The Null Device

The ready-mades that weren't

The Dadaist/Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp was best known for his "ready-mades"; mundane, mass-produced objects recontextualised into art by virtue of being presented as such. Duchamp's ready-mades were shocking at the time, challenging what "art" was, and paved the way for the conceptual artists of the 20th century. Now, however, an artist named Rhonda Roland Shearer claims to have the proof that the ready-mades weren't; that, far from picking up manufactured items and effortlessly transforming them into "art", Duchamp actually went to considerable effort to produce objects which were almost—but not exactly—identical to mass-manufactured objects. Shearer supports her thesis with research into the practicality of these items, or minor differences between them and the manufactured goods they were purported to be.
Duchamp's readymade glass ampoule, which he named ''50 cc of Paris Air,'' is larger than any that would have been readily available to pharmacists. (And she has a tape of a man from Corning Glass saying so.)
The readymade snow shovel, which now exists only in photographs and replicas, ''would hurt your hand'' if you tried to use it, Ms. Shearer says, because it has a square shaft. And it doesn't have the normal reinforcements to keep it from breaking. (She has hired people to make her a snow shovel like Duchamp's and use it until it breaks.)
There is more: the bird cage is too squat for a real bird, the iron hooks in the photograph of the coat rack appear to bend in an impossible position, the French window opens the wrong way, the bottle rack has an asymmetrical arrangement of hooks and the urinal is too curvaceous to have come from the Mott Iron Works, where Duchamp said he bought it.
If Shearer's thesis holds, it implies a staggering degree of foresight on the part of Duchamp. Common knowledge has him and the rest of the Dada movement as iconoclasts, concerned with upsetting the bourgeois orthodoxies of art; the punk rockers of the period, if you will. If Duchamp painstakingly crafted these objects, designing them to be almost indistinguishable from the real things, he was more akin to a virtuoso composer meticulously arranging combinations of three guitar chords and energetically pounded drums, with obsessive precision, into the right sort of chaos so that it has the right sort of enthusiastic artlessness and naïveté to sound like a bunch of angry youths with no musical training playing the instruments.

And precision is the key; if Shearer is correct, Duchamp would have had to get it exactly right. The objects would have to look sufficiently ready-made to fool the audiences (and the tutting commentariat, whose outrage was the punchline of the joke) of the day. And yet, the fact that he laboured on building shovels and urinals rather than buying some from the local ironmonger's suggests that he had in mind a secondary audience, in the distant future, who would piece together what he had done; in other words, his artefacts wouldn't be fully appreciated until long after the initial wave of Dada, an possibly long after his death. Unless, of course, he meant, and failed, to get the details exactly right, producing artefacts indistinguishable from ones he could have just bought except to himself, in which case his motives would be even more mysterious.

There are 2 comments on "The ready-mades that weren't":

Posted by: Lisa http://mrsmalkav.livejournal.com Tue Jun 2 04:23:28 2009

That is awesome <3

Posted by: hnk Fri Jun 5 04:16:20 2009

I think that Duchamp was not simply an "iconoclast", but a nihilist through and through. His ultimate goal was simply to destroy any possibility for art to exist after him. Alas, he perfectly succeeded, as anybody who has recently gone through the trials of visiting a modern art museum must have noticed. He was not a creator, but a destroyer who murdered art on the lines of the saying ascribed to Louis XV : "Apres moi, le deluge" (which can be roughly translated as "I don't care what happens after I'm gone !").

Of course, there is no such thing as an afterlife. But it is difficult not to hear Duchamp's snigger every time a "cultivated" snob's marvelling at anything that can be found within the precincts of a modern art museum.

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