Unpacking the Cultural Readymade

Unpacking the Cultural Readymade


In 1995, Ai Weiwei photographed himself dropping an urn from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The Guggenheim Bilbao revisited this piece in 2018 with the photos’ inclusion in the exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, citing this as a core work in the country’s recent history, writing that:

Some were outraged by this work, calling it an act of desecration. Ai countered by saying, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” This statement refers to the widespread destruction of antiquities during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the instruction that in order to build a new society one must destroy the si jiu (Four Olds): old customs, habits, culture, and ideas. By dropping the urn, Ai lets go of the social and cultural structures that impart value.

The urn is what Weiwei refers to as a “cultural readymade”; this is a reference to the readymades of Duchamp fame, where an artist takes objects that exist to serve a functional purpose and recontextualizes them to create art.  To imply that the urn is an artifact which now holds value on a cultural level simply because it survived history insinuates that more than that the object is outdated beyond use; it is too rich in meaning and too rare to be used, rendering it useless nonetheless. No contemporary person would actually put flowers in this urn, only observe and remember a time long gone; a new relevance has made it a cultural readymade. 

Ai Weiwei has said, “It’s powerful only because someone thinks it’s powerful and invests value in the object.” This is the heart of the issue, as it appears to refer to the urn itself, but in turn refers to his own piece.

The urn was intended for mundane use, this was its outcome for quite some time, until it became an object of respect with the passage of time, which was never intended. While Weiwei refers to the outcome of what occurs when an object continues to exist throughout time, the commentary on its intended use is inherent; relate intention to cause and outcome to effect, there was a reason for its creation and he questions the new meaning it has taken because it was once simply an urn. Intention and outcome, cause and effect, one would not exist without the notion of its opposite. Very seldom do I find myself believing that intention outweighs effect, but to define something as limitless as art, something is to be said for that damned other side. If a utilitary item, say a cup from Ikea, is strictly meant to be used to drink out of then that is its purpose and nobody would say it is art. Now, you could argue that human-centered design is art and that the product is a result of great deliberation, but the process of industrializing an object removes the intention. In the style of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, as each iteration of the cup moves further from a human expression into a mechanized one that leaves you solely with the product: a cup. It is no longer an original, the original product had a goal, but each reproduction thereafter only has a goal of creating ‘another’. With that thought aside, the taking of these objects and simply calling them novel, makes them so; the idea of the cultural readymade, giving significance to something that otherwise would not. We do this with a great many things. What Ai Weiwei calls into question with his dropping of the urn is not only why we ascribe value to that particular object, but why we give history the power to turn things into something that they were never intended to be. It is a question.

An example of a theoretical historical interpretation gone astray is demonstrated in Denis Dutton’s piece, Tribal Art and Artifact, where he describes a situation once theorized by Arthur Danto, in which a tribe on one side of the mountain is called the Pot People and on the other side are the Basket People. Neither have ever come into contact with one another, but both require both pots and baskets. The Basket People bestow a certain prestige and put forth spiritual energy into their baskets, as the Pot People do with their pots, but to the former their pots are just for water and to the latter their baskets are just for carrying. This is all fine within their respective contexts. The question of meaning comes when the Basket’s baskets & the Pot’s pots are put into the Fine Arts Museum (as that is their special aesthetic craft) and the Basket’s pots & the Pot’s baskets are put into the Natural History Museum (as it is a utilitarian craft). Despite my own personal vendetta against Natural History Museums and their intensely racist past & present, the example persists. An individual that visits either museum and sees both exhibits may generate confusion to any onlookers that are not a part of said communities, as the pots and baskets look the same. So what makes one art and one an object? The intention. This demonstrates that the person rendering a false reality upon these items, simply looked at them and deemed them equal, rather than investigating circumstance. It also brings up a multitude of deeply expansive and insidious issues: the oversimplification of indigenous life, the theft of indigenous artifacts, the misinterpretation of stolen items, etc. However, these issues have been buried in order to title the objects as ‘rare’ items. Now, instead of being considered by their intrinsic value as items that served a purpose, they are valued only by this ‘rareness’. They put a lens of craftsmanship atop a normal item simply because it is so removed from our own manufactured items, like the Ikea cup. This is evermore dangerous because it solidifies a belief that if we can historicize these items by putting them into a museum, it creates an idea that there is no longer active colonization and in turn makes an artifact of the culture it self, further perpetuating the idea that anything not industrialized is art. It is in this way that even the notion of history is manipulative. We are told the urn has value as a cultural marker, and so it becomes a treacherous self-identifier that layers upon a force fed reality. Sometimes we are told things are true, while we decide that other things are true. 

The Han Dynasty cemented a certain root of culture that has deeply affected China’s trajectory and is revered to this day. Yet, this origin is at odds with another important part of its history: the Cultural Revolution, wherein many cultural readymades—what are also referred to as traditional items or heirlooms—were destroyed as a way to transfer their status to new objects. At the risk of oversimplification, a person arguing that the vase should have been dropped is equally as valid as somebody that says it should not have for both sides views are informed by their experiences. Visceral emotions do not prove a point, they prove a perspective and regardless of perspective, it was dropped and therefore I say: who cares? 

To label is to forget, a means of writing off, of deeming an object understood quickly. To recognize something as a part of Brand DNA, say a Tabi boot as a part of Maison Margiela’s legacy, does not indicate an understanding of history, but neither does rattling off the source of inspiration and the use of the Jika-tabi in the Edo Period (1603-1867, Japan). Jika-tabi shoes were made to fit a particular circumstance, then, centuries later, a designer enjoyed the looks of them, and created a boot that paid homage to it in a way so far removed that people seldom understand the history behind the original. These Margiela classics have taken on a life of their own; they were made with different intentions and have a different outcome. To understand the Tabi as a part of the fashion house’s iconography is equally as valid as to understand the history of the original, we see them as a shoe and therefore the boots simply exist as we contextualize them to fit our own background understanding. 

I recently watched Kirsten Dunst’s Architectural Digest home tour video and she proudly proclaimed that she owns Jackie O’s door. I repeat: who cares? This door only has prominence outside of its function because of its relation to a person, everything in relation to something labels its existence. When this door found something new to be related to, it took on its own new relevance. It became a cultural readymade (though only to those within said culture, as most other people would still only see a door). If a factor within these dynamics is of personal interest a person will care about it, otherwise one could claim to simply see the thing ‘as it is’, though that is no more nor less ‘true’ than the person that decides it has additional value; I watched the video because I enjoyed Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides (1999), a movie that I watched because I like Sofia Coppola, a director I like because I consumed Rookie Mag growing up. These things stack upon each other and create a lore: a niche history. Any particular lore may be developed around any object, even around a table you always sit at outside your favorite cafe, it is just a table, but you build a story around it in relation to what you have experienced. It is entirely valid for people passing by to see it solely for the intention in which it was created. So, who is the iconoclast? The one that does not ascribe new meaning because time has passed or the one that does?

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