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What Is Found Art?

Found art, also known as 'objet trouvé,' transforms everyday objects into compelling artwork, challenging our perceptions of art and the ordinary. By recontextualizing the mundane, artists like Duchamp invite us to see the world anew. How might the items around you inspire a different view of creativity? Discover the possibilities as we delve deeper into the world of found art.
Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

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.

Writer William S. Burroughs used the concept of found art to create poetry.
Writer William S. Burroughs used the concept of found art to create poetry.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is found art and how does it differ from traditional art forms?

Found art, also known as objet trouvé, is an art form where the artist uses objects not originally intended as art materials and repurposes them into a piece of art. Unlike traditional art forms that often involve creating from raw materials like paint or clay, found art is about the artist's choice and context. By selecting and designating an everyday object as art, the artist gives it a new meaning and status, challenging conventional notions of what art can be.

Who was the pioneer of found art, and what was one of the most famous examples?

The pioneer of found art was French artist Marcel Duchamp. One of his most famous examples is the "Fountain" (1917), a standard urinal which he signed "R. Mutt" and submitted to an art exhibition. This act questioned the very nature of art and its creation, sparking debate and redefining modern art. Duchamp's work laid the groundwork for conceptual art and influenced generations of artists to explore the artistic potential of everyday objects.

Can found art be considered fine art, and has it been accepted by the art community?

Found art has indeed been accepted by the art community and can be considered fine art. Over the years, it has gained recognition and legitimacy, with works being displayed in prestigious galleries and museums worldwide. The acceptance of found art as fine art is a testament to the evolving definitions and boundaries of what is considered art, reflecting a broader understanding of artistic expression and creativity.

How does found art contribute to discussions about consumerism and the environment?

Found art often sparks conversations about consumerism and the environment by repurposing discarded or everyday objects. Artists may use found art to critique the throwaway culture and the mass production of goods, highlighting issues of waste and sustainability. By transforming trash or mundane items into art, they draw attention to the lifecycle of products and encourage viewers to reconsider their consumption habits and the impact on the environment.

Are there any legal considerations when creating found art from existing objects?

Yes, there are legal considerations when creating found art. Artists must be mindful of copyright and property laws, as using certain objects could infringe on someone else's intellectual property rights. Additionally, if an artist uses found objects that are not legally obtained or that have restrictions on their use, they could face legal challenges. It's important for artists to ensure that the objects incorporated into their work are either in the public domain or that they have permission to use them.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


@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.


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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    • Writer William S. Burroughs used the concept of found art to create poetry.
      Writer William S. Burroughs used the concept of found art to create poetry.