While Marcel Duchamp can certainly be credited for broadening the palette of what can constitute art - making absolutely anything a candidate, it would be a mistake to think of this move as in any way arbitrary or frivolous. Nor was this about novelty, since Duchamp’s view was that “[a]rt is produced by a succession of individuals expressing themselves; it is not a question of progress. Progress is merely an enormous pretension on our part.”1 Taking an urinal and sticking it in a gallery - in the form of his piece “Fountain” shown above - is not what Duchamp was about at all, even though - on the surface of it - that is precisely what it looked like from the outside.
To get a sense of how he arrived at picking up a urinal from a plumbers’ merchant and submitting it to an exhibition, let’s start with the root of Duchamp’s rebellion:
Painting shouldn’t be exclusively retinal or visual; it should have to do with the gray matter, with our urge for understanding. [...] I am interested in the intellectual side, although I don’t like the word intellect. For me intellect is too dry a word, too inexpressive. I like the word belief. I think in general when people say “I know”, the don’t know, they believe. I believe that art is the only form of activity in which man as man shows himself to be a true individual. Only in art is he capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet towards regions not ruled by time and space. To live is to believe; that’s my belief, at any rate.Duchamp’s concern was that art had become only visual over the preceding two centuries - that its appreciation did not involve faculties beyond the retina. The problem here is not retinal/aesthetic quality but the absence of intellectual, verbal, existential hooks, which art has had during previous times but lost during the 19th century:
I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting. For me the title was very important. I was interested in making painting serve my purpose, and in getting away from the physicality of painting. [...] I was interested in ideas - not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. [...] In fact until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or religious: it had all been at the service of the mind. [...] This is the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than an animal expression.I find a great deal of appeal here - to use a piece’s title not merely for nominal, labeling purposes, but to make it be an integral part - in conjunction with the object it is attached to - of being the source of a viewer’s relationship with, reaction to and reflection on.
How does one get beyond the inherent physicality of painting though? Duchamp’s reasoning starts from the reductivism of cubist and futurist forms - especially from the treatment of movement of the latter, although he uses it for other purposes than those originally intended by the Italians:
The reduction of a head in movement to a bare line seemed to me defensible. A form passing through space would traverse a line; and as the form moved the line it traversed would be replaced by another line - and another and another. Therefore I felt justified in reducing a figure in movement to a line rather than to a skeleton. Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought [...] and later, following this view - I came to feel an artist might use anything - a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol - to say what he wanted to say.It is the extreme reductions employed by the futurists that lead Duchamp to the insight that any thing that the artist chooses can be the signifier for any signified. The signifier and signified do not need to share appearance, features or structure. This basic liberation of the requirements of semiotics also attacks another undesirable feature of art, which is the role of habit and convention in its judgement:
The danger is to “lead yourself” into a form of taste. [... Taste] is a habit. Repeat the same thing long enough and it becomes a habit. If you interrupt your work, I mean after you have done it, then it becomes, it stays a thing in itself; but if it is repeated a number of times it becomes taste. [...] A mechanical drawing has no taste in it [because it is divorced from conventional expressions in painting. ... In] trying to draw a conclusion or consequence from the dehumanization of a work of art, I came to the idea of the ready-mades [...] works in effect that are already completely made. [e.g., “Why not sneeze Rose Selavy?” 1921 - a bird cage filled with cubes of sugar, or “Fountain”]The “readymades” that Duchamp arrives at here are the result of a reductio ad absurdum of the insight that increasingly further and further removed signifiers can stand for any given signified. If a line or a point can be placed in correspondence with figure, then a pre-existing object can be a work of art and the means for an artist’s self-expression. But Duchamp doesn’t stop here and also attacks that most sacred of art’s social requirements - uniqueness:
The choice of readymades was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ... In fact a complete anesthesia. One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the “readymade”. That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal. [...] Another aspect of the “readymade” is its lack of uniqueness ... the replica of a readymade delivering the same message; in fact nearly every one of the readymades existing today is not an original in the conventional sense.As Grayson Perry, who to my mind established a new orthoepy for Duchamp - Dű•shomP, put it: “anything could be art that [Duchamp] decided was art [... However,] though we live in an era when anything can be art, not everything is art.” The challenges of what is/isn’t art become harder, but the question remains far from arbitrary - even with the broader palette available to the artist, it is their sincerity of expression that fuels their work’s artistic merit and Duchamp can, in my opinion, rightly be counted among the greats of this deeply transcendent of human activities.
1 All the quotes from Marcel Duchamp here are from his Essential Writings.