Pissing on Art

It was no insignificant moment in the history of art when the Society of Independent Artists received a work titled Fountain and signed R. Mutt, for display at their exhibition. The Society prided itself on not having a jury to select works for display; this meant that all artists who had paid the fees of 6 dollars could display their work. However, Fountain was decreed to be so appalling that it was returned to the sender.

Marcel Duchamp’s submission, titled Fountain and sent under the pseudonym R. Mutt, was a urinal. Although initially a painter, Duchamp had begun concentrating on other aspects of art as well. Among other things, the First World War played a major role in reshaping his perception of art. On one occasion he said, “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.” Fountain is one of the most prominent examples of Duchamp’s attempt at challenging the existing ideas of art.

The urinal submitted by him was presumably store bought, with Duchamp’s only addition being the signature R. Mutt. Although Duchamp never revealed what it actually stood for, critics have interpreted it in several ways. According to one interpretation, the ‘R’ stands for Richard, which means ‘money bags’ in French, and according to another, R. Mutt was used as a play off of ‘Mott Iron Works’, the company that had produced Duchamp’s urinal. Apart from being an extremely well planned practical joke, Fountain aimed at questioning the very concept of what can and cannot be considered art, making one rethink the link between labour and the merit of the artwork.

The Fountain was part of Duchamp’s Readymades, a collection of mass-produced, utilitarian objects which he chose to elevate to the status of art. These were in answer to what he called “retinal art” or art that is judged merely by aesthetic value. According to him, art was anything that the artist wanted it to be. The focus is on choosing an object to be termed as art; thus, the artist changes from being the maker to the chooser. An anonymous editorial of the time read, “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.” Thus, the question of ‘who is an artist?’ arises, and one wonders if there is any skill involved in being an artist at all.

Duchamp’s choice of a urinal as a part of his collection of Readymades makes the Fountain even more notorious than it would have been otherwise. The articles of the time all referred to it as a bathroom appliance, never specifying what it really was. Duchamp replies to the validity of a “bathroom fixture” being termed as art by saying, “As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”

Thus, while Duchamp was questioning the very nature of what should and should not be considered immoral or vulgar, we also see him exercising his very dry sense of humour. According to Duchamp, “A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing. If Americans would simply remember their own sense of humour instead of listening to the critics, modern art will come into its own.”

Today, Fountain has become an extremely important and well-recognized symbol of modern art. Although the original disappeared soon after it was rejected by the Independents (art can’t be “retinal” if you don’t see it at all!), there have been several replicas since. It is ironic that while Duchamp made a statement by putting in no effort at all to create his piece, artisans today take immense pains in crafting replicas to resemble the original almost exactly.

Artists such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine have chosen not to make exact replicas, but have presented their own takes on the work. While the former created Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917) (2015), by smashing a porcelain urinal and piecing it back together, the latter made Fountain (Madonna) (1991) in bronze. Both these artists retain Duchamp’s initial questions challenging the constitution of art while adding some questions of their own. Bidlo’s work removes not only functionality but also beauty from the urinal, furthering Duchamp’s questions about art, while Levine adds the aspect of gender, questioning the implication of a man having ‘chosen’ the work in 1917.

While the perception of Fountain has changed significantly over the years, from being thoroughly dismissed by the Independents in the beginning of the 20th century to being widely accepted almost as a universal symbol for modern art, one cannot deny the immense impact it had on the world of art when it was “created” by Duchamp. He not only floated the idea of separating the merit of an artwork from the skill involved in its creation, but also stretched the concept of art to include things that were conventionally left out. With his historic move, Duchamp opened our minds to a different way of perceiving art, one which can never be forgotten.

Mike Bidlo – Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917) (2015)

Sherrie Levine- Fountain (Madonna) (1991)

Author: Purvi Rajpuria

References

https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/feb/09/art

https://scroll.in/article/833703/marcel-duchamps-fountain-how-a-reject-became-the-toast-of-the-art-world

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-duchamps-urinal-changed-art-forever

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