Ready Made ArtIn a recent, ongoing discussion of the part words play in making art, a friend lamented how some people "...simply choose a random object (with or without shock value) and explain why it is art and other people with more money than brains give them lots of money to do it again." He went on to mention as an example in passing, the turning of a common, everyday urinal into an art object, explaining with enough shrewdly conceived words to fill a small comic book, its significance as an "object d' art." Is this hucksterism or "important" art? My friend seemed especially incensed that such items took up important museum and/or gallery space and more than that, often involved sizeable amounts of money as this type of art is purchased by private individuals with, as he puts it, more money than brains. (Interesting how controversial art often doesn't become controversial until there's big money involved.)
What we're talking about is an object lesson. The urinal mentioned, I assume, refers to Marcel Duchamp's controversial anonymous entry into the 1913 New York Armory Art Show, of a "ready made" porcelain fixture from the men's room which he entitled Fountain, signing it "R. Mutt." The whole purpose of the exercise was to stretch the definition of art to the utmost and see what happened. Well, even the most liberal of the selection committee, while perhaps as fascinated as they were perplexed by the audacity of the entry, nonetheless rejected it, but not before Duchamp (who was also a member of the committee) and others had their chance to argue its validity as a piece of art and no doubt the very definition of art itself.
Picasso, later welded bicycle handlebars to a metal bicycle seat, which he had cast in bronze. He called it Bull's Head. Ever since then sculptors especially, have been fastening together various and sundry flotsam and jetsam of society or (in extreme cases) merely "selecting" individual items, which they declare to be art. As I implied before, it's not the object itself that is art, but the "object lesson," the idea that is art, the object simply being an illustration used to support that idea. Taken out of its usual context, placed on a pedestal or upon a sterile, white, gallery wall, and given a clever titled of from one to one hundred words, the object or objects take on a new existence given them by their creator. Think about it this way. Paint is not art. Stone is not art. Urinals are not art. However, taking any of the above and changing them in some way, sometimes ever so slightly as with the urinal (it was laid on its back rather than hung on the wall) isolating it with a frame or pedestal, giving it a title, and the result is art. It may not always be "good" art, but it's nonetheless art, especially if the artist is using it to help say something important.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
11 August 1999