The History of the Found Object in Art

The History of the Found Object in Art The use of “readymade” artwork or found art was common in art throughout the 20th century. But initially, the practice caused quite a stir and was not readily accepted. Many conservative viewers were appalled, infuriated even by what they perceived as laziness on behalf of the artist, coupled with a vulgar display of downright disrespect for the conventional, time-tested, time-consuming, and labor-intensive practices of artistic creation.

What Are Found Objects

You have to know more about the background of “the readymade” concept in 20th-century art in order to comprehend the intricate processes and the complex journey that modern art took. And before there was the readymade, there were found objects. 

What Are Found Objects?

A found object in art is, by definition, any natural or man-made object, that is found or otherwise obtained by an artist. These items may then be slightly modified, but they remain undisguised. Loosely put, found objects in the art are everyday objects turned into art. Literally, anything can be a found object in terms of art, as long as the artist recognizes its intrinsic potential to be turned or incorporated into a work of art. 

The practice of using found objects is thought to date back to the 16th century when collectors kept their own private “cabinets of curiosities,” or “Wunderkammer” in German. 

However, it was not until the 1900s that artists started incorporating found objects into sculptural creations as an artistic gesture. The word “found object” is a direct translation of the French phrase “objet trouv,” which refers to items or fragments of items with non-artistic functions that are integrated into the artwork. What we currently refer to as “the readymade” is an improved version of this concept.

What Is the Readymade In Art?

The readymade, which is a more radical variant of the found object, is typically attributed to Marcel Duchamp. And it was Duchamp’s readymade that took this concept one step beyond by creating a brand-new genre of artworks that relied exclusively on manufactured, pre-made pieces as stand-alone works of art. 

However, the fundamental notion of getting something that is already in existence and has its own autonomy and trying to elevate it to craftsmanship actually existed before he produced his very first readymade aptly entitled Bicycle Wheel, a bicycle wheel mounted onto a kitchen stool, created in 1913. 

Of course, in some way, shape, or form, artists had been using found objects to create artwork for a long time prior to that, and this paved the way for the readymade.

For instance, Pablo Picasso, used a piece of woven chair backing to create a collage on a two-dimensional canvas in his 1912 painting Still Life With Chair Caning, and much prior to that, Edgar Degas dressed his Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1881) in a real tutu. 

Consider René Magritte’s 1929 painting This is not a pipe or Ceci n’est pas une pipe as a clear example of how extensively early contemporary art was about representation and attempting to reconcile art’s illusionism with the status of real objects and their actual applications. 

The Readymade

marcel duchamp the fountain

Probably the most well-known readymade sculpture in the world and one of the icons of twentieth-century art is Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). A porcelain urinal marked “R. Mutt” is all that Duchamp included in the 1917 submission for a display at the Society of Independent Artists. 

Although the exhibition committee denied it, it is today considered a cornerstone piece for the majority of the artistic innovation of the 20th century. Additional objects that the artist turned into “pure ready-mades,” as he described them, followed suit.

Duchamp’s use of commonplace items has had broad repercussions and continues to influence how people create, perceive, and talk about art today, positioning it as a predominantly cognitive endeavor as opposed to a purely material one. We now associate art with artists’ creativity and thought processes as opposed to a manual skill that demonstrates and requires endless practice, technical precision, and extensive labor. 

Artist’s Choice

Eventually, in the period, Surrealist painters like André Breton stressed the process of the artist selecting an item as the key turning point in the creation of an artwork. The Surrealists’ assemblages have an additional degree of theoretical obfuscation that frequently transforms into sardonic comedy since they were influenced by the psychoanalytic writings of Sigmund Freud and their belief in the effectiveness of strong subliminal connections with things.

Even though Jackson Pollock, the most well-known name affiliated with “Action Painting,” also adhered debris to the substrates of his works of art, such as cigarette butts, coins, buttons, and keys, American Abstract Expressionism controlled and dominated Western art scene from the 1940s on and brought many creators back to the expressionistic structured characteristics of painting on canvas and conventional sculpted components. Conversely, car wrecks were used as the raw material for large-scale, stylistically spectacular sculptures by artists like John Chamberlain. To put it another way, Duchamp’s radical concept had reached the core of the public’s understanding of art, notwithstanding the somewhat militant formalism that was being advocated by artists at the moment.

Can Everything Become Art?

Can all everyday objects be turned into art? Pretty much. With the explosive arrival of pop culture in the 1960s, the Duchampian readymade received an upgrade, having expanded into the realm of consumer products. 

At the same time, some artists, like Marisol Escobar, actively included consumer goods like Coke bottles in their artwork. 

Renowned Italian conceptual artist and practical joker Piero Manzoni publicly questioned the notion of the readymade in 1961 when he created Artist’s Shit (Merda d’Artista). Allegedly, the cans contained his feces. What he wanted was to mock the notion that everything touched by an artist can be converted into a magnificent piece of artwork. But in 2008, a can was purchased for $ 166,618 at Sotheby’s, proving his point. 

In many aspects, the readymade is the forerunner of all conceptual work that came after it. In a way, the practice has empowered artists to focus on presenting ideas and refining their crafting skills as opposed to concentrating on the material, tangible aspect. In the 1960s and 1970s, conceptual art prioritized the dematerialization and absolute reduction of the art object in favor of documenting concepts, activities, and creative processes as works of art.

Recent Strategies

Artists have been experimenting with integrating readymade products into their creative work for over a century, and with unwavering intensity in the last few decades. Some go as far as to not only explicitly draw inspiration from the glorification of commercial commodities, but even fetishize them. 

There are some versions of the very same concept that exist outside the European canon, even though the Duchampian genealogy of the so-called readymade clearly corresponds to Western art history. These variants are culture-specific and often rely on salvaged objects commonly found in different regions around the world, be it driftwood or trash. This makes them intriguing, insightful, inspiring, and most definitely worth exploring.