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Not meaning to

Modern artists have discovered in the power of chance a new form of making art incisive and daring

LIGIA CLARKThe Crab, by Lygia Clark: the public can play around with the work LIGIA CLARK

An examination of the DNA of the prime art work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (commonly referred to as The Large Glass ), one of the most important of the 20th century, would not reveal only the genes of the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who took some eight years to complete this work. The study of the genome of the work, made up of two immense sheets of glass, decorated with oil and threads of lead, would certainly also indicate the marked presence of “chance chromosomes”.

The encounter between the genius of the arts and destiny had occurred in 1926 during the transportation of the work to a gallery in New York. Half way there the glass broke and sent fissures through the figures meticulously created by Duchamp. Instead of decrying the accidental death of the work, he preferred to come to terms with the event. He called chance his partner and declared the work “definitely unfinished”. “He not only accepted the transformation but admitted chance as an element in the process of creating”, explains Ronaldo Entler, author of the doctorate thesis named Chance Poetic Works: Accidents and Happenings in Artistic Creation, defended at the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP).

In his work the researcher analyzes the trail of Duchamp and his impact on the works of various other artists such as John Cage, Ligia Clark, Nam June Paik, the young Brazilian Carlos Fadon Vicente and the New Realism group – a French movement that was formed at the end of the 50’s. The meeting point of these artists, in the opinion of Entler, is an opening up towards experimentation, that brings together a dialogue between the creator and other productive forces. “Works in which the artist consciously accepted chance and knew that it is an operator of his works, were analyzed. It is in this space that one can place chance poetic works”, he justifies. “However, as in many charges made against contemporary art, this situation ends up affecting the references that have served us in defining the limits of art”.

The most significant break proposed by these artists is that which introduces the subject – both from the point of view of the artist and the spectator – towards a less totalitarian position in relation to art. “The esthetic experience stops being exclusively the manifestation of knowledge or sentiment, and takes on the role of a universe full of movement, where the subject reacts in the same moment in which it is being transformed”, he observes. The researcher then alerts that considering chance as part of the creative process does not mean that the artist has been manipulated by nature, as some suggest.

“Chance is an enriching element because the artist has more flexibility with his project and accepts confronting the unknown. They are interferences of another type that are not denominated as artistic or of a phenomenon of nature or, even, that come from a technological piece of apparatus, as a contribution. This demands on the part of the artist a certain amount of humbleness and the breaking of ego centering that Romanticism built”, he analyzed.

However, in spite of all of these esthetic revolutions, art is still seen through a conservative bias, without any space for the removal of veils. “Up until today art is looked upon as the fruit of the absolute domination of the creator within his full state of inspiration and efficiency. Art has always been associated with the knowledge of being able to create and has been considered to be a result of an intention and not of an accident. But based on the experiments carried out in the vanguard of the artistic world, however, it is inevitable to question this traditional vision of art”, he says.

The research made a venture into three categories of work that come into conflict with conservative art by way of chance. The first is a deviation in the raw material, in which the artistic creators give a different function to materials, abandoning the classical idea that the painter uses paint, the sculptor uses marble. It is the artists who decide to alter the destiny of a material that was not made for that purpose. “They recycle or collate unusual tools”, he says. The object of his study was the French group known as New Realism.

The second category is that of the artists who use chance in the process of creation. Some of them even get to the point of balloting objects or elements that are going to direct the paths of the work. This is the case with John Cage (1912-1992), who used the I-Ching to decide a rhythmic sequence or melody that he would use in a determined piece of music.

Entler also brought up one of the current themes: interactivity. He studied the Brazilian artist Carlos Fadon Vicente, a photographer who created a computer program that makes the software make a mistake. “It acts as though it were a virus, which gives a certain amount of autonomy to the work. Or that is, chance is most definitely within the program. When he brings the software into play, the artist does not know what is going to happen. The machine is a co-author”, he explains.

A third means is that of the open work. Or that is to say, the artist leaves a free space so that the public can reconfigure the work of art. The best example is the work of the Brazilian Ligia Clark (1920-1988), who, for example, was becoming more deeply involved in the use of articulated objects such as the so-called Bichos [Animals]. “Ligia created works that were to be manipulated by the public and even she herself didn’t know how they would turn out. She even stopped calling herself an artist and went on to call herself a proponent; such was the scope that she gave to these works. The work would become the process itself”, he says.

Nevertheless, Entler calls attention to the fact that artistic production in a general manner, independent from a school of thought, has always been carried out as a game between contingencies and necessities: the first conduct the process towards diversity and the second to efficiency. “Some historic transformations of art can be thought about through the bias of tension between one part and the other”, he explains. “It is strange that, in spite of this, the discussion about art always closes down when discussing chance. I try to avoid falling into a rhetoric game to say that chance is essentially within art itself and not only in what transforms it into a creative element”, he continues.

This concept of art as an expression of the subjectivity of the artist gained ground in Romanticism. It was during this period that one began to create the image that art was always going to be controlled and orientated by the artist’s sentiment, with determination coming even more deeply from him. “Whether it be from the capacity to operate an understanding in search of an imitation of nature, or for the sensibility that it permits to project his sentiments in the work, the artist still remains a person endowed with uncommon capacity”, explains Ronaldo Entler. “And the creation appears to occur, according to such concepts, within a linear movement that is the transference of this understanding or sentiment to the work, without space for outside interferences”, he goes on.

During the renaissance, the period before Romanticism, art acquired a specific value and conquered the aura of the fine arts. Even at that it continued being a developed activity with sagacity and a defined objective: “the representation of nature within a certain ideal of idealism”, states the author. The classical concept of art is defended, therefore, by way of a certain ability and efficiency of the artist to execute his artistic production. In Greece there was not exactly a concept of art, but of technique (techné).

To carry out art was to work with technical precision. But Plato was, in the major part of his work, contrary to art. “He considered it a lesser, manual activity, misleading in its proposal to ‘imitate’. For Plato art was imperfect for nature because it didn’t deal with the essence of things”, explains Entler. “This perfectionism would have a relationship with technical ability, not with a notion more philosophical than perfection. It was in this manner that the power to exercise one’s desire within a creative action occurred, a situation opposite to the determinations of chance”, he observes.

Control is the defining element of the conception of art that remains in collective imagination until today, the researcher suggests. To a work of art the difficulty of its execution is still associated “a strong reference for the day to day judgments of artistic quality”, he compares.

At the end of the 19th century chance began to gain some ground in the world of fine arts. It is possible to identify rapid brushes within the impressionists or in the apparent unfinished aspect of the sculptures of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) or of Medardo Rosso (1858-1928). Nevertheless, chance gained form and force only within the European vanguard at the beginning of the 20th century, especially with Dadaism. Within this movement, the presence of chance is not just simply a paradox. “It turned itself into a fundamental strategy for the description of what was called the anti-art”, the author comments.

The French poet Stephan Mallarmé (1842-1898) is considered to be a trail blazer. At the end of the 19th century he published A Throw of the Dice, a poem that allowed various possibilities for the reader through the non-linear form of the setting out of the pages. Thus the poem acquired a cyclical character. At the beginning there is written, “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance”. This verse will only be recovered at the end. “Every thought emits a throw of the dice!” “I am looking to the poem as a mystery in which the reader must search for the key”, the poet justifies.

The thinking of Mallarmé passed through almost all of the experiences which, during the 20th century, made some type of reference towards chance. His disciples are the concretists Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari. It was starting from the 19th century that some phenomena, both in the conceptual and instrumental fields, began to make the role of control and of the difficulty for the execution in the definition of esthetical value more flexible. “The most important thing is not to search for the possibility of an expression of chance, and forcefully make it fit into our traditional values of art, but, yes, to perceive that art transforms itself and that perhaps it no longer should be pretended to be as desired by the Romantics”, the author concludes.

The project
Chance Poetic Works: Accidents and Happenings in Artistic Creation (nº 95/01557-9); Modality Doctorate grant; Supervisor Julio Plaza – Communications and Arts School of USP; Scholar Ronaldo Entler – Communications and Arts School of USP