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  • Bianca Vinther

The commonplace as creative strategy: an introduction to visual literacy for artists

What’s your approach to the banal as an artist?

Picture of an open window and of its reflection in a mirror.

In the preface to his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, the American philosopher and art theorist Arthur C. Danto claims that, the metamorphosis of the banal and ordinary starts in the visual arts with M. Duchamp, for

“(…) it would have been he, as a matter of art-historical precedent, who first performed the subtle miracle of transforming, into works of art, objects from the Lebenswelt of commonplace existence: a grooming comb, a bottle rack, a bicycle, a urinal.”

Taking the banal and turning it into art! I find this mind-blowing, don’t you? Mind-blowing and completely real. Tell me, how many times have you looked at Duchamp’s first readymade, Fountain, from 1917? And how often did you ask yourself: how can a urinal be art?! And why??

Picture of an urinal in porcelain signed R. Mutt and dated 1917.
"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp (1917). Photography by A. Stieglitz.

In this blog post I’m going to reveal the secret behind the process of transfiguring the banal. The secret that doesn’t start with exhibiting the object, nor does it end with it. The secret that starts in the mind of the artist, continues when the object is perceived by its viewers, and culminates with the “canonization” of the object as a work of art.

Duchamp exhibited a readymade urinal, which he turned to 90 degrees. But he didn’t make the urinal. He didn’t even alter it except for signing the object with the fictional name “R. Mutt”, dating it to 1917, and naming it Fountain. This is crazy, isn’t it? Crazy ingenious, indeed!

So, what did Duchamp actually do? He provoked the world to think about the true meaning of art. Beyond the conventional thinking-grid. Beyond constrictions. He made the Fountain into an art manifesto.

Duchamp made a urinal into an object of art because “he CHOSE it (…) and created a new thought for that object.” (The Blind Man, May 1917/2) He transformed the banal into art by seeing and naming it differently. Through his unique perception of reality. Because he saw art wherever he was, and he understood the power of art to change the world.

Duchamp’s Fountain is a reminder that art exists independently of its works. It's created under the influence of our ideas and expectations of it, which are never static and never valid for all time.