What Duchamp brings into view with the readymade is an overlooked implication of the formalist reduction of the art object to pure form: the possibility, henceforth, of apprehending all objects, and not merely those that arrogate to themselves the designation of “art,” as detached signifiers. This happened around the same time that the Futurists were proposing that the acme of modern beauty is the machine. For the Futurists this mostly meant the displacement of traditional subject matter by depictions of force and velocity. Duchamp took the decisive step of replacing depiction by appropriation. In so doing, he forced upon art a confrontation with its own redundancy insofar as formalism had reduced its function to formal invention. For at the formal level, the inventiveness of art is as nothing compared to that of modern industry. The nominative authority of the artist revealed by the readymade is in itself of secondary importance. The greater significance of the readymade is to force upon modern art the unintended consequences of its fetishization of form.
For at least a century, beauty’s most felicitous relationship has been with merchandising, not art. Today, one is more likely to come across something beautiful in a mall or in front of a screen than in a gallery or museum. Consumer economies run on eye candy and are remarkably good at manufacturing it. The best creative talent is enlisted in the making and marketing of sexy consumables. The fine arts make do with the spoiled children of the rich.
This was already evident when Duchamp proposed an upturned urinal as an entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. The truly shocking thing about Fountain was not the nomination of a urinal to the status of art but the much-slower-to-sink-in actuality that a mass-produced urinal might be as beautiful as a Brancusi.
In other words, with hindsight, Duchamp’s gesture appears realistic rather than nihilistic. It acknowledged that industry had robbed art of its privileged relationship with the aesthetic. If art was to remain fixated on beauty, it was obliged to express this fixation by the practice of framing as art what was already readily available as commodity, via what came to be known as appropriation.
How could the idea of fine art survive Duchamp’s gesture? There was simply too much cultural and financial capital invested in the idea of art to permit it a graceful exit. What’s more, by emancipating art from overt social function, modern art endowed the art object with the potential to achieve close to limitless speculative value. This is what the avant-garde ultimately contributed to modernity: a new type of commodity, at once empty and unique and, by virtue of that combination, the most desirable commodity of all.