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I. Towards a Definition

"The curious thing about the Readymade is that I've never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me." - Marcel Duchamp (Tomkins 159)

The complexity of the deceivingly simple-looking Readymade has challenged many over the past century. Trying to pin down the collection of Readymades into a workable body of pieces, many have attempted to separate them into different categories according to their relative degrees of "purity." The formation of such a scale on which to rate the readymades requires a basis for comparison, a point from which to gage degrees of variation: namely, a comprehensive definition of the readymade. This has posed a clear challenge.

Andre Breton proposed the following definition: "manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of objects of art through the choice of the artist" (Schwarz 44). However, this explanation proves to be too broad and does not address the irony, humor, and linguistic puns (among other things) at the core of the readymade concept. It also does not account for Duchamp's opinion that the readymades really aren't "art" in a traditional sense, but rather suggests that through designation they become traditional art.

There is in fact no one, clear definition of the Readymade. As Schwarz notes, "What is needed is not so much a single definition as a series of definitions" (44). Throughout his life, Marcel Duchamp purposely avoided clearly defining the term in any detail, and succeeded in passing away and leaving his collection of art objects to a world lacking a lucid sense of what they mean, what their intentions were, and really, in the simplest terms, what they are. Rightfully so, Kramer poses the question, "Has any other modern artist ever given so many interviews about such a small number of objects without revealing anything very definite about their meaning or intention?" (6). It seems Nesbit indirectly answers his question when she discusses Duchamp's approach to interviewing: "The interview was a form Duchamp would accept and not try to dominate, but typically he would bend it at some point before the end. Authoritive voices, just like authoritive concepts would be shown something of their place" ("Last Words" 551). Apparently Duchamp put more effort into trying to put the interviewer in his place than answering the questioning asked. After reading or listening to a Duchamp interview, one leaves intellectually stimulated, but still with very few real answers.

Art historians have spent much time and effort trying to formulate a real "definition" for the Readymade. However, as Ratcliff points out, "...[interpretations] do not take into account the readymade 's indifference to the task of offering a coherent significance" (86).

In an interview, Marcel Duchamp described the Readymade as a form of "denying the possibility of defining art." This summarizes the situation well. In essence, the Readymade embodies the idea of denying a definition for art. If we accept the Readymade as a piece of art (which of course is a complicated question in itself), then we can say that the Readymade is the physical manifestation of the refusal of defining itself. In fact, Duchamp refuses the notion of an "absolute" in his Readymades overall. As Adcock notes, "Duchamp doubted that absolute meaning or judgment was attainable" (73).

It seems that Duchamp did not want the viewer to understand the Readymades right away, or perhaps ever. This becomes evident in interviews with the artist and his friends. Duchamp always managed to deny, or skirt around his intentions. No one wholly 'gets it.' We might die trying, but ultimately no one will wholly understand it. But that is good; it seems that is what Duchamp would have wanted. He himself often spoke as if he hadn't thought of lots of aspects of the readymades that the interviewers addressed, playing on the idea that even the artist himself doesn't know everything about the works. The question is, then, how could the viewer be expected to? When Elizabeth Armstrong asked Bruce Conner, "What questions come to mind when you think of Duchamp?" in a 1994 interview, he responded simply, "No. The question is whether you can understand Duchamp" (57).

The Readymade's function, over anything else, is to make the viewer think. As Duchamp stated in a 1968 interview with Francis Roberts, "They look trivial, but they're not. On the contrary, they represent a much higher degree of intellectuality" (Roberts 62). They are highly philosophical and belong to a high academic world, yet they have their roots in the commercial world of you and I. Duchamp directly dodged "defining" the Readymades for so long because there is no one definition. They do a great number of different things on varying levels. They are essentially an idea; yet exist as glaringly physical objects. They are functional objects meant for motion, but cannot be touched in the museum environment. They are a paradox, and they insist on refusing definition. Duchamp always said that the spectator is who really decides what a piece of art was, and with the Readymade he illustrates this clearly. As Paz notes, "The essence of the act is contradiction; it is the plastic equivalent of the pun. As the latter destroys meaning, the former destroys the idea of value" (22).

Almost always entering the discussion of Duchamp's Readymades is the often-misunderstood term of "anti-art." It is a rather common misconception that the Readymades are "anti-art." Duchamp himself "clarifies" this issue (as much as a man who embraces contradiction and marvels at complexity and paradox can really pin something down) in the following excerpt:

"No, no the word 'anti' annoys me a little, because whether you are anti or for, it's two sides of the same thing. And I would like to be completely - I don't know what you say - nonexistent, instead of being for or against… The idea of the artist as a sort of superman is comparatively recent. This I was going against. In fact, since I've stopped my artistic activity, I feel that I'm against this attitude of reverence the world has. Art, etymologically speaking, means to 'make.' Everybody is making, not only artists, and maybe in coming centuries there will be a making without the noticing" (Judovitz 110).

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