In a recent discussion with the art historian James Elkins, we came to talk about art and creativity. He was curious how the definition of creativity related to art. One topic in particular included the relationships between the avant-garde, originality and creativity. He had a great question. Was Duchamp’s first readymade creative?
Marcel Duchamp was an avant-garde artist who changed the way we view art. His famous “Fountain,” a simple urinal laid on its side, is seen as one of the twentieth century’s most influential artworks. Back in 1917, it was quite a stir. And sometimes, it still is a contentious work. In general, Duchamp would take common objects: a hat rack, bicycle wheel, or snow shovel and re-conceptualize them by reorienting them or connecting them in some way. What was an off-the-shelf object then became art.
But it appears that before he called his readymades art, he just had them around. I can’t confirm this, but a story goes that he had nailed a coatrack to the floor because people bumped into it. He himself admitted that when he connected a bicycle wheel to a stool, “I didn’t want to make a piece out of it, you see […] There was no conception of ready-made nor of anything else, it was just a distraction. I didn’t have a specific reason for doing so, or any intention of an exhibition, or description. No, nothing like that …” [Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp (Somogy : Paris 1995) 58].
This is real sense of the avant-garde. He was being so original, there wasn’t an audience. And therefore, there was nothing to compare it too. It took time for these to be recognized even by the artist. So, was the first readymade of Duchamp, possibly a coat rack nailed to the floor, creative? The answer is “no!”
Why you may ask. It’s in the definition. Creativity is the production of something novel and useful. To be useful, someone has to recognize that it solves a problem. And in this case, no one did—not even the artist. It was only when they had an audience and a level of appreciation that they became creative. On a smaller scale, things we personally do for the first time are considered “little c” creative—creative with regard to ourselves. This would fall under that understanding of creativity.