Marcel Duchamp : a phenomenological approach to art
Thorson, Alice R.
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Art historians have already recognized Marcel Duchamp as a crucial figure in the defining and shaping of twentieth century art. Although interpretations of Duchamp and his works are many and varied, his ideas have yet to be considered in relation to those of phenomenology, the philosophical movement with which his development coincides, both chronologically and foundationally. This thesis will attempt to demonstrate that the life and works of Marcel Duchamp articulate a phenomenological approach to art, and that this phenomenological approach constitutes the generative essence of his legacy. A critical survey and analysis of the interpretations of previous scholars reveals a bewildering assortment of ideas; however, a consensus appears in regard to two major points. First is in the perception of Duchamp's relation to culture. Whereas traditionally, the artist served as imitator, inter— pretator, or commentator, Duchamp scholars are in agreement in perceiving his role as one of critic-visionary-mediator. Numerous scholars also converge in their assessment of Duchamp's development as a sequence progressing from struggle to resolution. Both of these ideas prove relevant in assessing Duchamp's relation to phenomenology. A major connection between Duchamp and phenomenology occurs via Symbolism. An important influence on Duchamp, Symbolism battled naturalistic preconceptions in the artistic sphere on the same grounds that phenomenology battled them in the realm of philosophy. Duchamp too spent much of his career working to expose the fallacies of naturalism. His alliance with Symbolist ideals, and his adoption of their attitudes and devices provides an important link between his approach and phenomenology. A study of Duchamp's artistic development yields numerous parallels with the philosophical development of phenomenology's founder, Edmund Husserl. Careful examination reveals both artist and philosopher working through a similar sequence of ideas to arrive at comparable solutions. Both began with a struggle against dualism which they found couched in naturalistic preconceptions. A realization of the intentionality of consciousness offered a solution to the initial subject/object division, while an awareness that meaning transcends its empirical presentation spurred them both on a search for ideal meanings. Ultimately each came to recognize that meaning inheres in the individual's subjective experiencing of the everyday world. Turning to Duchamp's life and works, a number of strikingly phenomenological elements can be found. First is the artist's attitude: noncommital yet critical, seemingly ambiguous but actually deliberately restrained, which in spirit and purpose resembles nothing so much as the phenomenological epoche. Second are several distinct themes or areas of investigation which consistently recur throughout his oeuvre. Viewed from the standpoint of phenomenology, Duchamp's investigations find unity and a new intelligibility as the expression of three characteristically phenomenological concerns. They are: (1) the search for eidetic essences, (2) the relationship between intentionality and meaning, and (3) the union of polar dualities. Succeeding generations of artists would instinctively recognize the importance of Duchamp's phenomenological investigations, and in retrospect, Duchamp's contributions become unified under the heading of a phenomenological approach to art. Beginning with John Cage, artists from every sector of the fine arts would use Duchamp's phenomenological investigations as the basis for a new aesthetic in which a critical spirit replaces the certitude of convention, process takes precedence over product, and idea over execution. Perhaps most important to this new aesthetic is the recognition of the spectator's role in the constitution of meaning, an idea initiated by the readymade, and consummated in numerous works which question the arbitrary separation of art and life.