Dada and Uselessness

I took particular interest in Marcel Duchamp this week, not because of his art or poetry, but because he left that world to play chess. As I read through the secondary readings for the week on MOMA, I learned that he liked chess because it was useless. Art, poetry, the urinal piece that appears in Blindman no. 2 and caught attention from many artists, could be used in some way by the art world—sold/commodified, displayed, etc.

In that Blindman issue, there is a discussion of the urinal that was displayed and signed by “R. Mutt”: “It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance… 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.” There is play here, and an argument, between the ordinary and the elevated. This idea is continued in the “Buddha of the Bathroom” piece. I would revise this to be the useful and the useless. Duchamp’s “Readymade” series places exceptionally useful objects and tools (urinals, shovels, stools, bicycle wheels, etc.) and isolates them in a way that strips those objects of their function. It’s a change in thought, sure, but one that is asks the audience to question usefulness, function, and purpose. In “Buddha” the author cites people comparing Duchamp’s/Mutt’s “Fountain” to high art. While I see this as challenging conceptions of aesthetic beauty and authorship, I’m most drawn to the ideas of “imagination”—“Fountain was not made by a plumber but by the force of an imagination; and of imagination it has been said, ‘All men are shocked by it and some overthrown by it.’” With the Readymades Duchamp is forcing audiences out of their preconceived notions of how to use a tool (logic, common sense, usefulness) and into a space that requires imagination from the audience to surmise its purpose. If this is “joke” as the author of “Buddha” suggests, then that imaginative energy is made completely useless. Tzara’s “Dada Means Nothing” can easily be translated to “Dada [art] is useless” for Duchamp.

The secondary sources want us to understand Dada as doing something-- attempting to challenge accepted ideas in the art world, be anti-war, inspire new perspectives, etc. But Duchamp’s move away from art to chess is telling. There is a certain uselessness to chess; it’s a game with its own language and logic that doesn’t translate to a clear impact on the world. It exists completely for itself, demanding considerable time and energy yet is nonmaterial (nothing concrete is produced after a game of chess). Duchamps seemed to find in chess, then, the ultimate in uselessness.


In your discussion over "usefulness" and "uselessness," I found myself contemplating how R. Mutt/Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" does indeed play on imagination. I can remember the first time I saw it, and despite my initial laugh at the use of a urinal, I found myself looking into it for meaning. Perhaps that is against the idea of it being useless, but the imagination always seems most compelled in useless situations (why, after all, do we often look for shapes in the clouds when there is no point in looking?). There is the addition of the signature--"R. Mutt"--that causes me to think about the fine line between humans and animals. Then there is the shape of the urinal itself--almost a "Pieta" shape, though how do we understand that in context with its use? Maybe we aren't meant to--or maybe Duchamp is urging that "shock" factor you quoted earlier. In any case, Duchamp certainly finds "the ultimate in uselessness," as you say, in more than just chess.