By Caitlin Clay
Marcel Duchamp is considered one of the greatest and most perplexing artists of the 20th century. Even today, the intentions behind his artwork can be unclear. Some of his most fiercely debated pieces are his “readymades,” everyday objects repurposed as artwork. Duchamp began creating the readymades in the early 1900’s, and continued to create them over the next decade. Through his readymades, Duchamp desired to create artwork that would stimulate the viewer’s mind, artwork that was no longer “retinal” but instead “cerebral.” This type of art is more intellectual than the art of past decades. It demands that the viewer think consciously about concepts, such as the definition of art, which the viewer may or may not have considered when viewing artwork previously. Cerebral art does not have to be originally created by the artist nor does it have to display any type of skilled craftsmanship. Rather, cerebral art can be created using unchanged, everyday objects, as long as they fulfill their purpose of intellectually challenging the viewer. Duchamp was also especially cynical about conventions in the art-making process, and desired to create art without commonly used art materials. Thus, he decided to choose manufactured objects, which could be recreated over and over, in order to create the ideal cerebral art piece.
One of the most infamous pieces Duchamp chose was “Fountain.” Despite the fact that Duchamp made several readymades before “Fountain,” it was one of the most disputed of the readymades because of its background. “Fountain” was entered in the first exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists in April 1917. The exhibit’s goal was to allow contemporary American artists to exhibit their artwork uncensored by a jury or decision process. Anyone could join the society for $6 in order to show in the exhibit. Duchamp was a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, as well as a member of the board of directors. For his exhibition piece, Duchamp chose a urinal from the J.L. Mott Iron Works showroom in New York, a company that was a major manufacturer of bathroom fixtures. He turned the urinal on its side, signed it with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” and called the piece “Fountain.” The pseudonym “R. Mutt” is a play on words referring to Mott and adding the “R” for the name Richard, which when translated into French is slang for “money-bags.”
Duchamp submitted the piece, and subsequently caused an uproar among the society’s directors. After a close vote, they banned the piece from the show. Duchamp resigned from the society when he heard the verdict.
By choosing a readymade object, signing it and placing it in the art space, Duchamp essentially redefined the idea of an art object. He dismantled the old definition of art as painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. and replaced it with the idea that commonplace objects can be art. Duchamp’s readymades made and continue to make an impact on the art world and the art viewer. With them, Duchamp was able to influence art in an unprecedented way. Viewing art was no longer simply a retinal experience but an intellectual act.