Repost: Ready Made for Mystery

I’m in South Africa during the festive season. While taking a break from bustling New York, I’m working on the next piece for Modern Art and Spirituality: Picabia which will be posted on December 28th. In the meantime, here is my year-old post on Duchamp published in Decontextual.


Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer of New York Dada, gave us ‘ready-mades’: ordinary articles rearranged, framed, and conceptualized as art. Ready-made is a name appropriated from an early 20th-Century American term, denoting the difference between hand-made and mass-produced objects. In 1917, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal, entitled Fountain, to the first exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists. It was rejected. Nevertheless, in time, Fountain came to be viewed as a landmark of 20th-century ready-made art, on which other movements, such as Pop Art, would build.

A letter from Hans Richter to Duchamp explains the discomfort with New York’s Dada progeny:

This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered the ready-mades I sought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them, I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.

New York Dada and Pop Art’s interplay is this: New York Dada sought to gut aesthetics from art — a stratagem Pop Art savored aesthetically. Here one may even stretch Dada’s significance to Minimalism’s discourse on frames. Dada and Pop Art both calcifies and cancels everyday objects as art. An artist becomes anyone capable of conceptualizing an ordinary object or non-object as art, paving the way for the modern designer: one who cares not where the object is; who handles all objects as potential art; and who might name, and thus frame, their product in post-production.

In naming, the Dada or Pop artist deviates from the modern designer: the artist cognominates an everyday object, akin to how a name is assigned mythos. With Dada the plain object’s nomination as art, is the artist’s unreturnable gift: pulling the prosaic into the poetic. By artist declaration, the quotidian becomes classic. Art, also, becomes an act of care as conceptualization. Objects considered in passing, which might have remained unnamed, cannot be loved into art. The artist and the object must connect.

The name, a gift from the artist becomes a mere minimal frame. A mounted bicycle wheel, urinal, or blank wall is pronounced art by the artist as vanishing master, and becomes a stand-in for the artist speech-act: ‘this is art because I, the artist, says so’. We humans are animals desiring a vanishing master to care for us by pronouncing us art. A way of viewing the Trinity, is such a frame transforming us from ordinary to ready-made art. We transmute from everydayness to found objects.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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