April 18, 2014

Always Alreadymade: Found Object or Readymade?

Now that submissions are starting to roll in on our "Call for Entries" for Readymade@100 at AU's Katzen Arts Center, some definitions are in order before the deluge. In unpacking "what constitutes a readymade" in 2014, 100 years after Duchamp's first object was tagged with the name, there are two art terms that should be examined, both for general readers of this site and, most urgently, for those artists out there who plan to submit their "new readymades." 

The easier of the two terms is assemblage, which is essentially a three-dimensional collage composed of objects instead of flat materials like paper or photographs. Assemblage in art (not to be confused with MIT's now defunct architectural theory journal or the on-line collaborative for "real-time connectedness") can be made from natural or man-made objects, is labor-intensive, sculptural and an additive process to develop form. As such, it is far from the essence of a readymade, even though it is sometimes constructed of found objects.  

That's the thornier of the two art terms, the found object, or objet trouvé. The difficulty arises because some art historians, scholars, critics and curators throughout the 20th Century have exasperatingly continued to classify found objects as readymades, and conversely, confuse readymades with found objects.

True, readymades must be found first but let us be clear: it was Marcel Duchamp who definitively established the manufactured, mass-produced, commodity object as a readymade, first using the term in 1914. As will be mentioned often during the next four months leading up to the September 6th opening of Readymade@100, it was Duchamp's choice that defined his act as an artistic one. Furthermore, Duchamp's engagement with the context of an art exhibition (Society of Independent Artists, 1917) by entering his readymade Fountain (subsequently rejected) that sparked over a century of debate about the definition of art and what constitutes an artwork. 

At this juncture, and again I stress "before the deluge," I simply want to offer Margaret Iversen's distinguished essay, "Readymade, Found Object, Photograph." Let this serve as evidence of the complexities of the associative "unconscious" designation of the objet trouvé:

"The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object in circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to [Andre] Breton's positioning the found object in a different space -- the space of the unconscious. [...] The object found as if by chance is situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious, and thus has a peculiar, elusive relation to vision. The space occupied by the found object is carved out by traumatic experience, defined precisely as an experience that has failed to achieve a representation, but on which, nonetheless, one’s whole existence depends. I will argue that this object calls attention to itself by creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception. This may sound as though I'm contrasting the found object with the readymade in terms of a subjectivity/anti-subjectivity polarity, but the matter is not so simple. The traumatic subject is not the personal self that was so strenuously avoided in the tradition of disinterested art. Both that tradition and Surrealism were interested in the displacement of the artist’s agency."(1)

With both found objects and readymades requiring "little intervention" from the artist we can perhaps see the confusion between the two. However, Iversen's emphasis on the "traumatic experience" that allows the subject to find an object that visualizes the "hole in the fabric of normal perception" distinguishes the found object as an unconscious selection. Moreover, Iversen cites Breton's Mad Love (1937) for later influencing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's retooling of the Freudian trauma as a "Surrealist encounter," to crystalize her distinction between found object and readymade: 

"The found object is encountered and the effect is traumatic. The contrast between the Duchampian rendezvous and the Bretonian encounter should now be clear. While the readymade is essentially indifferent, multiple, and mass-produced, the found object is essentially singular or irreplaceable, and both lost and found."(2)

How will this figure in my curatorial consideration of your "new readymade" submissions? Instead of requesting a psychoanalyst to accompany my review of the Readymade@100 image submissions, I will have to trust my visceral response to each of the objects that I regard. The possibility that a mass-produced, commodity object may fulfill an artist's "singular or irreplaceable" traumatic need is obviously very real. Certainly, I do not wish to miss such a delightful object as Breton's little wooden spoon that he found in a Paris flea market, and whose delicious mystery Man Ray's evocative photograph, reproduced above, only slightly captures.

IMAGE: "From a little spoon that was part of it..." (1934); photograph by Man Ray, published in Andre Breton, Mad Love. Copyright 2004, Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London. 


1. Iversen, Margaret. "Found Object, Readymade, Photograph" in Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2; Summer 2004; 48-49.

2. Ibid., 50.


Anonymous said...

For this exhibition, it would be most helpful to see a few examples of "readymade" and "found" objects, to make sure we "get" the difference.

M L Van Nice said...

I'm kind of flummoxed by this. I have no particular argument with either Breton or Iversen (for or against), but in what scheme does psychoanalytic interpretation apply to some action and not others? If it is an unconscious dynamic that compels the finding of the found object, then, to most disciples of the psychoanalytic, it is an equally unconscious thought that compels the selection of the readymade. I think there is a distinction here without a difference.
The great man would be spitting tacks, or at least having a laugh, that such academic niggling would be afflicting his work


Regarding these parameters, it would seem for example the work of artist Brian Jungen, who uses multiple readymades to create new forms, would be rejected. Can you clarify that you are seeking single unmodified forms? In addition, would any presentation device, such as framing, mounting on canvas or sculpture pedestal, etc. be considered an alteration to the object and also be disqualified? Can you please clarify?

Jon Oberg said...

Regarding these parameters, it would seem for example the work of artist Brian Jungen, who uses multiple readymades to create new forms, would be rejected. Can you clarify that you are seeking single unmodified forms? In addition, would any presentation, such as framing, mounting on canvas, pedestal, etc. be considered an alteration to the object and also be disqualified? Can you please clarify?

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Not meaning to be unnecessarily vague but I thought this "example" issue was addressed a couple of weeks ago here: http://theorynow.blogspot.com/2014/05/a-teachable-moment.html

With respect, isn't it up to the artist to decide/conceptualize what to submit? Artists are not supposed to be that concerned about acceptance one way or another, are they?

I believe there will be "correct" readymades as well as those that have "missed the mark" among my selections. Again, a critical evaluation of MD's influential "choice" will be best approached through such "contradictions" as evidenced in 21st Century interpretations of his readymade idea.