The term found art—more commonly found object (objet trouvé) or readymade—describes art created from the undisguised, but often modified, use of objects that are not normally considered art, often because they already have a mundane, utilitarian function. Marcel Duchamp was the originator of this in the early 20th-century.
Found art derives significance from the designation placed upon it by the artist. The context into which it is placed (e.g. a gallery or museum) is usually also a highly relevant factor. The idea of dignifying commonplace objects in this way was originally a shocking challenge to the accepted distinction between what was considered art as opposed to not art. Although it is now widely accepted in the art world as a viable practice, it continues to arouse media and public hostility, as with the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize exhibition of Tracey Emin's My Bed, which consisted literally of her unmade and dishevelled bed.
Found art, however, has to have the artist's input, at the very least an idea about it, i.e. the artist's designation of the object as art, which is nearly always reinforced with a title. There is mostly also some degree of modification of the object, although not to the extent that it cannot be recognised. The modification may lead to it being designated a "modified", "interpreted" or "adapted" found object.
Marcel Duchamp coined the term readymade in 1915 to describe his found art. Duchamp assembled the first readymade, entitled Bicycle Wheel in 1913, the same time as his Nude Descending a Staircase was attracting the attention of critics at the International Exhibition of Modern Art. His Fountain, a urinal which he signed with the pseudonym "R. Mutt", shocked the art world in 1917. Bottle Rack is a bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp, and is considered to be the first "pure" readymade.
Research by Rhonda Roland Shearer indicates that Duchamp may have fabricated his found objects. Exhaustive research of mundane items like snow shovels and bottle racks in use at the time failed to reveal identical matches. The urinal, upon close inspection, is non-functional. However, there are accounts of Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella being with Duchamp when he purchased the original Fountain at J. L. Mott Iron Works.
The combination of several found objects is a type of readymade sometimes known as an assemblage. Another such example is Marcel Duchamp's Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy?, consisting of a small birdcage containing a thermometer, cuttlebone, and 151 marble cubes resembling sugar cubes.
By the time of the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in 1936 a whole range of sub-classifications had been devised—most of which are now only of historical interest—including found objects, readymade objects, perturbed objects, mathematical objects, natural objects, interpreted natural objects, incorporated natural objects, Oceanic objects, American objects and Surrealist objects. At this time Surrealist leader, André Breton, defined readymades as "manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art through the choice of the artist."
Pablo Picasso used found objects as the basis for Baboon and Young, and joined a bicycle saddle with handle bars to make a bull's head.
In the 1960s found objects were present in both the Fluxus movement and in Pop art. Joseph Beuys exhibited modified found objects, such as rocks with a hole in them stuffed with fur and fat, a van with sledges trailing behind it, and a rusty girder.
In the 1980s, a variation of found art emerged called commodity sculpture where commercially mass-produced items would be arranged in the art gallery as sculpture. The focus of this variety of sculpture was on the marketing, display of products. These artists included Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Ashley Bickerton (who later moved on to do other kinds of work).
A specific sub-genre of found art is known as trash art or junk art. These works are primarily comprised from components that have been discarded. Often they come quite literally from the trash. Many organizations sponsor junk art competitions.
Found art can also occur on the internet, where an image found on the internet can become the core component of a larger artwork made by modifying the image through basic computer graphic tools.
An exception in 2003 was the Chapman Brothers use of a set of Francisco Goya prints, The Disasters of War, which they "adapted" by collaging clown and puppy faces onto the figures. The prints were valuable already in their own right as art.
Damien Hirst has suggested that a painting can be considered an adapted found object (the object being paint), i.e. the whole history of art is based on the found objects.
In the 19th century, the French writer Comte de Lautréamont had drawn attention to the possibilities of transforming the otherwise mundane object the now famous phrase, "Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table."
The found object in art has been a subject of polarised debate in Britain throughout the 1990s due to the use of it by the YBAs. It has been rejected by the general public and journalists, and supported by public museums and art critics. In his 2000 Dimbleby lecture, Who's afraid of modern art, Sir Nicholas Serota advocated such kinds of "difficult" art, while quoting opposition such as the Daily Mail headline "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all". A more unexpected rejection in 1999 came from artists—some of whom had previously worked with found objects—who founded the Stuckists group and issued a manifesto denouncing such work in favour of a return to painting with the statement "Ready-made art is a polemic of materialism".