Before Marcel Duchamp, art was perceived through narrow modes and created by traditional, hollow processes. Art was merely an aesthetically pleasing artifact, lacking in content, concept, and depth. A pioneer of the Dada movement, Duchamp countered the conventional and moved toward a creative process that was antithetical to artistic skill. By distancing and detaching himself from prevalent, common methods of producing artwork, Duchamp was able to emphasize the conceptual value of a piece and truly embody the essence of an anti-artist. Deviating from retinal art, Duchamp developed the iconoclastic, ironic Readymade – prefabricated, mass-produced, commercially available, and often utilitarian objects that were removed from their fixed, functional context and elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist. Not only did this defy the notion that art had to be beautiful and handmade, but it disrupted and upset the role of the artist. Duchamp’s “Fountain”, although simple and candid, is arguably his most famous and controversial Readymade, which mocked avant-garde artists by equating modern art to a lowly urinal. Whether Marcel Duchamp with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. The object did not change formally, but with the scrawl of a signature and selection of a title, a newfound context was conceived, altering the viewer’s perception and blurring the distinction between art and life. To Duchamp, art is it’s own reality, not a mere imitation or fabrication of an existing actuality.
Not only was Duchamp a pioneer of Dada, but of sound art as well. In 1913 Duchamp developed the musical piece “Erratum Musical”, or “Musical Misprint” by the process of chance. The words that accompanied the music were from a dictionary’s definition of imprint; an impression or mark – thus, the misprint or fault of random and unplanned notes blending with the Readymade definition of imprint creates a balanced, sculptural effect. Mixing text with sound allows the audience to truly visualize the music, transforming the aesthetic experience of listing to a piece of music into an abstract occurrence of experiencing abstract space. One is able to sense and feel the existence of space through the flow and flux of rhythm and voice and the literal, concrete aspects of text.
John Cage was heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, especially by the musical piece “Erratum Musical”. Duchamp’s concept of sound having sculptural, tangible qualities that constructed a soundscape inspired the experimental composer to create one of his most renowned and notorious pieces, 4’33.’’ Cage believed that there was no such thing as a total absence of sound – silence will always be polluted by the commonplace noise and clamor that pepper our existence. In 1952 he wrote a composition consisting of a silent piano and motionless performer, lasting for an uncomfortable four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Premiered by David Tudor, the silence piece produced something quite the opposite to what it suggested – it created sound. By shifting focus from the performer to the audience, it allowed for endless opportunities to fill the concave hollow of silence, making it swell and inflate, fill form and take shape. It became sculptural, like “Erratum Musical”. The surrounding environment of the concert hall was amplified and enhanced by the thick coating of silence that poured from the frozen piano keys – one spectator said “you could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Environmental and unintended noises were enclosed and bound together, revealing that all sound is music, once again dissolving the boundaries of art and life. The importance of dissipating the strict borders and fine edges between art and life was a major conception of Zen Buddhist Philosophy, something that Cage was also interested in, and I’m learning more about. Shadowing the simplicity of Duchamp’s Readymades, 4’33” was also very bare and straightforward. The composer creates nothing at all. The performer goes on stage and does nothing. The audience witnesses this very basic act, the act of sitting still and being quiet. All this takes place in a concert hall setting, lending a historical and artistic gravity to the proceedings that begs us to put this act into some kind of weighty context, fraught with importance.
Cage also incorporated chance operations in his work. Although he commented that Duchamp’s methods were “uncomplicated and simple”, preferring “details and complications”, the foundation of basing his work on the unforeseeable was inspired by Duchamp. The majority of his musical scores, such as Variations 1, Cheap Imitation, and Theater Piece No. 1, all revolved around the concept of chance. Melody and notation were insignificant to Cage, rather, he wanted to elucidate that choice instigated and guided the piece, and possessed an integral role in the creation and final product of the artwork, diminishing the importance and control of the artist – comparable to Duchamp’s relationship to the Readymades.
In the series of thirty-five abstract prints titled “Changes and Disappearances”, Cage also determined the placement, quantity and color of solid, dashed and curved lines by chance. Every mark, color, and image resulted from questions answered by numerous chance operations. Cage recorded every result on a score devoted to each print. He then created maps, or printing guides, by tracing the placement of each plate and annotating the tracings with every mark, line, image, and color to be used. The convergence of engraved drawings from the journal of Henry David Thoreau with curvilinear patterns by dropping strings onto the copper plates – just as Duchamp had done for his piece “Three Standard Stoppages” – produces a chaotic, confused disarray of precise, calculated marks, mirroring nature’s complex, irregular patterns and infinite possibilities. Cage described “Changes and Disappearances” as “the most musically detailed work with very subtle changes in the colors and shapes. Just as music is made with lots of little notes, so this is made with all those little pieces of color.”
The only way to celebrate Duchamp is to “recerebrate” him – a Duchampian pun Cage invented – which means to plug Duchamp’s mind into one’s own, the way an instrument is plugged into a sound system, and echo his ideas and notions – soon, the music will coalesce together, becoming one. Through the works and existence of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage developed into one of the most distinguished and notable post-war artists, and their art will truly resonate in years to come. I will always look up to these two artists, not only for their artwork, but for their philosophy of music as well.
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