The Use of Humor in Duchamp’s Readymades

During the early 20th century, French artist Marcel Duchamp created a series of “readymades” in which he selected everyday, mass-produced objects and declared them to be art. Duchamp described his idea of a readymade as a “work of art without an artist to make it.” The works, sometimes accompanied by an inscription by the artist, required no real manual skill or technique in terms of their construction. Despite this fact, Duchamp’s readymades have made a tremendous impact upon modern and contemporary art as they are considered to be “demonstrations of the importance of choice by an artist.” 

As a result of Duchamp’s readymades, the idea was born that an artist had the ability to label an object as “art” simply because they chose to. Duchamp declared that by creating a new meaning and context for an object, he was, indeed, doing an artist’s work. When “producing” his readymades, Duchamp often created humorous titles, modifications, and underlying meanings for his pieces. The added information that Duchamp assigned to his readymades employed a great deal of humor that will be explored and analyzed in great detail.

Bottle Rack: The Genesis of the Readymade

Bottle Rack 1914 

Duchamp’s first readymade sculpture titled Bottle Rack or Bottle Dryer came into existence in 1914. Bottle Rack set the stage for Duchamp’s further readymades in which he began to integrate elements of humor. The readymade consists of an unmodified galvanized iron bottle rack accompanied by an inscription. The rack itself was a common model that could be found in any French flea market or dry goods store. In regards to the creation of the original 1914 version of Bottle Rack, Duchamp stated: “I just bought it, at the bazaar of the town hall. The idea of an inscription came as I was doing it. There was an inscription on the bottle rack which I forget.” The original readymade met its demise when Duchamp’s sister Suzanne and his sister-in-law mistook the sculpture for useless junk and threw it away. Perhaps unaware of the fact that the original readymade had been discarded and/or forgetful of his alleged original inscription, in January of 1916, while in New York, Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister Suzanne asking her to “activate” the readymade sculpture that he had left in his Paris studio. In the letter, he states:

“Take this bottle rack for yourself. I’m making it a ‘readymade,’ remotely. You are to inscribe it at the bottom and on the inside of the bottom circle, in small letters painted with a brush in oil, silver white colour, with an inscription which I will give you herewith, and then sign it in the same handwriting, as follows: [after] Marcel Duchamp.”

In asking his sister to activate the readymade sculpture with an inscription, Duchamp introduced an important concept that would define the remainder of the readymades that he would “produce.” As the artist, Duchamp took control of the definition of “art” – he had ability to label an object as “art” simply because he chose it and created a new meaning and context. With this Duchampian idea in mind, suddenly everything has the potential to be art. The creation of Bottle Rack set the stage for the later creation of many more readymades that incorporated Duchamp’s unique sense of humor.

In Advance of the Broken Arm

In Advance of the Broken Arm 1915

For his next readymade, the 1915 work In Advance of the Broken Arm, Duchamp began to employ his sense of humor. The readymade consists of a mass manufactured snow shovel made of wood and galvanized iron. Duchamp purchased the snow shovel during the winter of 1915 in New York following his emigration to the United States the same year. The shovel included the inscription “In Advance of the Broken Arm (from) Marcel Duchamp” on the lower section of its wooden handle. When signing his name, he was sure to adjust his normal signature to state “(from) Marcel Duchamp” to emphasize the fact that “though the object came from him it was not made by him.” When displaying In Advance of the Broken Arm, Duchamp further defied convention and asserted that the work be displayed in an unusual context by hanging it from the ceiling.

Inherent in In Advance of the Broken Arm is Duchamp’s sense of humor. The title of the work playfully alludes to a scenario in which the title of the readymade comes to life. Because Duchamp removed the snow shovel from its intended purpose, a hypothetical snowdrift is without a shovel to clear it. As a result of the lack of shovel and buildup of snow, someone may fall and break their arm after slipping on the neglected sidewalk or pathway. Duchamp, employing humorous wordplay, gave meaning to an everyday, mass manufactured item that differentiated it from its likenesses. Due to the nature of In Advance of the Broken Arm and other readymades by Duchamp, they can fairly be mistaken for other mass produced objects that have not yet been “inscribed” as the artist put it. In one instance, during a 1964 show in Minnesota, a caretaker mistook In Advance of the Broken Arm for an actual snow shovel and proceeded to use the readymade to clear a snowdrift outside of the exhibition space. This amusing anecdote only furthers the comical aspect of the readymade. Duchamp originally intended for his creations to be mere slapstick jokes made for his own amusement that often blended into his studio. The fact that, years down the line, his readymade once again blended into its surroundings furthers the ongoing comical nature of Duchamp’s readymades.


Peigne 1916

A prime example of Marcel Duchamp’s use of humor in his readymades can be found in his 1916 work Peigne or Comb. Despite its simple form, the readymade demonstrates Duchamp’s humorous use of wordplay and visual puns. The readymade consists of a metal comb used for grooming dogs inscribed in white paint with the text (translated to English) “Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery. Feb. 17 1916 11AM.”

Duchamp uses clever wordplay to demonstrate the underlying meaning of the appropriated mass manufactured item. Peigne, the title of the readymade, bears a striking resemblance to the subjunctive tense of the French verb “to paint,” peindre. Created following Duchamp’s “abandonment of painting,” the piece makes a clever allusion to the practice of painting, a form no longer favored by the artist. Despite that fact that Duchamp abandoned painting, the wordplay alludes to the fact that Duchamp continues to retain the potential to paint should he choose to.

Furthermore, the use of this pun also alludes to a theory that Duchamp proposed regarding the relationship between tubes of paint and readymades. Duchamp states that “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and ready made products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage.” The use of the comb as a readymade acts a visual pun alluding to Duchamp’s theory in which all paintings made from manufactured tubes of paint are essentially what he called “readymades aided.”

In addition, upon the comb is an inscription that is laced with elements of humor. Again, inscribed on the comb in white paint is the text (translated to English): “Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery. Feb. 17 1916 11AM.” Duchamp regarded the creation of a readymade sculpture as an “a kind of event, something intimately connected with a moment in time and probably his personal presence.” He wrote in The Green Box in the “Specifications for Readymades” excerpt that when inscribing a readymade, “the important thing then is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour… naturally inscribe that date, hour, minute, on the readymade as information.” This being said, the date inscribed references a date in which Duchamp’s fame as a painter saw a drastic increase. The date inscribed on Peigne marks the third anniversary of the 1914 opening of the Armory Show in New York City. The Armory Show marked the beginning of Duchamp’s fame in the United States when great controversy arose as the result of his work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Duchamp playfully alludes to his fame as a painter and his subsequent abandonment of the practice by referencing the Armory Show in his inscription.


Trébuchet 1917

A prime example of Marcel Duchamp’s use of humor in his readymades can be found in his 1917 work Trébuchet. Despite its simple form and placement, the readymade demonstrates Duchamp’s use of wordplay and visual puns. The readymade consists of a coat rack made of metal and wood nailed to a floor. Duchamp described how the piece came into being in 1953. He stated that the piece was:

“A real coat hanger that I wanted sometime to put on the wall and hang my things on but I never did come to that – so it was on the floor and I would kick it every minute, every time I went out - I got crazy about it and I said the Hell with it, if it wants to stay there and bore me, I’ll nail it down… and then the association with the Readymade came and it was that.”

According to Duchamp himself, the very genesis of Trébuchet was reliant on his sense of humor. As opposed to simply moving the coat rack out of his way or into storage, Duchamp made a slapstick joke of the situation and proceeded to nail the object to the floor. Inherent in Trébuchet are a number of puns that demonstrate Duchamp’s clever, humorous approach to his artistic process. The piece’s title bears a striking similarity to “trébucher” – the French verb meaning “to stumble over.” When titling the piece, Duchamp carefully selected his vocabulary in order to successfully execute the humorous pun. Furthermore, the piece’s title takes on additional meaning, as the French word trébuchet “is also chess jargon for a pawn placed to trip an opponent’s piece.” When nailed to the studio floor, the household item suddenly takes upon a completely new function and becomes a literal trap for those walking across the floor. Duchamp, an avid chess player, created further meaning in his piece by using clever wordplay to allude to a seemingly unrelated topic. At this point in time, Duchamp’s readymades were simply made for his own amusement, and they often “went unnoticed by his audience” as they were placed around his studio. In the coming year however, Duchamp would have the chance to test and challenge the public with the entry of a readymade into an art exhibition.


Fountain 1917 

Possibly Duchamp’s most recognized readymade, his 1917 Fountain demonstrates the artist’s use of humor in his artistic process. Fountain consists of a porcelain urinal with the text “R. Mutt 1917” painted in black on its upper side. The Fountain came into being in early April 1917 when Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, and Joseph Stella went to the showroom of J.L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue in New York City in the hunt to find the perfect subject to “test and provoke the Board of Directors of the Society of Independent Artists.” Once again, at this point in time, the “readymades had been little more than a private joke between Duchamp and his enraptured patron,” however now, the artist had the perfect platform to introduce and test his idea of the readymade amongst the public. In 1917, a group of artists involved in the original Armory Show organized an exhibition with the Society of Independent Artists, Inc., an organization that Duchamp helped to found. The exhibition, titled “No Jury. NO Prizes. Hung in Alphabetical Order,” promised to do exactly as the title promised – display works of art with no judgement. Among the entries for the show was Duchamp’s porcelain urinal which he submitted under an alias. Despite the fact that the show was labeled as a “no jury” show, the liberal and open-minded organization were stunned upon seeing the entry. As expected by Duchamp, his urinal was “censored,” and he “indignantly resigned” from his position as the chairman of the hanging committee “charging that the no-jury promise had been violated.” In its original censored setting in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists show, the urinal was hidden from view in the show and rotated 90 degrees on its flat side. If the urinal were to hypothetically be used, urine would pour directly onto the feet of the user.

When selecting the item with which he would challenge the Society of Independent Artists, Duchamp chose to make a crude joke by selecting a urinal as his subject. At this point in time, a urinal was the furthest thing from what was defined as art – this made it the perfect object for Duchamp’s stunt. Implying that urine would flow onto the feet of the jurors and those judging the pieces, he further poked fun at their ridged, judgmental attitudes. As he challenged the Society of Independent Artists, Inc., Duchamp’s sense of humor was truly at play. Duchamp pushed his agenda further a few months after the initial incident when he published a statement defending the still anonymous Fountain in a publication called The Blind Man. Duchamp stated:

“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – he created a new thought for the object… as for the plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art American has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”

Even in his defense of the object, he could not help but include a clever joke at the end of his statement. Following through with his Fountain stunt and pushing a valid argument regarding the very meaning of art, Duchamp successfully challenged the art community with a lighthearted touch.

Furthermore, in exhibition settings, Duchamp was constantly toying with different humorous contexts to display his readymade. One scholar remarks that by making slight changes to his work in exhibition settings, he “sidestepped authorial demand for the creation of new work, renewing and reinventing an object from his own past with a sleight of hand that is wittier still for the economy of the gesture.” For example, Duchamp chose to subvert the iconic positioning of urinal in a 1950 exhibition titled Challenge and Defy at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City. Attaching the urinal to the wall at a children’s height, he returned to readymade to its intended orientation and therefore transformed it back into its original, intended form and function. Directly contradicting the placement in which Fountain was known for, Duchamp furthered his original joke by once again challenging the assumptions of the public. Later on in the 1953 exhibition Dada, 1916-1923 held in the same gallery, Duchamp took the joke a step further. The artist hung Fountain upside down from a doorway and attached mistletoe to the fixture. With the mistletoe in place, he essentially invited lovers to kiss while being drenched in hypothetical urine. In a crude, slapstick joke, the artist shifted the readymade’s placement and added an additional element to create humor and shock similar to the effect that the object had 36 years prior.

Paris Air

Paris Air 1919 

Duchamp’s ingenious sense of humor yet again presented itself in his 1919 readymade Paris Air or Air de Paris (50cc of Paris Air). The readymade consists of a glass chemist’s ampoule drained of its fluid and labeled with a tag labeled Sérum Physiologique or Physiological Serum in English. While in Paris in 1919, Duchamp decided to bring his friend, art collector Walter Arensberg a souvenir from his trip. Duchamp stated that Arensberg “had everything money could buy. So I brought him an ampoule of Paris air.” Duchamp demonstrated his unique sense of humor in the form of a readymade gag souvenir for his friend. Playing on the fact that Arensberg was extremely wealthy, the artist decided to bring him something that money could not buy – Paris air. In addition, when creating Paris Air, Duchamp poked fun at modes of scientific classification and research. Sorting and labeling an everyday object (or substance in this case) as if it were a subject in a scientific research study, the artists mimics the scientific method in the form of a slapstick joke.


Ultimately, in addition to challenging notions of the very definition of “art,” Duchamp’s readymades illustrate his unique sense of humor. Interweaving his readymade sculptures with elements of humor, Duchamp creates lighthearted interplay between everyday objects and their new meanings and contexts. Illustrating the importance of choice that an artist has in creating work, Duchamp’s readymades play an instrumental role in the modern canon of Western art history. When considering the often-staunch art world, artists such as Marcel Duchamp provide a much-needed breath of fresh air using the language of humor. Duchamp himself said it best: “Humor and laughter – not necessarily derogatory derision – are my pet tools. This may come from my general philosophy of never taking the world too seriously – for fear of dying of boredom.”

Damian M.

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