The readymades of Marcel Duchamp are ordinary manufactured objects that the artist selected and modified, as an antidote to what he called “retinal art”. By simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning or joining, tilting and signing it, the object became art. As the process involved the least amount of interaction between artist and art, it represented the most extreme form of minimalism up to that time.
Duchamp was not interested in what he called “retinal art” — art that was only visual — and sought other methods of expression. As an antidote to “retinal art” he began creating readymades at a time (1915) when the term was commonly used in the US to describe manufactured items to distinguish them from handmade goods.
He selected the pieces on the basis of “visual indifference,” and the selections reflect his sense of irony, humor and ambiguity. “…it was always the idea that came first, not the visual example,” he said; “…a form of denying the possibility of defining art.”
The only definition of “readymade” published under the name of Marcel Duchamp (or his initials, “MD,” to be precise) exists in André Breton and Paul Éluard‘s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” However, André Gervais asserts that Breton wrote this definition for the Surrealist dictionary.
Duchamp limited his yearly output of readymades, making no more than 20 in his lifetime. He felt that only by limiting output, could he avoid the trap of his own taste. Though he was aware of the contradiction of avoiding taste, yet also selecting an object. Taste, “good” or “bad,” he felt was the “enemy of art.”
Through the years his own concept of the readymades kept changing. “My intention was to get away from myself, though I knew perfectly well that I was using myself. Call it a little game between ‘I’ and ‘me’.”
Duchamp was unable to define or explain his opinion of readymades: “The curious thing about the readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me.” Much later in life Duchamp said, “I’m not at all sure that the concept of the readymade isn’t the most important single idea to come out of my work.”