Found Art (objet trouvé) is a genre of art that refers to artworks created from everyday, often discarded, objects. In most cases, the objects used in found art originally had a non-artistic purpose. Typically, the artist will modify these 'found objects', or display them in a context that is decidedly different from the viewers expectations.
Pablo Picasso first presaged the idea when he pasted a printed image of a chair onto his painting, 'Still Life with Chair Caning' (1912). But as a genre, the seeds of 'found art' started with the movement known as Dada. Dada was a highly politicized, 'protest art' movement, which began in the early years of the 20th century. It was a reaction to the capitalism and colonialism of the era, and was formulated specifically to 'shock' the public. One of its early proponents was artist, Marcel Duchamp. For an exhibit in 1917, Duchamp purchased a standard urinal from a hardware store, and displayed it, unaltered, on a pedestal. Calling it 'Fountain', Duchamp simply declared it as 'art', and that was that.
A Genre of Controversy
The interesting, and certainly controversial, aspect about 'found art' is the assumption that these works are to be considered 'art' simply because the artist declares it to be so. The artist attempts to imbue these works with a kind of cultural importance, when, presented in another setting, they might otherwise be considered nothing more than discarded 'trash'. The critical element, from the artist's perspective, is context. Duchamp's 'Fountain', for example, became a work of art only by virtue of its being included in an 'art exhibit'. Nothing else about the piece made it any different than all the other urinals for sale in the hardware store from which it was purchased. In that respect, 'found art' challenges our notion and understanding of 'what is art', more so than any other genre.
What Is It?
Over the years, the 'found art' genre has appealed to a wide variety of artists, from Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, and Salvadore Dali, to Haim Steinbach, Tracey Emin, John Chamberlain, and Douglas Coupland. These artists employ a variety of different methods in their creations. The process of creating this type of artwork varies from artist to artist. Some assemble unlikely combinations of objects in a sculptural setting. Others may attach pictures or pieces of fabric, for example, to complete a collage or painting's (as Picasso did in 'Still Life With Chair'). Some use everyday household objects, while others scour thrift stores and garage sales in hopes of finding something useful to use. Others, like John Chamberlain, prefer to create their masterpieces out of discarded 'trash'. Their artwork is often a statement about recycling, and keeping discarded objects out of landfills.
Often times, the purpose of the artist is, sometimes, to simply 'get our attention'. And one way to do this is to confound and annoy us. For it is they who are tasked with showing us what we cannot see for ourselves. In the end, art, like history, is a statement about what is important, and what, about ourselves, we think should be preserved.