Marcel Duchamp and the Anti-Influence of Dada

With hints of Dada and Surrealism — or, more generally, the sense that things aren’t what they seem — percolating through fashion at the moment (Schiaparelli, Toilet Paper for MSGM, Maison Martin Margiela, Kenzo, Carven), it’s worth noting that Marcel Duchamp, one of Dada’s daddies, was born on this day in 1887. (A proponent of chance and randomness, he would have embraced the tenuous coincidence.) He died 81 years later, in 1968, leaving a robust legacy of anti-aesthetic, anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, anti-everything sentiment.

By definition, Dada resists definition — primarily of the visual sort, relying on concept over optics. Dada acts as a kind of dark matter for the arts, completely invisible and immeasurable, yet known to exist and known to give form to everything else. In this way, Miuccia Prada, too, could be considered a Dadaist, with her collections that challenge accepted notions of beauty and non-beauty, constantly recombining the house’s DNA with the démodé. If Dada was a rejection of all that came before, one could argue that all that came after owes its existence to Marcel Duchamp.

Ever-contrary, Duchamp himself disregarded his own creations. Almost immediately after unveiling what was arguably his most radical work, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912), at the Armory Show in New York, he rejected painting altogether. Another controversial work, a found porcelain urinal that he titled Fountain (1917), was itself a repudiation of artistic canon and the notion of the singular artist. Duchamp became synonymous with these Readymades, as they were called, even after he’d moved on. He once said, “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.”

What he moved on to isn’t entirely clear, but glimpses remain. In the 1920s, he adopted the female alter ego Rrose Sélavy — a word play that, in French, sounds like “Eros, c’est la vie” (“Eros, such is life”). Dressed to the nines in women’s finery, Duchamp consorted with surrealist photographer Man Ray, who took several series of portraits — and doesn’t Rrose look smashing? That alone is enough legacy to keep J.W. Anderson and other gender benders inspired for seasons to come.

Intermittently throughout his life, Duchamp became obsessed with chess, probably for its deceptive simplicity. He eventually became a chess master, with the title to prove it, and wrote voluminously on the subject. The last year of his life, 1968, he entered into a match with the avant-garde composer John Cage, in which music was created by photoelectric cells underneath the board, sparked randomly by the movement of pieces.

For all of these reasons and many more, let’s champion the unpredictable influence — perhaps anti-influence — of Dada on fashion today. Until, like Duchamp, we’re bored of it.

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