When it comes to contemporary art as we know it today, it really begins with Marcel Duchamp. In 2004, a poll of 500 art experts named Duchamp’s Fountain as the most influential work of modern art beating out Picasso’s Les Desmoiselle d’Avignon. His life and work reflect the dynamic nature of art, the idea that the creative process that goes into a work of art is the most important thing. The work itself may be made of anything and take any form. It’s an idea that seems commonplace today. Nearly a hundred years ago it was revolutionary, literally unthinkable, except to Duchamp.
When looking back on his life it appears he danced upon the art world like Roger Federer dances across a tennis court -- so light and effortless, yet certain and forceful with each change of direction. He seemingly knew the answers to his own questions, but just enjoyed musing about them, being playful, mischievous and paradoxical. He was an aloof and intellectual rebel before being a rebel became the style it was designed to circumvent. Duchamp’s art anticipated a rational crisis between aesthetic hierarchies as well as those within society we are still grappling with today. Indeed, Duchamp is so present in art he is like a pigment, a piece of marble or lump of clay – a building block other artists use to elevate their own work.
Among the many things he is known for, perhaps one of the least discussed is the coining of the term, infrathin (also known as inframince). Duchamp often said this term for the all but imperceptible difference between two seemingly identical items was impossible to define, “one can only give examples of it.” That has not stopped others from trying. The philosopher Hector Obalk has sought to distinguish infrathin in three ways. In the first infrathin describes an infinitesimal thickness – the thickness of an atom for example. The second notion of infrathin characterizes a difference you can easily imagine but does not exist like the thickness of a shadow. The third notion qualifies a distance or difference you cannot perceive but only imagine such as the separation between the bang of a gun near an observer and the mark of the bullet on the target some distance away.
I used the Federer comparison earlier because the sport of tennis itself contains wonderful examples of infrathin. It is a fully modern sport that crowns victors by truly atomic margins. A winner, for instance, can be derived while both players may have won the same number of points. A player may never lose his or her serve yet still lose the match. And a Duchampist's favorite, a hit ball’s state of being in or out is based on whether the ball has touched any part of the line. This has come to be determined in recent years by the use of an array of highly tuned cameras to achieve greater accuracy. For in today's incarnation of the sport the balls travel at such a rate it is as if the players were firing pistols at the lines. Combine this with the notion that the mere nap of the ball gently caressing the precipice of the line should be awarded with two hands down, and the determination is so blurringly imperceptible as to be delightfully absurd.
What does this hold for artists? The indefinable is an artist’s playground, the imperceptible a gauntlet thrown down. Artists shine light where none existed, artists engage the laws of the physical world to expand knowledge of the metaphysical. As artists we all attempt to decipher the infrathin for pleasure, for enlightenment and for beauty. It is a metaphor for the acute nature of experience. In college I was a student of Allan Kaprow’s, another artist known for his playfulness. He said the greatest responsibility we have is to pay attention to the lives we lead. In the coming days and weeks in this blog I will seek to shine a light other artists who are paying attention and we’ll see what we can define and what we can perceive.