Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
When is a lamp just a lamp and when is it art? What about a chair? Art or everyday furniture? Sometimes, it can be hard to draw the line between what is and is not art. And that's where we find Marcel Duchamp, an early 20th-century artist interested in challenging the definition of art. Duchamp was the champion of twisting that question, 'what is art?', and playing with the very limits of good taste. He is most noted for his readymade art, which were everyday objects that were made into fine art by the belief that they were fine art. In a way, this was like insta-art. In the same way that you just add water and in 30 seconds get instant rice, all you need is to add the belief that this is art and voila! The most commonplace of objects can become fine art.
The Significance of Readymade Art
So, let's make some readymade art. Take a coffee cup, sign a name to it, and place it on its side. Now, put it on a pedestal and cover it with a glass case. See what you just did? You just made art! But how? Well, what you did is you took an everyday, useful object, and you removed its usefulness. By taking away its function, you turned the item into art. See where this is going?
Duchamp was interested in challenging the meaning of art and pointed out that art is inherently useless. Art does not have a function beyond being art. You can't use art, not in the way you use a cup or a table or a lamp. Its value is intellectual and emotional but not functional. This idea would become very important throughout the rest of the 20th century. But while other movements took this idea fairly seriously, readymades were always defined by a sense of whimsy, nonsense, and foolishness.
When Duchamp began searching for a way to express this, back around 1914, his immediate goal was to challenge the supremacy of what he called retinal art, or 'art that was purely visual'. So, he started looking for objects of visual indifference, things so commonplace that you hardly noticed they were there. The more insignificant an object was, the greater the transformation into fine art. He called these pieces readymades, which at the time was a term used in the clothing industry to differentiate between factory-made and homemade clothes. Readymade clothes were produced in a factory, so Duchamp used this term to illustrate that he did not make any of these pieces, all he did was slightly alter them and thus turn them into art. In Duchamp's own words, the readymades were 'a form of denying the possibility of defining art'. So it's art that destroys the definition of art. Way to go Marcel.
Famous Works of Readymade Art
Duchamp's first attempt at a readymade sculpture was Bottle Rack in 1914. Duchamp literally went out to a department store in Paris, bought a wine rack, and called it art. His sister Suzanne ended up throwing it away while she was house-sitting because she thought the empty, dusty bottle rack was trash. Replicas have since been made and are displayed in several museums.
A somewhat more successful piece was Prelude to a Broken Arm, debuted in 1915. This piece is a snow shovel that Duchamp bought during his first trip to the United States. He painted the title of the piece and his name on the side of it and hung it from a wire in his studio. It was the first readymade to really be fully finished, and several replicas were made for various museums, which is something that is very possible to do with readymade art. However, once again the art was mistaken for a still-useful object and one of the replicas was used to actually shovel snow outside the gallery in Chicago.
But now we arrive at what was by far Duchamp's most famous piece of readymade art. The Fountain, created in 1917, is a porcelain urinal purchased from a hardware store, laid on its side, and painted with the words R. Mutt 1917. R. Mutt may have been a female friend of Duchamp, who was likely involved in the creation of this piece, although both the title and inscription of this piece are still a source of debate.
Art historians consider this a major moment in defining modern art, as this was the first readymade to really be acknowledged. Although it was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists, other independents recognized it for its unique boldness. Some interpreted The Fountain as a challenge to make art that was less visual and more intellectual. Others saw a clear link between the function of a urinal and Duchamp's opinion of fine art. Regardless, The Fountain helped establish the Dada movement in America, a European style devoted to challenging the meaning of art, and essentially created the idea of conceptual art, which is art that has more intellectual than visual value. The idea that an artist did not need to skillfully create art as much as give an object artistic meaning grew to be extremely important throughout the rest of the century. And all because of a urinal.
The early 20th-century French artist Marcel Duchamp decided to challenge the very meaning of art, and thus created readymade art. Readymades are premade, everyday objects slightly altered and labeled as fine art. These pieces take commonplace things and elevate them to the highest intellectual standards, forcing the audience to question the meaning of art.
Readymade art was very significant as some of the first conceptual art, art with more intellectual than visual value, and helped establish fine art as being less about the skill of the artist to create something than the ability to make it mean something. The most famous of the readymade pieces is The Fountain, a urinal on its side and painted with the words R. Mutt 1917. Readymade art forced the artistic community to redefine art, but this doesn't mean that sometimes a chair isn't just a chair. It all depends on how you use it.
The intended result of this video is to help you to:
- Describe what readymade art is
- Discuss the significance of readymade art
- Explain who developed readymade art and why
- Recall where the term 'readymade' came from
- Examine famous works of readymade art
- Recognize the lasting impact of readymade art on art as a whole
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The Significance & Famous Works of Readymade Art Quiz
Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.
What was a common fate of many of Duchamp's early pieces of readymade art?
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