Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po



Giovanna Zapperi
Marcel Duchamp's dandyism :The Dandy, the Flâneur and the Beginnings of Mass Culture in New York During the 1910s

Françoise Coblence
The Commonplace and Genius

Julie Ramos
Dandy Ambivalences

Editorial Director: Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Editorial Assistant: Elodie Antoine
Translator: David Ames Curtis

other LETTERs



The model child


        At the end of the eighteenth century in England, Beau Brummell invented the ambivalent figure of the dandy, who would soon become tied to the advent of democratic society and of a new kind of spectator ever more greedy for sensations. At the start of the twentieth century, in the era of the masses, Marcel Duchamp renewed this figure of an unheroic resistance, an indifferent antisoldier who was elegant, distant, cold, highly constructed, and provocative, as well as inventive. He would also have to make of his entire being a work and to push the duty of incertitude to the point of transvestism. Especially in Rrose Sélavy, photographed by Man Ray at a time when mass society was manufacturing and spreading the most hackneyed stereotypes of men and women, Duchamp would make the transition from one sex to the other in images. The nineteenth century, to which he was still attached, had imagined unique figures of revolt against the deadlocked game of power being played out between the sexes. From Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs to Edgar Degas’ The Rape, we are not totally lacking in works that betray the violence of gender relations. In their wake, no doubt, Duchamp was both analyst and symptom, the one who saw things clearly and the same one who was struggling with the contradictions of his era.
        For Duchamp, stating the terms of masculinity’s crisis boiled down no doubt to making the case against the alienated condition of women, but things were not so clear. They would be much clearer in the case of a Futurist like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who saw time itself as sexed, the past being feminine, the future combative and virile. He was not the only one at the time to think of woman as archaic and as a factor of degeneration, preferring the machine to natural organs. In the barracks of the European avant-garde, Duchamp was almost completely isolated; he fled the Great War, established new contacts in Francis Picabia and Arthur Cravan, and discovered, on American soil, a favorable audience in New York. Before that public, he experimented in an ongoing game, with his comet-shaped tonsure, adopting the position of an ascetic yet attractive monk and subscribing in this way to Baudelaire’s requirement that the dandy be seen at all times as sublime, saintly, and spiritual.
        For Duchamp (who would have, up until today, many emulators), one must experience the abandonment of utopia in order to reinvent a super-critical position in art. To himself as permanent and detached work of art, he would add objects that extend that work by intensifying it and by giving it the longevity of the Museum piece and of the history of art. This he did with the readymade, among others. To the dehumanization of manufactured products, he responded with an indifference to good taste and to the pleasures of the eye. He abandoned painting, craft, emotion, and the eruptive manifestations of the body.
        Giovanna Zapperi has just finished writing a remarkable thesis on the subject in which she lays out a personal vision of the profoundly ambiguous figure of Marcel Duchamp. Françoise Coblence, well known for her philosophical and psychoanalytical essays on art and for her pioneering history of dandyism, talks with her. And Julie Ramos, whose specialty is German Romanticism, in turn enters into the conversation.
        If this discussion is still quite timely today, that is because the questions raised by Duchamp have entered into long-term history and have, after the end of heros (and of heroines), taken on the status of an unbounded truth in a consumerist society of the spectacle wherein the struggle between the will to power and the will to surrender goes on forever.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Letter published with the support of the Foundation of France