Marcel Duchamp's Use of Text in Imagery

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  • 0:01 Marcel Duchamp
  • 0:52 Text Defines Art
  • 1:53 Text Defies Art
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Marcel Duchamp is remembered in history for challenging our ideas about art, and one of the things he used to do this was a combination of text and imagery. Explore this connection, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Marcel Duchamp

Photo of Marcel Duchamp

This is Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp was a French (and later American) based artist of the early 20th century. He is most often associated with the New York interpretation of the Dada movement, which embraced a sense of absurd, nonsensical anarchy in their work. So, what do absurd, nonsensical anarchists do with their artwork? Well? Things like turning a urinal into a sculpture. Ta-da. Or should we say 'Da-da'? Anyway, Duchamp was all about challenging the meaning of art by using premade objects and turning them into fine art, something he called readymade art. So how do you turn a urinal, or some other premade object, into art? Well, one way is with the use of text.

Text Defines Art

Readymade art is what Marcel Duchamp is probably most remembered for. The goal was to take something that was not art and turn it into art through the belief that it was. In other words, the artist did not create something with their own skill; they simply took something premade and changed the meaning of it. This was a pretty heavy critique of art, which for a long, long time had adhered to very strict rules defining high art in terms of skill and visual beauty. So, how did Marcel Duchamp turn regular things into art? Often, he wrote on them.

Prelude to a Broken Arm

This is a replica of his 1915 Prelude to a Broken Arm. The original has since been lost and was likely thrown out. This is a snow shovel, on which is painted the title of the piece and 'from Marcel Duchamp 1915.' So, what makes this art? Well, an artist signed it, and put it in a gallery! Therefore, it's art!

Text Defies Art

Duchamp did this several times. In 1916 he presented Comb, a dog brush with the words 'Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery.' Most famous of his readymades is this, The Fountain, created in 1917.

The Fountain

It's a urinal, on its side and inscribed with 'R. Mutt 1917.' Some believe that R. Mutt was the pseudonym of a female friend of Duchamp's, others think it was a reference to the popular comic strip Mutt and Jeff, and still others think it was an elaborate pun on the pronunciation of French and German sounds in these words that create the words 'poverty' and 'moneybags.' But between all of these works, the use of text is essentially the same: meaningless! Dadaism, including its unique New York variation, was all about capturing the absurd and nonsensical. And what could make less sense then adding random words onto a piece of art? The use of text highlights Duchamp's common critique that the visual appearance of art means less than its meaning. By making works that were absurd and seemingly arbitrary assortments of things with words, he removed the visual, aesthetic value of art and moved into the conceptual.


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