By the end of the first decade of this century, new ideas had threatened nearly all the underlying political, social, scientific and cultural assumptions of the bourgeois European. In the arts, this wave of discontent crested in the idea of anti-art or Dada, which rejected not only every definition of art, but all definitions, including a definition of Dada.
Like all anarchic movements, the life of Dada was brief and violent. But before it had dissipated in the inevitable quarrels, heresies and betrayals, it had asked the cliché question, "What is art?" in such a way that, for the first time, it demanded a serious response. The method of Dada, if it can be said to have had one, was indiscriminate attack, through actions, objects, propaganda. The strength of these attacks was that they were made in the form of alternatives to the existing forms of art. When confronted with something calling itself "anti-art", the question "What is art?" is inevitable and unavoidable.
For painting and sculpture that question was presented most eloquently by the ready-mades of 1914/15 of Marcel Duchamp. the ready-made expressly rejects all the criteria for conventional artworks and yet somehow remains within the field of art. (A phenomenon true of all the activities of the Dadaists, which has given plenty of scope for cynical criticism).
However it was necessary that there be, at least, some positive aspects (in the conventional sense) to the ready-made in order to give a clue as to which particular discipline it applied. It was important for a Dadaist to attract the right audience to the slaughter of its own special sacred cow.
There are only three characteristics common to both the ready-made and painting and sculpture, and they are. 1) the fact of the object itself, 2) the intention of the artist to produce an artwork, 3) the location of the object in an art context. Although this may seem fairly meager evidence upon which to decide, it seems to have been enough for some of the people who encountered the ready-made for the first time in 1915. It was clear then and it is clear now that, whatever else one may think about it, the ready-made belongs in the domain of painting and sculpture.
The ready-made then, is a direct challenge to conventional painting and sculpture. It shows that artworks can be produced that reject all the accepted criteria. It also offers new criteria, namely, intention and context from which the art condition of the object is derived.
The obvious relationship of artist to artwork is that of producer to product. In conventional art this was a process involving skill, special materials and work, but it is reasonable to assume that the process has a meaning only if the artist intended to produce an artwork. the critical factor then, is intention. How the intention is carried out is a matter for the individual artist. (Choice of materials, style of execution, subject matter etc.)
Duchamp's ready-made, however, is an artwork by a single act of selection (nomination), based on his intention to produce an artwork. The act of nomination, in effect attaches to the object an idea or definition that has nothing to do with its normal definition or function.
It follows then, that an art object can be said to be an object that embodies an idea (intention) and has no other definition or function , or is isolated from its earlier definition or function through nomination.
The ready-made, while lacking in every quality thought to define artworks at the time, was widely perceived to be a work of art. Even those who were outraged found that their protests served only to confirm the art status of the ready-made. An explanation of this paradoxical situation was sought in the idea that things encountered in a place where art was expected to be present (museums, galleries, studios etc.), would tend to be viewed as works of art. In the sixty years since the first ready-made, this has evolved into the notion of an art context that includes every place, past or present, real or hypothetical, where art can be encountered or experienced.
There is, therefore, a dialectical relationship between the viewer of an object and the space in which the object is located. For the viewer's perception of a space as art - context is what makes it possible to recognise the things within that space as artworks. The art context then, is a paradigmatic concept defininq the conceptual space in which art is possible.
The ready-made, therefore, by revealing a structure in artworks not accounted for by the conventional definition, demands a new definition of artworks. Intention and context (which in dialectical relationship, form the basis of this structure) are the criteria upon which the new definition is established. In the discussion of intention and context above, it is shown that conventional artworks can also be explained using these criteria. It can be claimed, therefore, that the definition established to account for the ready-made, contains, as part of its content, the definition of conventional art. (Which explains, incidentally, why every attempt to attack the art status of the ready-made through an appeal to the conventional criteria will serve only to strengthen its claim to an art status.)
It is clear from this that artworks after the ready-made will be defined by the new definition, but the conventional criteria, while no longer useful in defining art works, are not necessarily excluded in the making of artworks. The problem of the artist engaged in conventional painting, however, is that "Fine Painting" is of little interest in the framework emerging from the new definition of artworks. The artist who believes that "Fine Painting" is a real and constant value will feel him/her self in a world gone mad.
The artist working in the new framework, on the other hand, while capable of understanding the concern of the "Painter", cannot conceive of it as being of any importance. Ready-made art is de-mythified art. The mystery surrounding artworks, their enigmatic character, is destroyed by the ready-made's revelation of the fundamental mechanism by which things become art. And, since the ready-made has no physical properties that set it apart from other objects, there is nothing to prevent any number of ready-mades from being produced simply by applying the methods of the artist --which means that the artist is also de-mythified. For it follows that anyone intending to produce an artwork is an artist, at least for the duration of the process. An appeal to "quality" is of no use here, for the ready-made neither aspires to, nor recognises, "quality". In the definition of the ready-made, one artwork is as "good" as any other. The ready-made's elimination of the special nature of the artist subverts the idea of "quality" in artworks -- but if arguments on the basis of "quality" are ruled out in the evaluation of artworks, what is to be the method of evaluation? The answer of the ready-made is that the evaluation of art works is neither desirable or possible.
The theory of the Avant Garde has proven a refuge from the ramifications of this very disturbing answer. For, by conceiving of art as leading an advance into unknown territory, the notion of "quality" can be reborn as "innovation" and "good" art can then be understood as "progressive" art. Artworks are then evaluated according to their contribution to the progress of art, which places the ready-made firmly in the tradition of the Avant Garde as a crucial historical landmark of "progressiveness", and thereby renders it harmless.
Art is clearly in a state of quantitative growth, and there is increasing tolerance towards new forms of art, but, since it is impossible to show that one work of art is better than another, there can be no trajectory of improvement as suggested by the notion of "advanced", "progressive" or "Avant Garde" art. Advance could just as easily be retreat or stalemate in the absence of any criteria for evaluation. In any case, the ready-made's iconoclastic revelation that the basic structure is the same in all artworks, relegates any notion of progress in art to the superficiality of technical innovation or changes of fashion.
The ready-made was, nonetheless, concealed within the depths of the Avant Garde for nearly fifty years. Duchamp drifted into Surrealism, chess and professional Avant Gardism while the half-century was dominated by Picasso.
But the ready-made reemerged in the early sixties to become one of the most influential forces in contemporary art. It first surfaced in the work and theory of the Minimal artists and in the following decade its influence has been present in most of the subsequent new forms that have used its criteria to re-examine the nature of artworks. Until recently, most of the new work has been engaged in an exploration of the notion of art context, centered on conceptual art and its variants; But now there has been a shift in interest to the problem of intention, and one of the main fields of activity is the so-called "New Painting".
By working in the general framework of "Painting", the art context becomes relatively straightforward. (Flattish things that hang on the wall tend, in the absence of any other immediate explanation, to be viewed as artworks.) But by reducing the content of the painting to facts about its existence as an object, an incongruity becomes apparent between the idea "Painting" and the object "Painting". The apparently clear art context, established by "flat", "hanging", "wall", etc. is put in doubt by the painting's insistence on its "Objectness", and the artist's intention is all that remains to hold the painting/object in the context of art.
The painting is an art-object (an object embodying an idea (intention) and having no useful function), standing in a dialectical relationship to normal objects (objects defined by their useful function). The content of the painting is then seen to be "Objectness" and the painting, like the ready-made, is a meta-object.
Vienna, summer 1976.