The Bride & the Bottle Rack | The Nation


The Bride & the Bottle Rack

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The ready-made is not a "found object," or not entirely. Found objects have been selected by artists and others because they have enough visual interest that they can be treated as if they were works of art. By contrast, the ready-mades were selected because of their complete absence of aesthetic interest. "A point which I want very much to establish," Duchamp said in 1961, "is that the choice of these ready-mades was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste...in fact a complete anesthesia." No one can differentiate one metal grooming comb from another by aesthetic criteria--they are all alike. So no one can have good or bad taste in grooming combs. And this will be true of the ready-mades as a class. There can, one feels, have been no concept of ready-mades before the advent of mass production, so the ready-made falls outside the scope of craft. Industrial production minimized difference and maximized efficiency. (Duchamp famously said that modern plumbing was America's greatest contribution to human happiness.) Much of what we are surrounded by is ready-made, like nails and screws, coat hangers and toothpicks, any one of which could have been a ready-made, given the criterion of aesthetic indifference. Duchamp's brilliance lay in putting the question of why not ready-made art--art that could be picked up at the supermarket, costing no more than an accessory for dog owners or home brewers?

About the Author

Arthur C. Danto
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army...

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With this, Duchamp closed the gap between art and craft, for he demonstrated that painting and sculpture, through their handedness, were in the end examples of craft, exactly like pottery or basketwork. We respond, among other things, to the artist's touch. The real contrast puts handedness on one side and intellect on the other. Duchamp spoke with contempt of "olfactory artists," in love with the smell of paint. Little matter if they were in love with the smell of sawdust or of wet clay. For him, the work of art was an embodied idea. He envisioned an art into the making of which neither eye nor hand played any role, but only the operation of principled choice.

Duchamp proclaimed the end of painting when he visited an aeronautical exhibition with Léger and Brancusi in 1912. They were admiring an airplane propeller. How could painting hope to rival an object as elegant as it was powerful? Before 1920, shaped hardwood was the standard material for propellers, and this would almost certainly have been a matter of handwork, hence craft. So propellers would have made poor examples of ready-mades. They looked like abstract sculptures. The hero of Antonioni's Blow-Up bought just such a propeller as a "found" decorative object for his flat. This would not have happened to a true ready-made. It ought, if true to type, never to acquire any aesthetic interest whatever. Its interest would be exclusively philosophical.

There is some controversy as to the correct inventory of Duchamp's ready-mades, but the majority belong to the period 1913 through 1917, when he made his notorious effort to exhibit a urinal with the Society of Independent Artists in New York, using the assumed name of R. Mutt. Even though there was no jury, Fountain, as he titled it, was turned down by the hanging committee on the grounds that, while any work of art was welcome to be shown, this was not a work of art. Having provoked that distinction was in some ways Duchamp's greatest contribution to twentieth-century art and the ultimate vindication of the ready-made. It made the problem of defining art a part of every piece of art made since then. "A ready-made is a work of art without an artist to make it," Duchamp said. At the very least, the philosophical definition of art can eliminate, along with aesthetics (what meets the eye), the necessity of being made by an artist (the presence of the hand).

How the nullification of the artist's hand and eye is to be reconciled with La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, widely considered Duchamp's masterpiece, has never been entirely clear. The work seems labor-intensive in a way quite at odds with the no-eye/no-hand philosophy of the ready-made. In 1915, the year he began the laborious execution of the Large Glass, Duchamp bought an ordinary snow shovel, which he titled In Advance of the Broken Arm. So the Glass and the ready-mades were pretty much contemporary with one another. But the Glass appears to contradict the spirit of the ready-made. Its execution, for example, was painstaking: Like a tapestry-maker, Duchamp used a cartoon--a full-scale drawing--fixed to the face of a pane of glass, which he worked on from behind. Henderson suggests that Duchamp might have preferred to think of himself as an engineer, working from a blueprint, constructing some kind of scientific apparatus. Whatever the case, he "drew" the outlines with lead wire, attached to the glass by drops of varnish. And he filled them in with metal foil. It was, Calvin Tomkins writes, "a slow tedious process, and after two hours of it he was usually ready to quit for the day." It is recorded that Duchamp often stepped back to eyeball his handiwork. Questions of interpretation aside, the Large Glass seems all hand and eye. It is dense with the attributes of craft. It could hardly be an object of aesthetic indifference, though Duchamp claimed that "the glass in the end was not made to be looked at (with 'aesthetic eyes')." So what was Duchamp's overall philosophical view of art in the period that saw both the Large Glass and most of the ready-mades?

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