Gideon Rosen, philosopher, on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘3 Standard Stoppages’
GB Tell me why you chose this? What was your reaction when you first saw it?
GR When I was eleven or twelve I spent a long summer collecting insects — butterflies and moths, but also beetles, grasshoppers, even flies. This was mainly a geeky science project, but the impulse was also aesthetic (as I now see). I had the idea that I would collect these bugs and then build a cabinet for my collection. I pictured the sort of oak and glass display case with dozens of small compartments that one sees in natural history museums, but the point was to build it myself: fit the joints, varnish the wood, cut the glass … I drew up detailed plans, though I never came close to building it. Still the idea was viscerally gripping for me. I’ve lost my interest in bugs, but as I think about this now, I find myself wanting to make the box.
A few years later I saw Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages at the Museum of Modern Art and my first reaction was: That is a beautiful wooden box. I wish I had made that. I’ve been fond of it ever since.
GB Were you already aware of its context in art history when you first came across it, as Duchamp’s farewell to painting and ‘retinal’ art? Did that influence your opinion?
GR I had just read Calvin Tompkins The Bride and Her Bachelors in a high school class on theories of art. The book is about the line from Duchamp to the 1950s New York avant-garde, so I was aware that my ‘aesthetic’ response amounted to missing the official point. Still it was clear to me then that like many Dada icons, this thing is obviously beautiful — much more beautiful in person than the pictures in the books convey. And as I now think, the Stoppages were obviously meant to be beautiful: maybe not the box itself, which is very nice, but the object as a whole. Of course the beauty isn’t strictly retinal: the object isn’t ravishing. Still, the gestalt one takes in as one looks at the thing and thinks about it has a strange effect that I’m happy to call a response to beauty.
GB What’s beautiful about this object? Can you say?
GR It’s partly the idea. The “stoppages” are alternatives to the standard meter, allegedly produced by dropping a meter-long thread from a height of one meter onto a painted black canvas, tracing the contour and then cutting wooden slats to match. This is a pataphysical joke that resonates with turn of the century ideas about the conventionality of geometry (Poincaré), the aesthetics of industrial production — the stoppages are devices for reproducing an arbitrary curve ad infinitum — and other groovy ideas of the time. As Duchamp put it:
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 a meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another.
It’s a perfectly good joke, but you don’t need a beautiful object to make it. To focus on the joke in isolation is to miss the most salient thing about the Stoppages.
The stoppages are housed in a carefully made pine box — the sort of box a surveyor would use for his tools. The canvas onto which the strings have been dropped has been cut into three strips, each of which has been affixed to a long glass plate. The lower part of the box has been fitted with slots for these plates, so it’s a blown up version of the sort of box that biologists use for their glass microscope slides. The stoppages themselves — the wooden slats — are stored in the lid of the box with a clever mechanism.
This intricate arrangement makes no sense if the point is just to freeze some random curves in time. Taken together, the arrangement is a literalization of Kant’s claim that the beautiful object displays “purposiveness without a purpose”. You look at the box and its contents and imagine the pataphysical surveyor opening his meticulously packed toolkit only to find that his rods and sextants have been replaced with long glass slides and curved measuring sticks. That thought and other more abstract thoughts mix with the visual experience of the materials— the wood, glass, canvas and thread all carefully arranged— to yield a strange gestalt that I find beautiful.
GB Does the fact that the curves were produced by chance contribute to the beauty of the work?
GR Actually, I don’t believe they were made by chance. When I went back to MOMA to look at the Stoppages again before responding to your questions, I came home wanting to make something like it— always a good sign after a trip to the museum — so I played around a bit, dropping strings and threads and lengths of fishing line from a height of one meter. It turns out that it’s impossible to get an elegant curve by this method. And yet Duchamp’s curves are not just elegant: they’re modern, like a Brancusi contour. (At MOMA, the Stoppages are in a gallery adjacent to Brancusi’s Bird in Space, so the affinity is hard to miss.) So I’m inclined to doubt the official story, and if I’m right that’s a massive irony, since this work was important to John Cage and others precisely because the key bits were supposed to have been left to chance.
I think all of this should occur to anyone looking at the Stoppages who knows the official line about them. The idea would have been every bit as excellent if the curves had been ugly or uninteresting; but they’re not, so one has to wonder. This just reinforces my idea that the Stoppages are beautiful on purpose. The lines are beautiful; the box and the arrangement of materials in it is beautiful; but the work is strange in a distinctive way because this sensual beauty prompts thoughts about the source of the work’s effects. These thoughts combine with the visual experience to produce something that is not quite a feeling and not quite a thought — something we have no good name for, but which seems to me to be a way of registering a sort of beauty.
GB Do you think that humans have an in-built response to those kinds of contours — perhaps in the way that our instinct for edge-detection leads us to find line drawings pleasant to look at?
GR I don’t know whether it’s in-built. But I tried another experiment: matching Duchamp’s lines to contours in great pictures of the human figure like Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, and it’s easy to do. Our response to those pictures is partly erotic, hence presumably partly innate, so there may be something of that in my response to Duchamp’s Stoppages.
Still, I’m surprised that people seem to care so much about whether our aesthetic responses have an innate source. There must be something innate about our capacity to find things beautiful. But even if my particular sensibility is massively shaped by culture, personal history, and so on — so that I find things beautiful that others don’t — I don’t think that threatens my sense of beauty in the slightest. This is a philosophical point, but I think beauty can be objective – really there in the object — even if it takes culture and history to see it. Someone who looks at the Stoppages and doesn’t find them beautiful is (I think) missing something that is there to be seen and felt.
GB Do you think an ‘unaesthetic’ object could ever exist?
GR This is tricky. As soon as I give you an example of an ‘unaesthetic object’ — something that won’t repay attention— that will amount to an invitation to stare intently at the thing and (if you’re my sort of philosopher) to start spinning a story about how this banal thing is really fascinating after all. There can be illusions of beauty, and intellectuals of a certain kind are prone to them: we mistake our beautiful thoughts for beauty in the object. That said, when I look around my office for something of no aesthetic interest at all, I’m stopped by the fact that everything has been designed, hence prettied up a bit. There’s hardly anything in the room that wouldn’t reward a second look. Still I do think there can be such a thing. Nothing much to look it in a pool of vomit.
GB In Duchamp’s words, “One stores up in oneself such a language of tastes, good or bad, that when one looks at something, if that something isn’t an echo of yourself, then you don’t even look at it. But I try anyway. I’ve always tried to leave my own baggage behind, at least when I look at a so-called new thing”. Do you think he was fighting a losing battle trying to leave associations behind and see something with fresh eyes?
GR No. There’s nothing wrong with responding to art in a personal way. My own most intense experiences of beauty all come from pop music, and any response like that is bound to be intensely personal. But it is possible to bracket quite a lot of that. The example I’ve given here doesn’t make the point, since my response to the Stoppages is partly personal and a bit nostalgic. But last year I took a group of students to the art museum at Princeton and told them all to find a beautiful thing to talk about. I did the assignment along with them and found myself standing in front of a painting by Ad Reinhardt: a big black canvas broken up into squares of subtly different shades of black. I forced myself to look at it, since it really isn’t my cup of tea, and found myself gripped by the picture (and by the story I was beginning to tell myself about why I found it gripping). I don’t think there was anything personal about that response; my baggage had nothing to do with it. Though as I say, I wouldn’t privilege the impersonal response to art in any way.
GB Duchamp believed that painting and sculpture die — that their freshness disappears after forty of fifty years. When you see this work now, do you have the impression that you are visiting a relic?
GR It certainly looks like an antique, and that’s part of its appeal for me. If the box were made of plastic it would be much worse. But I emphatically reject the point implicit in Duchamp’s remark — that freshness is important in art, and that since freshness is transitory, the interest or value of an artwork is also transitory. That’s a very 1913 thought, and I just don’t have it. When I look at 3 Standard Stoppages I know I’m looking at something it would not make sense to make today. But it doesn’t strike me as a relic, if by that you mean a thing whose beauty has faded.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
GR As Alexander Nehemas says, the point of calling something beautiful is to invite others to spend time with it. That’s why it took me so long to respond to your invitation to contribute to Gilded Birds. To call something beautiful in public is to stick your neck out, since it involves issuing an invitation that others may reject, or worse, take up only to discover that you’ve wasted their time with your bad taste. Beautiful things do not have any special feature in common, just as people worth spending time with don’t have anything interesting in common. But some things are worth spending time with (in the various ways in which we spend time with works of art). I wouldn’t use the word “beautiful” for all of them: beauty isn’t the only aesthetic value, and I’m not sure how to distinguish it from the others. But my hunch is that Kant was not far wrong: there’s a kind of attention to the way things look that prompts an effort of understanding that prompts renewed attention to appearances, and there is a pleasure that (sometimes) comes from this back-and-forth. To call something ‘beautiful’ is to promise this sort of pleasure from it.