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What Is Found Art?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Found art is art that is created with ordinary objects, such as household appliances, industrial equipment, or even seemingly random junk. Sometimes called found object art, its purpose is to force viewers to question the meaning of art, and what distinguishes art objects from non-art objects. Marcel Duchamp and other Surrealists pioneered the use of found object art in the early 20th century. It was controversial with audiences and critics of the time, and has remained the subject of controversy ever since.

The Surrealists, influenced by the Dadaists, sought to redefine the meaning of art as it was commonly understood. Before they came to prominence, art was largely defined by critics, museum curators, and a small group of established painters and sculptors. It tended toward a narrow and somewhat conformist definition of beauty and art. The Surrealists felt that art should challenge the assumptions of its audience and inflame passions. The first events provoked outrage and sometimes even riots, which the Surrealists took as marks of success.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp debuted the first found art piece, Fountain. Fountain was, in fact, a common urinal which Duchamp had enshrined on a pedestal and placed in an art museum. Duchamp called his found art pieces "readymades," referring to the ease with which they were created. Other readymade pieces included bottle racks, snow shovels, and coat racks. Viewers were left to wonder if these were intended as serious art pieces or jokes at the expense of the art world; Duchamp hinted at both.

Despite audience incredulity and critical derision, many other artists presented their own found art pieces in the following years. These included such influential figures as Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. Found art played a key role in the postmodernist movement of the late 20th century. It has influenced later art trends such as "trash art" and the Young British Artists movement of the 1990s. While the intent remains to question accepted notions of art, many viewers continue to find these pieces mystifying at best.

Nevertheless, found art has had a wide influence outside the field of fine art. Musicians such as John Cage, The KLF, and The Books have incorporated random sounds into their music, often remixing these sounds in creative ways. Writers such as William S. Burroughs and Adrian Henri employed similar methods to create books and poetry, a process Burroughs called "cut-up technique." Filmmakers and video artists use found footage to create their own works, sometimes called remixes or "mashups." In the 21st century, the found art format has benefited from numerous new technologies in editing, image manipulation, and digital distribution.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Dec 27, 2013

@croydon - I guess, to me, if someone is willing to pay for a piece of simple found art, which did not require artistic skill on the part of the artist to prepare, then that's their business. Art is completely relative. That's the whole point of found art.

But I think that you have to take that thought to the natural conclusion that there is actually no point in paying massive amounts (or any amount) of money for something unless it has the capacity to bring you pleasure. If it can do that, it's art.

By croydon — On Dec 27, 2013

@pleonasm - I think most of the time found art tends to be more sophisticated than that now. People try to make a real statement of it and often will create something new from collected junk or will simply try to show people the beauty or meaning in things they just walk past without noticing.

I mean, if putting a plastic bag into a gallery means that people look at it in a new way, I don't think it's a bad thing.

By pleonasm — On Dec 27, 2013

Sometimes I think this can be a little bit lazy. I saw someone making a parody of this recently where they were trying to sell a bunch of household cleaning items, like sponges and things as an arrangement of art.

They were charging thousands of dollars, but I'm sure if someone famous was attached to the art it would have been bought.

I mean, I know you can look at almost anything and see the visual value in it, but that really does apply to anything. I don't see why a plastic bag needs to be put into an art gallery to be considered worth noticing.

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