A Theory of Context and the Failure of the Ready-made.

The ready-made is so entrenched in contemporary practice that its status is canonical.  So much of today’s  -and yesterday’s- conceptually driven work would be unimaginable without it, and yet by redefining art making for the past half-century or more, the ready-made has become emblematic of society’s disconnect with art and art’s disconnect with itself.  How is it that an object from everyday life can be elevated to such status?

Though not mainstream until the mid 1960s, conceptual art’s first steps occurred with the presentation of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (1917) for inclusion in the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.  While influential in small circles at the time, the delay in broader impact is attributed to the fact that in 1917 Fountain was never actually shown; it was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz and quickly discarded. Not until the 1950’s and 60’s, when authorized reproductions of the piece appeared, did Fountain begin to gather global cachet.  So much so, that Fountain is routinely claimed as the most influential work of the past 100 years. Few pieces have garnered such praise.

Duchamp, Fountain, and his other ready-mades are notoriously difficult to pin down, not least because Duchamp himself offered multiple and frequently vague explanations for them.  We might, however, agree that their lasting contribution to artistic discourse lie in highlighting the importance of context.  By calling attention to the contextual framework by which we perceive an object, all ready-mades succeed at minimum in provoking questions about the nature of art.  By shifting the location of a urinal or other found item from its point-of-origin to the gallery, we change its context; the work is aestheticized, and becomes art by process of selection. Or does it?

Imagine that you’re in a public restroom urinating. While in the stall you notice the elegant contour of this particular commode and think: it’s charming. It has color, volume, and form; its art! Now if only others could see it like you do! So you decide to place it in a gallery to call attention to its art-ness.  The following day you purchase the same toilet from the Home Depot and set it upon a pedestal with some soft lighting and there you have it: instant art, the ready-made. But what did you accomplish?  You changed the context of the American Standard, created in Duchamp’s words “a new thought” for it, and like magic, it became art.  As the ready-made demonstrates, art is about staging and context.  Makes sense.

A few weeks after showing your toilet you have a chance to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Everything is going great. But as you’re admiring Matisse’s Goldfish with Sculpture (1912), it occurs to you that you drank too much coffee, and now the urge to spring a leak is coming on strong. But of course being MoMA on a Saturday, there’s a line even for the men’s room.  It’s then that you have your most profound idea yet:  why not take Monsieur Matisse’s Goldfish into the bathroom, and instead of waiting in line like those other chumps, you’ll just relieve yourself on the painting (aiming for the goldfish bowl of course).  You will, after all, change the context of the work and give it “a new thought”, so in a bathroom that Matisse must become a urinal, right?

You can urinate on a painting, but that doesn’t make it a toilet. For a shift in context to actually change anything, the operation has to work both ways.  2+3 can equal 5 only because 5-2 equals 3; if it didn’t, we’d have a problem.  In the same way, putting disposable junk into a gallery to make it art only works if we can take art out of a gallery and transform it into junk, but we can’t. A painting taken out of a museum and put by the side of the road remains a work of art. “Well” you say, “the painting is art because of socially conferred status, and that’s the only difference between it and the aforementioned junk.”  You’re partly correct, but the painting is art because it was intended to be from its physical inception.  The social status conferred on a painting precedes its existence, at least until you go back to the first work of art ever created. This is an example of circular cause and consequence.

The crux of the problem is this: Fountain -and any other ready-made- recognizes only one kind of context, something I’ll call super-structural. This is context that is mutable and socially conditioned.  Duchamp and users of the ready-made fail to recognize that there exists an additional category of context: l call it base context. This is context that is irrevocably bound to an object or a thing upon its creation.  A person may be born into a wealthy family or be cursed with a life in the ghetto; these are the super-structural contexts of their lives. The base context for both individuals is the actuality of their biological existence as human beings; this cannot be changed.  So you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the girl out of the girl.

In art, base context involves intent and materials.  “Hold on there!” you say, “Isn’t Duchamp all about the intent of the artist?”  Sort of, but it’s intent at the level of super-structure, not base.  A urinal can’t be anything other than a urinal because its base context is as a receptacle for human waste. That was the intent of its creation. Whether it flushes or not, whether or not we can dispose of urine in it, or whether we put it in a gallery or not make no difference.  Sadly, Duchamp can’t change that no matter how many new thoughts he comes up with.  Similarly, the tiger shark in Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992) can never be anything other than a shark-in-a-tank.  Hirst can fiddle with its super-structural context, but at its core, the base context of a shark is an evolutionary expression of life itself. Although this may come as news to him, Damien Hirst is not god and he has nothing to do with the actuality of the shark.  This works both ways.  I can go camping with Number 1, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, but I shouldn’t expect it to be a very good sleeping bag. I can change its super-structural context, but again its base context is immutable; it’s a work of art I’m trying to use for warmth, and I’m going to have quite a cold night as a result. Simply saying something has become something else doesn’t make it so.

I can hear the objections forming, so let’s start with the obvious one: all art is made of non-art material, so what makes a painting art anymore than a urinal? Good question. Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg presents an example worth considering because it floats tenuously between these two worlds of context.  Monogram is composed of (hold on):  oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and a tennis ball on canvas, with oil on angora goat and rubber tire, on a wood platform mounted on four casters (whew).   Some of these things we think of as traditional art materials and some we don’t.  A goat is after all a ready-made, and so is oil paint, but something peculiar is happening in Monogram.  Though the base contexts of Rauschenberg’s materials remain, they have been substantially altered such that their status as anything other than what they are now is mostly gone.  Monogram is the creation of a new base context.  As evidence, let’s walk back Monogram like we did with Goldfish and Sculpture, but instead of the bathroom, we have to go outside.

Here we are – nice day isn’t it? Like Goldfish, taking Monogram out of the museum and into a field isn’t going to change much other than its super-structural context. It won’t make the goat spring back to life, and he’s no good for eating.  The tire around him has been cut along the bottom –that’s how it fits around the goat- so now it’s useless for driving on, same with the tennis ball, and try walking on that rubber shoe heel, you can’t.  These objects have lost most of their utility and their identity is useful as art, or as a place holder in the city dump.  “Well what about Hirst’s shark then, its dead too, so according to your logic it’s useful as art or garbage, right?”  Wrong.  The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is so far removed from the base and super-structural context of art, it’s not even art. Shark-in-a-tank is not about its material nature as an object in the way that Monogram is. You could replace the shark with any number of animals and nothing would substantially change about the work.  As a thought experiment, imagine Hirst’s masterpiece of contemporary art. Now take out the shark and stick a dolphin in there, or some tuna, or narwhal; it’s still the same work. I know the shark is supposed represent the terror of mortality or impending death, but have you seen it in person?  It looks pretty pathetic, and it’s certainly not terrifying.  You can do this with a lot of artists: take Tracy Emin’s work, does it matter what’s actually on her Bed?  That piece is just a game of super-structural context shifting.  Does it matter which room Martin Creed’s lights go on and off in? Nope. But you can’t do the same thing with Monogram. Take away any substantial part of Monogram and it becomes something else.

A key feature of art –or any base context- is the possession of indispensable quantities, without which the object ceases to function as what it is.  Monogram without the goat just isn’t Monogram.  I suppose you could stick a sheep in there -it’s about the same size and shape- but imagine a dead giraffe. As an indispensable quantity of a new base context –the combine- the previously existing base context of the goat -its actuality as a biological organism- is subsumed into the new work.  A simple example of this effect is found in Picasso’s Head of a Bull (1943). The sculpture is composed of only two parts: the seat and handlebars of a bicycle; it appears even closer to a readymade than Monogram.  But take away either of its two parts and the artwork no longer exists. Both base contexts -seat and handlebar- become indispensable quantities of a completely new base context that is dependent on them for its existence.  On the other hand, the super-structural context of an object can be endlessly changed without changing anything. Fountain in a desert, a museum, a bathroom, a dumpster, in my hands or in your hands, is still a urinal because the super-structural context of an object has no indispensable quantity; that’s the difference.

Art always involves the creation of new base contexts, not merely a reshuffling of super-structural ones.  Rauschenberg or Picasso’s example shows us that while any material might be fair game for art making, only its substantial transformation into the creation of new base contexts actually constitutes art. That’s why an oil painting composed of ready-mades (oil, canvas, and wood) is art and a jack-in-the-box in a gallery is not.  The painting is a new base context made from previously existing ones, like hydrogen and oxygen combining to form water. A jack-in-the-box in a gallery is an existing base context with some super-structural modification, like taking the water out of one glass and pouring it into another.  The traditional conventions and frameworks for making art may receive dismissive looks by some contemporaries, but like it or not, paint as a medium offers unlimited potential for new base contexts; toys bought at the dollar store don’t.  That’s why for thousands of years we’ve used pigment for art and not dead animals; its potential for new creation is far greater.  In fact, art making is one of the few things pigment is actually good for.

So where does this leave the practitioners of ready-made art? Out in the cold, with the unfortunate realization that most of what they do isn’t art at all.  These petit wizards of conceptualism only play elaborate games of scrabble with super-structural context. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing something, indeed they are, but to suggest that it is in any way related to the human tradition of interpreting the world visually through art is disingenuous at best.  At the end of the day, the ready-made demonstrates only what we already know to be true: super-structural context is like sand shifting beneath our feet.

-Alan D Pocaro

Author’s Note

While speaking with a friend regarding the issues raised by this article, he asked me why I seemed so keen to impose limitations on art.  I was a little taken aback by that.  After all, I have no interest in telling anyone what to do.  After some thought however, I realized he was right. I am interested in some limitations on art. But the question presupposes that limitations are necessarily a bad thing; they’re not.  All sorts of limitations and agreed upon frameworks of activity allow society to function and generate meaning in our lives. Would anyone enjoy reading a book by a “no limits” author who scrawls unintelligible marks across bits of paper? How would you feel about your loved one behind the wheel of a car in a state with “no limits” driving? Why not “no limits” democracy?  Limitations are not always oppressive edicts issued by fascist dictators. Limits can be fruitful ground rules that stimulate creativity. Haiku anyone?

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