.

The critical moment for any work is heeding the realization that the piece might be finished. This is more difficult than I often suppose. I admire the work as it proceeds and I don’t want the pleasure of feeling so smart and talented to stop. But if I don’t coolly consider my judgements as I work, I risk irredeemably ruining it. I need to pause and look at it as an art lover, not an art maker. Maybe it’s done, and maybe it’s not. Think carefully. Not sure? Do something else and come back to it later. Ultimately, when I make the last call, and weeks later decide that it was the right decision, I get the finest pleasure: I still feel smart and talented, but now it comes with relief instead of worry.

Duchamp also mentioned pataphysics – more about that in a future post.

He also said he made it with chance, “my chance”. Perhaps a confession that he made some adjustments, or more likely, repeated the process at an appropriate height to obtain results that were apparently random, and incidentally, fit on sticks of pleasing width. I don’t see anything wrong with this. Artists are liars and keep secrets. The camera obscura is a great example. I suspect Vermeer used one, and he’s my favourite painter. I saw “Girl with Scarf” when it came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and I was stunned. There were no edges, just tiny fallings-off into infinity. David Hockney tried to out the cheats in a book. He may approve of cheating, but I’m not sure, I haven’t read the book. For his sake, I hope he does approve.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” makes my point, “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this, as we have already pointed out, is Lying in Art.” FN 2 The Decay of Lying is a delightful dialog that I highly recommend. It’s funny and true in a mendacious kind of way, although Wilde would never be so gauche as to make any claim to truth.

FN 1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, L. Baxandall & S. Morawski (eds.) St. Louis: Telos Press, p. 61.

FN 2 Oscar Wilde,”The Decay of Lying” in “Intentions” in The Artist as Critic, Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman (ed.) New York: Random House, 1969, p.318

IMAGE from the Tate