The Use of Objects (excerpt)

by Nicolas Bourriaud

The difference between artists who produce works based on objects already produced and those who operate ex nihilo is one that Karl Marx observes in German Ideology: there is a difference, he says, between natural tools of production (e.g., working the earth) and tools of production created by civilization. In the first case, Marx argues, individuals are subordinate to nature. In the second, they are dealing with a "product of labor," that is, capital, a mixture of accumulated labor and tools of production. These are only held together by exchange, an interhuman transaction embodied by a third term, money. The art of the twentieth century developed according to a similar schema: the industrial revolution made its effects felt, but with some delay. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a bottle rack in 1914 and used a mass-produced object as a "tool of production," he brought the capitalist process of production (working on the basis of accumulated labor) into the sphere of art, while at the same time indexing the role of the artist to the world of exchange: he suddenly found kinship with the merchant, content to move products from one place to another. Duchamp started from the principle that consumption was also a mode of production, as did Marx, who writes in his introduction to Critique of Political Economy that "consumption is simultaneously also production, just as in nature the production of a plant involves the consumption of elemental forces and chemical materials."

Marx adds that "man produces his own body, e.g., through feeding, one form of consumption." A product only becomes a real product in consumption; as Marx goes on to say, "a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn, a house which is uninhabited is indeed not really a house."(1) Because consumption creates the need for new production, consumption is both its motor and motive. This is the primary virtue of the readymade: establishing an equivalence between choosing and fabricating, consuming and producing . . .


1. Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; Translated by S. W. Ryazanikaya, Maurice Does (Ed.); New York; 1970; 195-96.