Master’s Thesis Peek: “The Readymade [after] Marcel Duchamp”

The following abstract is from “The Readymade [after] Marcel Duchamp” by Jeffrey Smith (MS/MFA 2009):

Marcel Duchamp has been subjected to an avalanche of literature since the 1980’s as well as being agent provocateur of a panoply of fruitful and destructive movements and ideas within the art world ever since last residue of diaristic action petered across painting. In contrast to his modest output of major works and his apparent abandonment of art for chess in 1923, Duchamp’s work and ideas have experienced a tremendous public renaissance contrary to their more esoteric intentions. As a Norman French who became a naturalized citizen who equivocally adopted his new homeland, he has been unanimously  embraced as a native son in the American context. The residual ubiquity of this Norman invader as a model for artistic innovation and as subject for historical contemplation led me to address what I believe to be his central historical contribution, the Readymade. I argue that the Readymade is an idea about objects and by extension the world, rather than merely an industrially mass-produced object raised to art by mere choice. The Readymade is a cervellité, or “brain-fact.” This canonical definition was not Duchamp’s, but one formulated by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard for their Dictionaire du Surrealisme in 1936.

I argue that the Readymade idea is the Archimedean point around which all his mature works revolve. The Readymade is an immaterial intellectual frame of consciousness projected on a material object which permits Duchamp to fundamentally alter its identity and meaning. Various de minimus interventions function as clues for the spectator. Such cues suggest that the identity of the object has been fundamentally altered. Duchamp he turns a urinal on its side and renames it “Fountain.” He suspends a snow shovel by a string and calls it In Advance of the Broken Arm. Why has an object already designed for a specific utilitarian purpose been hung from a studio ceiling? What in fact is the relationship between the name “snow shovel” and the poetical linguistic frame “In Advance of The Broken Arm”? More questions are raised than answered. Is a shovel that does not shovel still a shovel? Can we image that a urinal can be something other than it appears so self evidently to be?

One author has suggested that the physical suspension of a snow shovel is a visual metaphor for the what in fact a in semantic suspension of meaning in the Readymade. This apt metaphor highlights the antinomious tension between the object’s original self evidence purpose juxtaposed to Duchamp’s novel teleology. Extricated from its common sense context the meaning of the object opens up to seemingly infinite possibilities limited only by the spectator’s imagination. This dialectical tension identity leads to an aporia. Where does its “true” identity or meaning reside? This doubt gradually exposes that the very identity of the object is largely defined by the expectations of the spectator who stands before the object. The core meaning of the Readymade idea emerges in the nexus between its indeterminateness and questionality and the particular consciousness of the person present it.

Jeffrey Smith is currently teaching Modern and Contemporary art at Hofstra University as well as studio art to students between 5 years old and high school age at the New York Conservatory for Art and Music in Syosset Long Island. He is also in the process of writing essays entitled “Monochrome Matisse,” and “The Death of God & the Birth of Modernism.” These essays explore the impetus and nature of Matisse’s radically flattened paintings from 1906-1914 and the other, the intimate relationship between the death of God and Modern art. The essay addresses the death of God as articulated by the writings Friedrich Nietzsche and implied by the dominance of the scientific world-view as the ground from which the Modernist experiment was made possible. Thusly seen, Modernism with its proliferation of styles, meanings, and manifestoes sought to fill the apparent void of traditional meaning implied in the “death of God” with novel and radical alternatives.

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