Readymade and The Found Object - History and Concepts
After the horrors of the First World War, many artists, writers, and intellectuals started to question every aspect of their culture that had allowed it to occur. Artists started to think about how technology, consumerism, art, and politics were all interrelated. Romanian-French poet Tristan Tzara noted, "The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust." Artists and writers such as Tzara, Hugo Ball, Man Ray, Hannah Höch and Max Ernst decided that the only way to respond to these realizations was through irreverent and (potentially) nonsensical works. Dada artists used techniques such as collage, assemblage, and photomontage to form their works, creating new linguistic and visual languages that attempted to exist outside the rigid structures of contemporary society. The term Dada itself, though contested in origin, is said to come from its meaning of both 'Yes, yes' in Romanian and 'rocking horse' in French, demonstrating its transnational origins. The Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich Switzerland was an early hangout for Dada artists, but the movement soon spread to Paris and then to New York.
The Found Object
The phrase "found object" is a direct translation from the French "objets trouves," meaning everyday objects inserted into an art context thus transformed from non-art to art. Though found objects had been associated with the art world pre-1900s, they were mostly included as pieces of overall collections such as in Victorian taxonomy, or in cabinets of "curiosities." It wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that artists started incorporating them into their work. Pablo Picasso is widely considered to have produced the first piece of art to incorporate found materials when, in 1912, he used the back of a chair as part of Still Life with Chair Caning. The piece was also considered one of the first collages of Synthetic Cubism. By incorporating this material into his work, Picasso began to break down the barrier distinctions between art and real life by demonstrating that art is always produced from real life.
However, it was French-American artist Marcel Duchamp who took the found object to new heights in his theorizing of the readymade. Duchamp is understood to be the initiator of the readymade, though the term was already in use much earlier to denote objects made through manufacturing processes. He had been painting since 1904 and studied at the Academie Julien in Paris between 1904-5. His early works show the influence of Cubism and looked forward to the work of Futurists: his Nude Descending the Staircase (1912), for example, attempted to show the body in motion, suggesting the static and the active through fragmented lines.
However, that same year, Duchamp began to move away from painting, rejecting what he termed "retinal art." He started developing the idea of the readymade after he placed a bike wheel on a stool one day in his studio, and from there experimented with other forms including either objects he selected on their own or adapted or changed in some small way. For Duchamp, the readymade is in direct conversation with industry and manufacturing: by taking mass-made objects and elevating them by putting them in new contexts and defining them as art, he questions the very process through which something becomes art in the first place.
His most famous readymade came in 1917 when Duchamp submitted The Fountain, a plain porcelain urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists for their show of modern art under the pseudonym of "R. Mutt." Duchamp was part of the Board of the Society and the piece created much debate amongst its members about its status as art. An emergency meeting rendered it a reject and it was hidden from view in the show.
Duchamp was furious with this decision and in the following month, using a pseudonym, wrote a piece in The Blind Man, the magazine that he co-edited, in order to defend the work. He wrote: "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - and created a new thought for that object." In this statement, Jonathan Jones finds a new starting point for art in the 20th century, noting, "It's as if contemporary art history begins with him." Though he only made thirteen readymades, this groundbreaking work set up the foundation for the field of Conceptual Art by seeking to redefine the possibilities of art, in that art was not something merely to be enjoyed visually but that it could, instead, encompass ideas and process.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Though Duchamp is often credited as the creator of the readymade concept, the German artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is now also thought of as an equal pioneer. Loringhoven traveled throughout Europe, moving in bohemian artist circles and working in various jobs as a waitress, a chorus girl, a performance artist, and later a model for photographers. But it was in America that she began to develop as an artist. In New York she met and married Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven, leading to her nickname “The Baroness”. She made her first piece with a found object in 1913, a rusted metal ring, which she called Enduring Ornament. The Baroness went on to make other works, including her collaboration with Morton Livingston Schamberg entitled God, in the same year as Duchamp's Fountain. Via these powerful personalities the readymade became a way through which one could challenge society's norms and expectations, providing a means of exploring the commodification of aesthetics.
Readymade and Surrealism
Duchamp's work was extremely influential in both art theory and practice and influenced many of his contemporaries and friends. André Breton, one of the proponents of Surrealism, used and wrote about the found object and the readymade as ways to disrupt thinking and trigger the unconscious. In contrast to Duchamp, Breton explored society's identification of the object via an essay in 1937 entitled "The Crisis of the Object." He wanted to rethink the way that humans interacted with objects in general, and how through techniques like estrangement or assemblage, new associations could be generated. Salvador Dalí's Lobster Telephone aimed to reveal unconscious associations and desires through the juxtaposition of a telephone and a plaster cast lobster. As well as being immediately amusing and challenging, the combination appeared to reference the language of dreams, in which new combinations of objects and ideas become commonplace.
Concepts and Styles
While repurposing existing objects into new artistic contexts, one of the most vexing issues readymade artists face is the question of originality. What is an original piece of art? How much effort does an artist have to put into a work for us to say it is a unique work of art? Can an artist truly claim ownership of a work of art if it already existed outside of his or her co-option of the object? These are just some of the questions readymades provoke. They also engage with questions about our relationships with familiar objects on a daily basis. By placing them in an art context we are sometimes led to see how much we take for granted that which is in front of our eyes every day.
For some critics, the idea of the readymades in and of themselves are controversial because sometimes the original works, which have been lost or damaged or worn by time, have been remade by the artists themselves or by galleries. Bicycle Wheel (1913), for example, Duchamp's first readymade, has been remade three times, while the originals of many others have been lost altogether. However, in their remaking, these pieces ask even more profound questions about originality: can we still say that this is the same work as originally displayed? What does it do to the value of art if we can simply remake a lost work?
Humor and Visual Puns
Humor and play were regular themes in readymades, and artists often included jokes or visual puns into their work. As with Dadaism, Duchamp's work sought to subvert cultural norms and play with sense and meaning. His work L.H.O.O.Q (1919) combines a visual and verbal pun: the title when read aloud in French reads "elle a chaud au cul" meaning "she has a hot ass" and the image reflects a moustache and goatee, pencil-drawn onto a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The work is a playful take on one of the Renaissance's most revered works and articulates a new artistic intention to excavate new meanings from old objects, be they everyday articles or works of great import. Humor is central in this approach, as it seeks to find new ways to think about expression and art-making.
Aesthetics and Taste
Readymades also play with the idea of aesthetic taste and choice. We traditionally view art in the context of a gallery as a purchasable item to be bought and displayed. Readymades challenge the idea of art as decorative by incorporating or using objects that are not identified as beautiful in any immediate sense. In doing this, the readymade implies that a work of art is not merely an aesthetic object. Duchamp suggested that in order to create a readymade one had to have an "indifferent taste," in which one could put aside their normal criteria for beauty and try to engage with the object in a radically new way. By divorcing art from personal or subjective taste, Duchamp paved the way for Conceptual Art, in which ideas took precedence over the final aesthetic of the piece.
In seeking to select mass-produced objects, Duchamp and other artists considered the relationship between art and technology and industry. The 20th century saw a radical shift in the way that objects were made through increased mechanization and the roll out of factories across the world. Mass production encourages the population to consider objects in terms of their function as opposed to beauty. Yet via readymades, artists could encourage their viewers to rethink these objects and consider them for their aesthetic beauty rather than their pre-defined purpose.
The Readymade and Neo-Dada
The readymade was used often in the late 20th century by artists whose work engaged with postmodernism, aiming to critique mass cultural production. Many young artists in America embraced the theories and ideas espoused by Duchamp. Robert Rauschenberg in particular was very influenced by Dadaism and tended to use found objects in his collages as a means of dissolving the boundary between high and low culture. His First Landing Jump (1961), riffed on Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel with its inclusion of a tire, while also speaking to the car-obsessed culture of 1960s America. He, along with others, became known as Neo-Dadaists through their adoption of humor, play, and critique of popular culture and aesthetic taste.
Other Neo-Dadaists such as Joseph Beuys and Jasper Johns responded to the ideas of Duchamp through their creations of work that disrupted or challenged the relationship between art object and gallery space. Johns' sculptures Lightbulb and Flashlight (both 1958) hearken back to Duchamp's disruptive aims, while also looking backwards to artistic craft and process. Johns bought both objects, and then sculpted them into a base using metal. The works became composite readymade sculptures, further problematizing the idea of creation, taste, and originality.
Readymades would lay important ground for Conceptual Art in that they allowed artists to consider and refine the presentation of an idea in itself as a work of art. They would also go on to influence contemporary artists, most dramatically seen both in the Pop Art that emerged in the 1960s, which appropriated everyday images from popular culture and elevated them into the annals of visual art, and the Neo Geo movement which turned its spotlight on everyday objects of mass production and consumerism.
Young British Artists
In the late 80s and early 90s, the readymade took new form through a group of artists who became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs). These artists, such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Rachel Whiteread, were infamous for shocking work that sold for very high prices. They also often looked toward mass-produced items from popular culture, or ubiquitous objects from everyday life, and experimented with placing them in new contexts. They were inspired by Duchamp's idea of "selection" and "taste," in which an object only becomes art through the artist's coining it art. The most famous readymade from this era is probably Tracey Emin's My Bed, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize. Emin received much criticism because people thought the work (her actual bed and the mess around it) was lazy and did not show any artistic skill. In response to claims that anyone could make this work, Emin responded, "Well, they didn't, did they? No one had ever done that before."