Marcel Duchamp was a pioneer of Dada, a movement that questioned long-held assumptions about what art should be, and how it should be made. In the years immediately preceding World War I, Duchamp found success as a painter in Paris. But he soon gave up painting almost entirely, explaining, “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.”1
Seeking an alternative to representing objects in paint, Duchamp began presenting objects themselves as art. He selected mass-produced, commercially available, often utilitarian objects, designating them as art and giving them titles. “Readymades,” as he called them, disrupted centuries of thinking about the artist’s role as a skilled creator of original handmade objects. Instead, Duchamp argued, “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”
The readymade also defied the notion that art must be beautiful. Duchamp claimed to have chosen everyday objects “based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste….”2 In doing so, Duchamp paved the way for Conceptual art—work that was “in the service of the mind,”3 as opposed to a purely “retinal” art, intended only to please the eye.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A war fought from 1914 to 1918, in which Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, the United States, and other allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.
A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.
The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).
A form of art, developed in the late 1950s, which involves the creation of an enveloping aesthetic or sensory experience in a particular environment, often inviting active engagement or immersion by the spectator.
An artistic and literary movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and conventional artistic practices during World War I (1914–18). Dada artists were disillusioned by the social values that led to the war and sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness.
Art that emerged in the late 1960s, emphasizing ideas and theoretical practices rather than the creation of visual forms. In 1967, the artist Sol LeWitt gave the new genre its name in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in which he wrote, “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.”
What’s in a Name?
By the early 1900s, Americans were using the term “ready-made” to distinguish manufactured items from those that were handmade. In 1913, when Duchamp designated his first readymade work of art, he appropriated the term.
Questions & Activities
What Makes a Work of Art?
Make a list of your criteria for what art is by considering these questions:
- What should an artwork provide to both the maker and the viewer?
- Who is it for?
- Where does one encounter art?
- What is the role of the artist?
Compare, discuss, and debate your criteria with friends or classmates. Which criteria do you have in common and which do you disagree about?
Do Bicycle Wheel and In Advance of the Broken Arm by Marcel Duchamp meet any of your criteria? Do they challenge your expectations of what a work of art can be? If so, in what ways?
Make Your Own Readymade
Select three objects from your surrounding environment to designate as readymades. Brainstorm a list of titles for your readymades. Display or take snapshots of your readymades along with their titles.
Did wordplay or humor play a role in the titles you selected? How do the titles affect the way these everyday objects are perceived by yourself and others?
Art and Controversy
At the time they were made, works of art like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel were received with controversy. Critics called Duchamp’s readymades immoral and vulgar, even plagiaristic.
Conduct research on a work of art or art exhibition that has recently been met with controversy. Find at least two articles that critique the work or exhibition. Write a 500-word summary of the issues addressed in these articles. What is it about these works that upset, challenge, or offend the critic? Was the controversial reception related to the display or installation, the medium, the scale, the cost, or the location of the work? Do you agree with the critics’ assessment?
Need ideas? Start here.