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III. The Readymade and the Museum

"Institutions and institutionalizing thinking just cannot stand Duchamp's call for continual shifting, reassessing, and scrutinizing." - Kathryn Hixson (16)

"[the Readymades] made it clear that the idea of 'art' was produced contextually... [The Readymade] was a lever that pried open art (and art history) to debates about meaning and context, particularly the question of how art's meaning is derived in large measure from its institutional and linguistic contexts." - Molesworth (51-2)

"... he thought very carefully about the nature of the work of art and how its meaning is shaped by the context in which it is presented." - Buskirk (105)

"The readymades have played a significant role this century in reassessing the processes used by art institutions to classify and validate works of art." - Ades (153)

It has been maintained by critics for decades that, at their core, Duchamp's Readymades are more about concept than object. An endless stream of books and articles point out that the Readymade embodies Duchamp's aim to steer away from "retinal" art and "put art at the service of the mind." This is a point well taken, and is undeniably true. However, most critics become so wrapped up in the philosophy behind the Readymade that they seem to conveniently forget a very important fact: the Readymade is not just a "gesture." The Readymades were, and many continue to exist as, undeniably physical objects in collections around the world.

"Everyday" objects displaced from their normal context, they in effect become more 'physical' than the traditional art objects in the museum by this displacement. The physical museum context of the Readymade needs to be addressed in order to gain more of a sense of what the Readymades are about, and to begin to understand what Duchamp was addressing when he made them, decided to show them as "art," and made replicas of many of them later in life.

Many point out that the original Readymades were initially intended as private objects, not rendered for the museum environment. They filled up his apartment in New York and were essentially artistic 'experiments.' But later on, Duchamp willingly displayed them as art, embracing the controversy such an act sparked. After all, who could forget the Fountain controversy? It is one of the most famous in the history of art.

In the concrete context of the museum, the Readymade questions and ultimately brings about a re-examination of the sanctity of its environment. These art objects question the definition of art, the concept of authorship, and the role of the artist. The museum space being a traditional area in keeping with long-established art historical discourse, it surely did not change its definitions to accommodate the nature of the Readymade. When analyzing Duchamp's works in a museum setting, we are forced to engage with iconoclastic artworks within the very institution that they are arguing against. The fine arts institution treats art objects as if they are precious, prohibiting visitors to touch them or physically interact with them at all. This is what it seems Marcel Duchamp wanted to do when he placed his works within the formal exhibition space, though - to complicate the role of the museum space and the viewer's place within it. Through his Readymades, it seems Duchamp wants to show the viewer that he, too, could be an "artist," and that such a role really is not sacred at all. He tears the artist down from his pedestal, but does so in the very setting that is doing everything possible to keep him there. The tradition of the museum and the revolution of the Readymade fight against one another and the viewer becomes caught in the middle. The spectator cannot pick up, let alone shake, Hidden Noise. The institution denies the visitor the complete experience of such an artwork, as well as that of lifting Why Not Sneeze Rrose Selavy? and spinning Bicycle Wheel, for example.

The overtly quotidian Readymades cause a meshing of the world outside the museum (specifically that of commercial industry) with the objects inside it. The museum itself seems to have lost its traditional, established purpose. It does not stand as a monument to house precious, aesthetically pleasing masterpieces that demonstrate the adept manual skills of a famous artist; it no longer purposely separates them out from the mundane, to protect them and honor them as remarkable accomplishments. Instead, it holds objects remarkably similar to those we have access to outside everyday. They might as well be outside, so why aren't they? What makes them different? The viewer walks away thinking, "But I could do that." This leads to a chain of questions such as, "Then why is he an artist and I am not?" "What really makes that art and the urinal in the men's room not?" As Tomkins notes, "[the Readymades] posed the question What is art? and suggested, quite disturbingly, that it could be anything at all..." (159).

Ultimately, Duchamp wants us to consider this process of "unmaking" the sacrosanct space of the museum. He wants us to be shocked and mystified, and to then begin to ask the questions such a revelation inevitably brings to mind. In this way, by shocking us with overtly everyday objects that don't easily "fit" in their context, and thus making us eyewitness to the very unraveling of the fine art gallery as an institution, Duchamp corners us into questioning the nature of art itself. He has in the end indirectly led us, via an essentially concrete route, to a philosophical end: "putting art at the service of the mind." And so it is here where the concrete museum context meets up with the more intangible art theory. Many historians make the mistake of jumping directly to this point and here beginning an analysis of the Readymade; by ignoring how he got here, the historian is denying himself and his audience the very foundations of Readymade discourse.

At this meeting we can clearly acknowledge the fundamentally dual nature (concrete and immaterial) of the Readymade. On one hand, Duchamp's art pieces are all about the physical. His art occupies the same space we do, and not only in the museum, but at home and in store windows. The Readymades are made of recognizable, often commercial, materials not elevated so as to isolate the viewer. They are glaringly concrete.

At the same time, however, Duchamp also claims that art is all in the mind, and the overt concrete nature of his works in the museum setting indirectly leads the viewer to this philosophical path. Lutticken remarks, "Duchamp's work manages to partake in two opposed tendencies in modern art: the one striving toward realism and the other toward a more spiritual or intellectual art" (5). By questioning the traditional definition of art and the artist, Duchamp made people reconsider them and bring them to the realization that art is an institution wholly defined by social constructs. There is nothing that comes to this world naturally termed as "art." Art is a matter of opinion and perspective, and is defined by its past as well as continuing traditions.

Duchamp decided to challenge and play with this situation. And play he did. If you look at the Readymades closely, you can see that the concrete and philosophical methodologies continuously interact with one other, fighting and agreeing at the same time. The two paths don't simply converge at the destruction of the museum. The Readymades are much more complex than that. They continue to question their very nature. It seems Duchamp purposely made his pieces obtrusively concrete in order to lead the viewer to this realization that they are also very philosophical, and that these two opposite approaches to art can co-exist. By highlighting this co-existence, he demonstrates the essentially ironic nature of art. On a broader level, he is suggesting that all contradictions and harmonies are essentially 'of the same cloth,' and are simply reversals of one another. His Readymades specifically illustrate this complex notion by continuously swinging back and forth between existing as concrete objects as well as theoretical concept. Essentially one in the same at the root, the two ways of looking at the Readymades intermingle and serve as a reflection of Duchamp's love of self-contradiction. As he said himself, "There is an absolute contradiction, but that is what is enjoyable, isn't it?" (Girst 2).

On one hand, more focused on ideas, the Readymades are not concrete at all. However, the situation can easily swing back to the non-concrete notion when one considers that not many originals survive, with many Readymades only existing today as memories, brief statements in his correspondence and notes, or as sketches. Others only continue to "exist" in photographs. Tons of very real, physical replicas of Readymades that emphasize the idea of the modern assembly line are currently on display in museum collections around the world. And the revolving nature of the Readymades continues. As Duchamp explained in a Wallace television interview, the Readymade is "half poetry and half plastic."

As many art historians point out, Duchamp was originally more interested in the Readymades as private artworks. However, he made the choice to turn them public later on and had no real objection to it, but rather enjoyed the outrage they caused. Girst recounts the artist's own opinion on this issue as expressed in a 1961 interview with Katherine Kuh:
"When pressed by his interviewer about the paradox of the readymades having "ended up being 'consumed' in museums and exhibitions, and sold as art objects"... Duchamp replied:
'There is an absolute contradiction, but that is what is enjoyable, isn't it? Bringing in the idea of contradiction, the notion of contradiction, which is something that has never really been used, you see?'" (1).

Clearly, the Readymades are not wholly private pieces. They were "elevated" in a way to become fine art and occupy the museum space fine art does. Perhaps it was not initially intended at their moment of "creation," but this in fact helps to illustrate something else Duchamp believes in strongly - the concept of art exceeding even the artist's expectations.

The Readymade is a "two-edged weapon: if it is transformed into a work of art, it spoils the gesture of desecration; if it preserves its neutrality, it converts the gesture itself into a work" (Paz 27). Either way, they have become fine art and have been accepted into the "traditional" academia of art historical studies. The irony continues...


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