The readymade needs to die, just like the term “white cube.” Both have become catch-all terms that lack any specific reference to their original source. Discussions of the objet trouvé are relevant only if they refer to Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) or things that, like Fountain, were mass-produced and then, with very little mediation on the artist’s part, placed into an art context. My problems with using the term “readymade” (in gallery press-releases, art historical writing, blog posts, etcetera):
- There’s no similarity between how the term is used today with either Duchamp’s intention or Fountain‘s infamous story. Readymades now refer to anything that wouldn’t immediately be thought of as art and then putting it in a gallery.
- Why are we still determining whether or not something is art or non-art? I don’t see anything at stake with this conversation in current practice. The use of non-art objects in art has become such a standard practice that any conversation about the shocking relevancy of the readymade would make you seem like you’ve been asleep for half a century.
Two main groups like to drop the readymade bomb—galleries and art historians. Galleries love to drop the Duchamp brand because dealers can try to convince clients of an artist’s worth just by mentioning the mouthwatering response readymade. Most Art Historians aren’t interested in what artists are making in Bushwick studios, most of whom rarely wake up with Duchamp on the brain.
I was on the train this morning, reading one of my roommates’ books, Art Historian and critic Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art (2004). I’m so over discussions about the end of art, especially ones published within the 21st century because it’s so late in the conversation. The following passage made me so angry that I began audibly grumbling to myself on the train:
Clearly the readymade has a double meaning…a Gordian knot that no intellectual sword can cut. Simultaneously an art and non-art object, the readymade has no fixed identity. Regarded as art, it spontaneously reverts to non-art….The readymade always outsmarts the spectator, outwitting his interpretation of it, suggesting that it has no social value. It is absurd and tasteless—beyond good and bad taste because it is absurd.
My main problem with Kuspit’s writing on the readymade? His version of the readymade is so unspecific that he could have said any number of things.
Let’s substitute the word “readymade” for “painting” or “Internet”:
Clearly the painting has a double meaning. Simultaneously an art and non-art object, the painting has no fixed identity.
Clearly the Internet has a double meaning. Simultaneously an art and non-art object, the Internet has no fixed identity.
Paintings are physical things in-the-world, but they also exist as ephemeral images on Tumblrs, gallery websites, and blogs. The Internet, too, is a physical thing at the same time it exists as an almost invisible mediator. A thing, existing as an image, is in constant circulation from one state to another. Kuspit and his discussion of the readymade is so black-and-white and doesn’t allow any room for context to influence whether we consider something art or not.
The next time you read a review, press release, or essay that references the readymade, feel free to have them contact me directly — or at least send them this post.