The gesture of Duchamp nominating a urinal to the status of art object has to be read not as “inclusive,” but as exactly the opposite. It is a gesture that exposes a cultural foreclosure only to immediately reinstate it. Thus, the readymade reinsrcribes the cultural distribution of objects through the very act of nomination. That is the crucial step. The seemingly arbitrary inclusion of select ordinary objects into the pantheon of art formalizes the authority of the nominator and the institutional framework that ultimately ratifies these nominations. There is no dismantling of boundaries, no levelling of “high” and “low,” but on the contrary, their reinforcement.
But this, for me, is not the interesting part. What interests me is the disavowal that underlies the readymade. I am interested in what the readymade reveals when we consider it as a cultural defense against something more traumatic.
As Barthes showed a long time ago, the most common objects are aggregations of cultural codes no less dense (and perhaps a great deal more so) than the objects hoarded away in collectors’ warehouses and museums. It is for that reason that these objects of everyday use and consumption must be inducted as readymades before they can be granted a hearing. It is not that they don’t say enough. It is that they are prone to say too much. They force too close a proximity with the capitalist Real.
The readymade is a mode of disavowal, that is to say, a mode of acknowledging the truth while depriving it of effect. Through its seemingly miraculous capability of authoring vacancy, the readymade gilds everything it absorbs into itself with an “infrathin” aura that permits the banal to be consumed as the ironic. The readymade, in other words, is a fetish. It intervenes as the last barrier before the void, which it hides in plain view. For the readymade is at a certain level the void itself, the banal object. But it is also, at the same time the means to avoid encountering the void, a voiding of the void. Instead of an encounter with banality, the ready-made delivers an opportunity to be captivated by the supposed transgression of its insertion into art. The ready-made is the phallicization of the banal.
That the readymade in its various forms remains a recurring feature of contemporary art says something about the endurance of the impasse that gave rise to it. Considered as an affirmative device, the ready-made argues for the recognition that the most dynamic source of complex and engaging forms in the modern world is capitalist industry. The negative corollary of this is that art is redundant, the capabilities of even the most protean individual artist paling in comparison to what capitalism’s armies of scientists, engineers, designers, and sundry creatives can bring forth at an ever-accelerating pace. And yet, despite the creative poverty to which art is reduced in relation to industry, it remains indispensable. Why? The ready-made indicates the answer. The problem is that the dazzling forms with which capitalism gluts the world are in some way debased. This is what Benjamin was getting at with his notion of aura and its loss through reproducibility. The perfect standardization of the industrially produced object deprives it of the qualities that allow us to form bonds with objects because our ability to bond with objects derives from the presumption that the object, before it comes into our possession, was bonded to another person, and ultimately to its creator. This aura, this fullness, is the one thing with which capitalism cannot imbue its otherwise spectacular forms.
In the readymade, art simultaneously declares its poverty and its retention of a weak but indispensable power to confer aura on the otherwise inert forms produced by industry. The readymade is not an attack on art. It is not antiart. It is the only evidence of usefulness art can muster in a world in which the creative geniuses are corporations.