“The radical use of chance in 20th century art” (Denis Lejeune)

Coincidences, chance events, unexpected encounters: the existence of such phenomena has always been recognized. Art, for its part, appeared sufficiently early in different cultures for some to consider it a defining attribute of our species.

These two phenomena may seem to have little in common in that, essentially, the first reveals something about the world, while the second relates rather to man. Artists however, whether cavemen or contemporary urbanites, have persistently created works related more obviously to the world than to mankind specifically, evoking animals, flowers, the stars, amongst other topics. But chance, despite its ubiquity, managed almost entirely to evade the attention of artists for centuries. This in itself would be interesting enough to justify a work on the subject; but it is not my aim to investigate this matter. Rather, this study is concerned with the point of historical contact between the two phenomena: the moment and manner in which art and chance try to coalesce.

There are two ways for such interaction to occur: one is as ‘in passing’, the other rather ‘head on’; one centres on chance as a mere theme of art, the other makes it one of its raisons d’être. Owing to the scope of the present study, only the second interaction will be scrutinised in detail, but in order to understand it and evaluate its meaning a brief discussion of chance as theme will be necessary.

Choosing chance as one of the main focal points of one’s creations is not an innocent gesture. In many ways it requires courage and determination, because there does not seem to be a notion more foreign to art than randomness: it is bound to attract the ire of critics, the contempt of the public, not to mention the incredulity of fellow creators. As opposed to artists who engage with politics, rural idylls or notions of utopia, who are in the position of dwarfs on giants’ shoulders insofar as past generations have already produced a theoretical foundation for their work, artists working with and on chance are in the unenviable position of having to fend for themselves in terms both of art and of theory. This does not imply that they are philosophers of art in their own right, nor that after them nothing else can be said or done about the relationship between chance and artistic creation, but it does mean that their theoretical reasoning and philosophical leanings will of necessity weigh heavily in the present study.

The three chosen artists, André Breton, François Morellet and John Cage, come from three very distinct cultural backgrounds, and their thinking about the question of chance in art is highly personal. The examination of how each of them deals with the notion, how they incorporate it into their work, and how they justify its place in their world view will be my principal point of focus, and raises the first question it seeks to address, namely: do those creative artists share a common Weltanschauung embracing chance as fundamental? In other words, is there a latent unity at the root of an enterprise that, until the 20th century, had been little explored? And if such unity there is, will it find an echo in the thought of Clément Rosset, who is among philosophers the one whose system is most fundamentally reliant on chance?

The second question presiding over the present work is whether it is possible to produce a work of art based entirely on chance. Phrased thus the notion might sound implausible, or at the very least outlandish. However the artists in question, regardless of the success or failure of their respective attempts, have at least pointed toward such a possibility and their dedication, thoroughness, and creativity have enriched the artistic landscape with this fascinating, and persistent, interrogation.

The positing of these two questions does not mean to imply that the studied individuals had chance, and chance alone, in mind when creating their art. Nonetheless in their case chance played a crucial role in their artistic practices. And it is the very persistence of this characteristic that seems to indicate a deep-seated need, and forces one to ask why this should be so.

Put chance aside and the artists under scrutiny seem to have little in common. Most notably each produced, or produces, works in his own favoured medium, be that literature and poetry (Breton), visual arts (Morellet) or musical composition (Cage). The deliberate choice of three contrasting creative individuals is driven by my desire to study the use of radical chance across a spectrum, not just within the confines of one branch of the arts; what therefore interests me is not a specific artistic medium, but the question of whether or not there can be coherence and unity behind the use of chance from an aesthetic perspective. The present study will as a result neither claim nor attempt to collate three different critical discourses, nor to look at its subject from the point of view of literary criticism, art theory or musicology, because each discipline has its own tools, not necessarily adapted to the others. If it must be classified the present work must come under the purview of the philosophy of art. This is the reason why the philosopher Clément Rosset is its first point of focus, since his understanding and analyses of chance propose the only existing system of thought entirely premised on the concept of chance, and will provide the tools needed to, so to speak, ‘test the mettle’ of the artists in this specific area.

This bias towards the conceptual explains another aspect of this work: the absence of lengthy analyses of particular texts, poems, paintings, performances or scores. Such work has already been done, almost exhaustively in the case of Breton, and thoroughly for Cage; Morellet’s canvases and installations have also attracted the scrutiny of a considerable number of art specialists – and these investigations need not be repeated. The drive behind the present research is therefore not to duplicate the analyses of Carrouges, Béhar, Pritchett, Blistène or Nicholls when it comes to particular works; it is not to propose a revolutionary reading of Automatism (Breton), Europera (Cage) or ‘A Califourchon’ (Morellet); it is instead to incorporate these valuable contributions into the study of the dialogue between art and the idea of radical chance.

LEJEUNE, Denis, The Radical Use of Chance in 20th Century Art. Amsterdam/New York: Faux Titre, 2012.

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