In 1913, Dada artist Marcel Duchamp had, as he later remembered, the “happy idea” to affix a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool “and watch it turn.”
The resulting piece, aptly called Bicycle Wheel, became his first “readymade” work of art. Duchamp coined the term to encompass his newly-invented genre—where everyday items could be refashioned as art. As he wrote in 1913: “Can one make works which are not works of art?”
What Makes a Readymade “Art”?
Marcel Duchamp was interested in pushing the boundaries of what counts as art, commenting on and critiquing politics, and making audiences laugh and find their own interpretations of his work. He spent his career slyly contradicting the art establishment, and exploring the idea that art doesn’t need to rely on aesthetic or technical skill—the “retinal” aspects of art, as he called it.
Duchamp’s take on art was also significant for Fluxus, a mid-century art movement that emphasized humor, rejected elitism, and valued the processes of artistic creation and related activities over the finished product. Multiples [or boxes] and prints by Duchamp are featured in Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive, a new exhibition now on view at the Getty Center in the Getty Research Institute.
With readymades, Duchamp posited that artists don’t necessarily have to “make” an object. They can choose to designate an object as art (Duchamp favored mass-produced items, like a kitchen stool). In selecting the object, removing it from its intended function, sometimes giving it a name, and installing it, the artist gives the object a new meaning, encourages audiences to consider the object in a fresh way beyond its original purpose, and challenges assumptions about what art can be.
For example, the wheel in Bicycle Wheel was transformed from a functional object to a “soothing, very comforting” piece that Duchamp said he “enjoyed looking at, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”
How to Make a Readymade
Readymade art consists of a single mass-produced object, like a snow shovel, that the artist has decided to designate as art. The objects are functional, designed for a purpose, not created as art, nor considered attractive. Most importantly, they not reconstructed or altered from their original state. Readymade art is different than found art, which also utilizes non-art objects. But found objects don’t need to be mass-produced or have a particular function, and can be altered and combined with other objects and artistic mediums.
The artist must also give the object a name. Some readymade art features titles that reflect the original object, like Jean Brown’s Le mug racque (The mug rack) which she intended as an humorous homage to Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914). Others take a more humorous approach—he titled a snow shovel In Advance of the Broken Arm (1913).
Finally, the artist must decide where and how to display the object. The artist could flip the object around, hang it on a wall, or display it next to another object (For example, Duchamp displayed one of his readymades, a urinal, under mistletoe!). Depending on how you choose to display the object, you can change how the spectator perceives the object and what they think it means.
The Most Famous Readymade
Duchamp’s most famous (and most controversial) readymade, Fountain (1917), is a urinal that Duchamp signed “R. Mutt 1917” (a reference to a comic strip called Mutt and Jeff). An anonymous editorial published in 1917 in The Blind Man, an avant-garde magazine Duchamp published with two friends, describes Fountain as follows:
“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, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view–created a new thought for that object.”
The readymade genre influenced artists for years to come, showing how humor, everyday objects, and interactions with these objects have an important place in the art world.
Create Your Readymade Artwork
Want to create your own work of art inspired by Marcel Duchamp? Choose a mass-produced item, give it an interesting name, place it artfully, then take a photo of it. The most important rule to remember is that the choice of the object itself is the creative act.