I am trying to describe the use of an object in a non-traditional way, and am trying to use philosophical language to talk about this. Specifically, I am describing sculptural art that uses recognizable, ready-made objects in ways that do not reflect their “proper function.”

A very famous example is Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) sculpture. It is an artwork that uses a stool and a bicycle wheel in a non-traditional manner. That is, they are put together in a new way, are used for a new function (?) — art — but the components are still recognizable as being a bicycle wheel and a stool. You cannot use either part for their original purpose, but they have taken on a very important new function. If you are familiar with the history of conceptual art, you will know that Bicycle Wheel and Duchamp’s Fountain sculpture are foundational works, so it seems that these objects have importance as art.

I have also been looking at examples in the non-art world, for example I found a "lifehack" in which you scrape your windshield with a CD (yes, a compact disc). The CD is still recognizable as a CD, but it is being used to scrape a windshield. Let’s say the CD is doing a very good job at scraping the windshield.

I was pointed in the direction of this article about Aristotle’s notion of function (ergon), and how it is linked to telos. However, this article seems mostly focused on the “proper function” of an object, and it seems that “improper functions” are just an “inessential side effect” which doesn’t seem quite right to me (see 16th paragraph of the answer.)

I want to read more about how "improper functions" relate to the "proper functions" of an object. Or if objects even have "proper functions." Or if these functions change in relation to other objects.


So my question is: is there any specific philosopher/philosophy that could help me talk about this subject? Is there a term that describes this “misuse” of an object, and how that relates to its objecthood?

Just a note: I am not a philosopher, but an art writer, so if I am missing something obvious/well-known, let me know! Also, I probably invented a lot of terms.


2 Answers 2


This is the title topic in Arthur C. Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.


As Chris Sunami mentioned, Danto is a very good starting point for this. In one of his essays in Philosophizing Art, Danto writes about "The Philosopher as Andy Warhol", praising him for his genius (a remark which, he mentions, almost cost him his friendship with Robert Motherwell).

For Danto, Warhol was almost something like a... Nietzsche of Art, actually bringing painting to its knees and surrendering it to philosophy. The discussion surfaced, of course, while attempting to distinguish between the Brillo box that was not art and the Brillo box that was (which, by the way, was designed by an abstract expressionist – Steve Harvey and is packed with symbols). What makes one art and the other a soap box? Well, the answer comes, they are, actually, both art. But one of them is commercial art and the other one is fine art. By doing what he did best, Warhol turned our world, our soap boxes and soup cans and whatever have you into art. The boundaries between art and the world got blurred.

Danto thinks that:

unlike Duchamps, Warhol sought to set up a resonance not so much between art and real objects as between art and images, it having been his insight, that our signs and images are our reality.

Couple that with Baudrillard saying that today there is no such thing as reality! That the world we live in is only a Simulacrum! That we live from images and only images! Images, surfaces, appearances.

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