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“Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?” by Marcel Duchamp Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2020

The work of art chosen for this essay is Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? created by Marcel Duchamp in 1921. This readymade consists of several objects: a birdcage, sugar cubes made from marble, cuttlebones, and a thermometer. The object also includes several wooden sticks.

Marcel Duchamp was a French painter and sculptor. He is most famous for his readymades, pieces of art that include commonplace objects but are seen or displayed as works of art. When viewers first encounter Duchamp’s readymades, they can experience confusion since his works often consist of everyday objects. It is the details and the context that make viewers re-evaluate a work of art, view it closer to understand the meaning behind the work. Duchamp’s readymades often challenge viewers to change the general perspective and see things differently.

I decided to choose this work of art because, unlike the best-known readymades by Duchamp, this object does not represent the everyday objects we use in our lives. It may be possible to see a birdcage in someone’s room, a thermometer, even a cuttlebone—but not all these objects together. Although created from ordinary objects, this is a semi-readymade, i.e., an object that was altered by the artist. It appears to me that this object is a meta-reflection upon Duchamp made by Duchamp himself.

An article by Helen Molesworth discusses Duchamp’s life and work (52). The author provides an explanation of how Duchamp’s work and leisure are reflected in his works of art (Molesworth 52). Since Duchamp also saw his readymades as “humorous objects,” the object discussed in this paper is ironic (or meta-ironic) because Duchamp doubles the “inappropriateness” of his objects in this work of art (Molesworth 58). According to Molesworth, “play and laughter… offer a momentary release from identities” (58). The presented readymade is freed from all of the routine activities connected to it; there is no birdcage, no thermometer, and no sugar cubes. Marble cubes are fake and appear in the wrong context – Duchamp’s counterfeit of his own readymade.

The roots of readymades can be found in the Dada movement or Dadaism, of which the main aim was to push the boundaries of art so far that it would not be clear what art is and what art is not (Paulescu 154). Aestheticism and “beauty,” often ascribed to works of art, were of no interest to Dada artists. The Dada movement emerged in the 1920s and re-played and re-evaluated the horrors of World War I (Prager 239). The Dada artists used collages, clippings, fabric, nails, and even dust to create new, “anti-art” objects to express the trauma that remained after the war: the meaningless of the world (Paulescu 240). They focused on the irrationality of objects and the context that surrounded them. Art could not be “contextless” and in many ways relied on the thoughts and discussions of viewers (Molesworth 51). Does this approach perfectly apply to Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? The beholder, on first looking at the object, might have the very blunt thought: “nonsense.”

Dada’s aim was to point out the weakness of perceiving the objects as if they already had a meaning created by the author and no other. In the case of Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? Duchamp provided his explanation but also stated that “associations are permissible” (National Gallery of Australia). The readymade, just like Dada, rejects any logic and asks the viewer to interpret it. As can be seen from the picture, the marble cubes indeed look like sugar cubes, already manipulating the viewer into confusion about the materials used for the sculpture. The thermometer used in the object can also be interpreted from different points of view, like almost everything in Dada art. On the one hand, it points out the coldness of the marble, which helps the viewer understand that there is no sugar in the cage. On the other hand, the thermometer is linked to the title, particularly the word “sneeze”: we sneeze when we are cold. There are at least three factors that allude to cold: the marble, the title, and the thermometer. However, it is the left to the reader’s will to decide whether these allusions actually exist.

Cosmin Paulescu (Associate Professor Ph.D. at National University of Arts in Bucharest) provides a review of Dadaist artists including Duchamp (153). In the article, the author discusses the concepts significant to Dada; he also elaborates on Duchamp’s role in Dada (Paulescu 157). The Dada movement supported interpretation and imagination and focused on “transforming the spirit and the artistic techniques by using new materials” (Paulescu 158). Marble is a common material for classic art (Roman and Greek), but marble disguised as sugar is somewhat less familiar. Thus, Duchamp successfully reaches the Dadaist goal of redefining art in this readymade.

Satirical spirit is a common feature of Dada artists and works of art (Paulescu 161). As Duchamp said, one could take a painting made by Rembrandt and use it as an ironing board. Thus, the painting would become a readymade object (Paulescu 161). The satire of Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? is that it consists of ready-made objects such as the thermometer and the cage, but marble cubes as sugar cubes are not readymades. They can be mistaken for those, but nobody will use them in their tea. Though other works by Duchamp usually (but not always) remain the objects they once were, marble cubes are not sugar; they never were. Thus, the readymade is created to perpetrate a double trick: It consists of common objects placed into a context but also contains objects that are disguised as common ones (marble cubes/sugar). Can viewers perceive this as satire or irony? They may. It remains their choice.

In his article, Steven Goldsmith discusses Duchamp’s art from different perspectives: as opposition to “elite art,” as Dada art, as the proof that artists can decide whether these objects are works of art or not, and as a vehicle of the pure idea (197). At the same time, one should also remember that Duchamp himself considered his works intellectual, unlike many other Dada artists (Goldsmith 198). Using his readymades, Duchamp shows the viewer that any object can become art if placed in the right context and “chosen” by an artist. Therefore, the label “art” becomes meaningless since any object can be art (Goldsmith 199). In Duchamp’s work, the form is subordinated to the concept (Goldsmith 200). It is not the form that is important but the concept given to this form by an artist. Alternatively, a layman can also create a work of art by simply naming an object “a work of art,” which eventually leads to a blurred if not destroyed line between artist and layman (Goldsmith 200). The objects in Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? are all commonplace (or represent commonplace objects). However, placed in a specific context and labeled with a particular title, they become a work of art.

Duchamp is still considered one of the most influential modernist artists (Paulescu 160). Holler (the Doctor of Arts at Hamburg University) reviews the change that happened in Duchamp’s art: from impressionist style to readymades, from private art to public exhibitions (283). Duchamp’s art remains relevant and influential because he proved that it is not the form but the concept (the idea) that is vital in art. Furthermore, he also stated that objects could become works of art only if they were seen and acknowledged by an audience (Holler 283). Modern art often relies on the same idea: The famous An Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin or commodity sculptures also subordinate the form to the concept and play with the audience’s perception.

This work of art consists of a glass of water on a shelf and the artist’s note about it. Michael Craig-Martin asks the viewer to see an oak instead of the glass, but the oak will only be present in the viewer’s mind. He uses the concepts central for the Catholic church to allow viewers to transform the objects, just as bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ (Walker 20). Performance art, a highly popular movement today, completely relies on the relationships between the audience and the artist, the presented idea, and the audience’s perception of it. Therefore, Duchamp was a pioneer in presenting art within a specific context and engaging the audience to see (and accept or reject) this exact context.

Holler also points out that “Duchamp anticipated Warhol’s proclamation that everything can be art and prepared Beuys’s dictum that everybody is an artist” (283). It is difficult to imagine what would happen in modern art if Duchamp had never displayed his works. The relationships between the audience and the artist, crucial for many of today’s artists, might possibly be considered from another point of view. It is also possible that the postmodern discourse of the importance of the viewer (or the reader in literature) would be transformed or altered as well.

The ready-made Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? is open to interpretation, which again relies on the perception of the audience. The object does not provide the viewer with any definite meaning. Without knowing that “Rose Sélavy” was Duchamp’s pseudonym, the viewer can speculate about the name of the person mentioned, the purpose of the work of art, the meaning behind each object or the group of the displayed objects, the relationship between the cold marble and the sugar it represents. It appears that to decode the object (if it is possible), the audience needs to engage their imagination; otherwise, the cage with marble cubes will just remain the same cage. It seems reasonable to assume that Duchamp’s approach toward art and its perception is somewhat similar to the surrealist school of art, although these artists used other contexts and objects to address the problem of ideas, concepts, and imagination.

Duchamp was not a member of this movement, but he had a significant influence on it. Eva Fabbris discusses the relationships between Duchamp and the school, as well as the representatives of it (Fabbris 1). Surrealism emerged at the beginning of the 20th century; it saw art as a tool to explore the unconsciousness and symbols hidden in ourselves (Fabbris 1). Duchamp created several installations for the exhibitions of this movement. Although not all the ideas Duchamp suggested were seen by the representatives of this school as suitable, they were still regarded and accepted (Fabbris 2). It appears to me that Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? although not a surrealist work per se has several similarities with the works of art created by the artists of this school. It collaborates with visual perception, i.e., with illusions (marbles as sugar). It relies on symbolic interpretations as well, since cuttlebones and the coldness of the marble can be linked to death. Finally, the fact that the cage is painted white should not be neglected as well.

The white color is often perceived as a symbol of purity. However, the white color can also be related to a linguistic interpretation: pale as marble is equal to pale as snow. The coldness of the object becomes evident once the white color is taken into consideration. Paleness, coldness, and bones all lead to the same concept: illness or death. Although a readymade, the object provides different interpretations whereas the objects become allusions to the hidden ideas. The school takes a similar approach to explore such themes as dreaming, magic, and symbols in their work. Therefore, it appears reasonable to assume that Duchamp influenced surrealism and vice versa. Of course, those artists primarily used other forms of art to express their ideas: paintings and photography. Nevertheless, the work of Duchamp was similar to the discussed cultural movement in yet another way: Those works are often seen as “previous attempts of happening and environment” (Fabbris 3). Surrealists’ and Duchamp’s exhibitions included the spectator (Fabbris 3). As can be seen, the influence was mutual, and the relationships between the artist and the school of art eventually resulted in the emergence of entirely new movements: happenings and performances.

To conclude, Duchamp’s focus was on everyday objects that he transformed to show the viewer that anything could be a work of art if placed in another context. Duchamp’s aim was to show the viewer the antifunctionality of readymades by placing them in a new, often unexpected context. He asks the viewer whether everyday life does exist and how the viewer can distinguish it from anything else (Molesworth 59). The readymades disrupt logic and anticipation, making the beholder ponder on the significance of context and the concept of normality.

Works Cited

Fabbris, Eva E. academia. 2012, Web.

Goldsmith, Steven. “The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 42, no. 2, 1983, pp. 197-208.

Holler, Manfred J. “Paternalism, Gamification, or Art: An Introductory Note.” Homo Oeconomicus, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, pp. 275-286.

Molesworth, Helen. “Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades.” Art Journal, vol. 57, no. 4, 1998, pp. 50-61.

National Gallery of Australia. nga, n.d., Web.

Paulescu, Cosmin. “The 20th Century–Conformism and Dissent in Artistic Technique, the Opposition between Tradition and Innovation.” Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 153-166.

Prager, Phillip. “Play and the Avant-Garde: Aren’t We All a Little Dada?.” American Journal of Play, vol. 5, no. 2, 2013, 239- 256.

Walker, Dorothy. Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes. Douglas Hyde Gallery, 2001.

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