Why can we call Readymades “Art”?

If I mentioned the word “art” to a person who lived two hundreds years ago, it was likely for her to imagine some creative images or objects. Although the word “art” has a diverse range of meanings, it was almost impossible for her to picture a urinal in her mind. However, Duchamp taught us that the word “art” can be referred to urinal. The lesson he gave us has significant difference from what other artists gave us. Most artists expanded the meaning of arts by creating new visions or sounds that have not existed before. But Duchamp made no such arduous efforts. He just brought us some readymades. For me, he made no new things, even no new concepts. What he did was pointing out that how far the word “art” can lead us to. People agreed with the idea that urinal can be art because they had already shared the similar concepts. It seems that we have some socially priori concept of art. Duchamp just pointed out this concept as a teacher use stones to teach students count number. One support for this argument can be the fact that there must be many artists who signed on ordinary things before, but none of those things were taken seriously as art. One reason might be at old times, our language was not so inclusive with such “high concept”.  Duchamp made us aware of the new meanings that we have already added to the word “art”– Art can be defined by a collective sense that it belongs to a word we have come to know as “art”.

Fountain was selected in 2004 as "the most influential artwork of the 20th century" by 500 renowned artists and historians.

Fountain was selected in 2004 as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians.

Why a person with knowledge of modern art can “understand” Duchamp’s fountain, and audiences without same cultivation feel shocked, giving the same vision of an ordinary urinal? It seems like that modern society equip us with some “underlying knowledge” of the word “art”. Further, why some audiences can accept Duchamp’s fountain when they saw it at the first time, even though they didn’t see similar artwork before. Did Duchamp indicate a “general grammar” in the art circle, which have existed for a while but was implicit before? I think Duchamp also showed one principle of language that it is “the arbitrariness” of the signs. He paired what he ran into with the meaning of the word “art” (Pinker 83). Duchamp was like a critic of modern language and made a special notation to the word “art” in modern context. Some layers of different syntactical structure lie behind the phrase “Duchamp’s urinal”. Many other phrases have ambiguous meanings and the meanings change with time dramatically. Similar complicated phenomenon might exist with the words ”Rock”, “Technology” and “language” itself. How did human add new meaning to these words? Do they follow certain rules? If we can find grammatical rules that generate infinite set of sentences (Searle 3), will the grammatical rules catch up with the change of language? I believe the question can be related to one basic question of language: how do we acquire the system? (Radford 1) This question maybe can go further beyond the scale of psycholinguistic. The study of cognitive development of human maybe can have sociolinguistics approach.

According to Andrew Radford, sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language use and the structure of society. (Radford 14) Can we also view the relationship from another side? How about considering the structure of language and the society? Maybe we can not only take into account such factors as the social backgrounds of both the speaker and the addresses, but the ‘’language background’’ and the society. When I was an exchange student in Korea, my professor mentioned why Koreans and Japanese frequently nod their heads when listerning to others while Chinese don’t nod heads often. She said it might be accounted for the order of sentence pattern. Japanese and Korean language share almost same grammars. To get Japanese, the bit of information would say the order is “head-last” (Pinker 111). But Chinese is similar to English, a “head-first” language.  She thought that Japanese and Koreans need to nod head to tell speaker that they are following and waiting for the “head” (I failed to find highly related literate). If this idea makes sense, can we say that syntactical structure even have an impact on social phenomenon and culture. Similar idea is held by William C. Hannas, a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a federal agency in Washington. In a polemical new book, ”The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity” (University of Pennsylvania Press), Mr. Hannas blames the writing systems of China, Japan and Korea for what he says is East Asia’s failure to make significant scientific and technological breakthroughs compared to Western nations (Eakin).

I don’t know whether these ideas are plausible or not. But considering the legal system and many other social mechanisms, which are set up with language. We cannot say syntactical structure have no impact in broader scale. Maybe it is even a mistake to view society as the background of language, especially considering human’s natural capacity of language.


Eakin, Emily. “Writing As a Block For Asians”. The New York Times. Web.29 January 29, 2014.http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/03/books/writing-as-a-block-for-asians.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Pinker, Steven. “How Language Works.” Excerpt from: Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, 1994: 83-123.

Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen and Spencer. Linguistics: an introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Searle, John. “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

McClave, Evelyn Z. “Linguistic functions of head movements in the context of speech.” Journal of Pragmatics 32.7 (2000): 855-878.