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What Makes Something Art?

Updated on December 5, 2014

Readymades by Marcel Duchamp

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)
L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919) | Source
Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp (1951)
Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp (1951) | Source

The Art of the Readymade

Can a person make art if he or she does not have the concept of art? Of course they can. Take for instance the work of Marcel Duchamp and his piece titled L.H.O.O.Q; "In 1919 Marcel Duchamp penciled a mustache and goatee on a print of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and inscribed the work 'L.H.O.O.Q.' Spelled out in French these letters form a risqué pun: Elle a chaud au cul, or 'She has hot pants.' Intentionally disrespectful, Duchamp's defacement was meant to express the Dadaists' rejection of both artistic and cultural authority" (Trachtman). Would you consider a mustache sketch on a postcard of Mona Lisa to be a work of art? How many times have you drawn a mustache on a photograph of a person in a magazine or a newspaper?

We have all done it at least once, but yet it never gets recognized as being art. However, Marcel Duchamp succeeded at creating art with the simple act of drawing a mustache in a moment of rebellion. He also created another famous piece that we might laugh at for being called art; "Bicycle Wheel is Duchamp’s first readymade, a class of objects he invented to challenge assumptions about what constitutes a work of art. Duchamp combined two mass-produced parts—a bicycle wheel and fork and a kitchen stool—to create a type of nonfunctional machine. By simply selecting prefabricated items and calling them art, he subverted established notions of the artist’s craft and the viewer’s aesthetic experience" ("Bicycle Wheel). Duchamp's irrational artworks would soon prompt other artists to create similar pieces, thus beginning the art movement known as Dada.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Hoch (1919-1920)
Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Hoch (1919-1920) | Source

Changing the Rules on Defining Art

I am sure these Duchamp and other artists involved in the Dada movement had an understanding as to what the definition of art is and what it means to society, but their perception of art created entirely different pieces than what society was used to at the time. Isn't that what every art movement in our history was all about? A new perception of the world gets explored, expression or a lack thereof becomes noticed in the works of various artists, rebellion plays out and rules are broken.

This how we create a new movement of art and this is how the rules of art throughout our time become challenged and changed. Even though the artworks all look different and all the art movements have different characteristics, it does not mean we stop calling it art. If you go to your local bookstore and purchase "The Art Book," you will notice how one page of artworks is completely different than that of another page. However all these pieces are related, because they are universally known as works of art.

I remember being taught in art school that if you created something you thought to be art it had to be recognized as such by you and then recognized by others as such and then it had to be displayed and titled as a work of art within a public showing, museum, exhibition, etc. If that is what it takes to have your creative work become acknowledged as art then is there really a concept to art? Here is something interesting to consider;

"If various people say of a mole that it is a burrowing mammal of the family Talpidae, a spy who remains dormant for a time before becoming active, a concentration of melanin on the skin. a pier or breakwater, and a unit of chemistry, they do not disagree because each is referring to a different meaning of the English word mole. And if one person says a mole has dark velvety fur and another apparently denies this, saying that a mole is typically constructed of stone, wood, metal, or concrete, their disagreement is more apparent than real, because they have different meanings of the word mole in mind. According to this view, something similar is true of art when one theorist says it is universal and ancient and the other appears to deny this" (Davies 10).

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)
American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930) | Source

Art is a Personal Journey

Overall, the point I am making is that we all have our own definition as to what art is, what it means to us and our personal preference as to what we like and appreciate about it. There are works of art which we find repulsive, shocking, distasteful, admirable, wonderful, exhilaration, etc. Our perception of art, its concept and value all come from within us and vary from person to person. Rules in one art movement did not apply to another art movement.

There were always those when each art movement appeared who either hated or loved what the movement was all about and the kinds of works that were produced. It is no different today. We still chuckle at the work of Marcel Duchamp and question what exactly was he thinking by doing this and why is it now worth millions of dollars? That is the beauty of our art world. Rules are meant to be broken and boundaries are meant to be crossed, but the concept that art is an expression and the viewer defines their own relationship to the work does not falter.

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty


Davies, Stephen. "Evolution and Culture." The Philosophy of Art. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. 10. Print.

"The Collection: Bicycle Wheel." MoMA, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2013. <>.

Trachtman, Paul. "Dada." Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, May 2006. Web. 30 Jan. 2013. <>.


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