Part 2: The Most Famous Urinal in the World

July 26, 2022

Part 2: The Most Famous Urinal in the World

The J.L. Mott Iron Works

The entry and rejection of Duchamp’s readymade, Fountain, would be a Declaration of Play, in art and in life. His humble porcelain piece would sow a vision of a world where war was not possible. Elegant and notorious, Duchamp confronted the art world’s establishment, creating street theater that is a handbook on how art liberated leads to a playful life.

The Impressionists had crashed the gates of the government-controlled art industry in France by mounting their own exhibitions apart from the Salons. Beginning in 1874, the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs presented the works of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Morisot, and the Société des Artistes Independents did the same, beginning in 1886. The public considered where an artist showed to be more important than the paintings actual style. So anything not in the official Salon was by default Impressionist.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, with Shepherd [Photo by Laura Anders]

Cubism had managed to distinguish itself and had been the rage.Picasso delivered the first stunner with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. By 1912, Duchamp matched

him with Nu descendant un escalier (Nude descending a staircase, No. 2), arguably the more essential Cubist example. But Duchamp was already bored. “Cubism is a dead end!” he declared. Impressionism, Cubism, were radical, but not liberating. Duchamp went after bigger game in a bigger city. In the middle of June 1915, he arrived in New York. In that freer, more permissive air, he would resonate, match and reverberate dada’s public noise from across the Atlantic.

Duchamp was part of the Society of Independent Artists, a small group that formed in 1916 with the intention of mounting annual exhibitions for underexposed artists in a noncompetitive show. They would feature two works by any artist who could muster the five-dollar annual dues and a one-dollar initiation fee. “No jury, no prizes” (no competing) was its policy.

How far could this breakaway from convention go? No competition meant that the artist was freed to explore more novel ideas.

Duchamp set out to take ART to the level where it would mix freely with modern LIFE. What choice connects them? he mused. I will present the Independents with “Everyday objects raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice.” And I choose…the urinal. He titled it Fountain, and signed it with the name ‘R. Mutt,’ taken from the J. L. Mott Iron Works where it was purchased.

The dealers whined. No, no, no, we can’t display a urinal as a piece of art. We’re building a new commercial enterprise here. We can’t sell that. We can’t approve that. The collectors complained. The critics protested. We reject you. Bring us art. You’ve gone too far, Marcel. Can’t you be more like that Picasso guy?

But there was no stopping him. In a public airing out of the controversy, the editors of The Blind Man (most likely Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood) declared:

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 usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.[1]

While not a classic trickster poop or fart joke, the scatology associated with Fountain comes close enough to the trickster’s aim to depose power and faux dignity with scatological humor.

This was Duchamp, this was dada. Its insubordinate ethos challenged the sense and seriousness of art, and of existence, and exploded the art world with the playfulness of the child, positing café society as a social model. La belle époque opened a window on the play opportunity and the dadas jumped eagerly through it.

Regardless of its intention to NOT be art, Duchamp was too popular, too important to be ignored. The critics had to make a show of understanding this, somehow squeeze this three-dimensional urinal—this piece of life—into the two-dimensional stock responses of art criticism. It’s really beautiful, this is not just any urinal; it shows classic lines even as it thrusts us into the twentieth century…. You know, there’s a sublime suggestion of sex here…. After all, the urinal is, well, you know…. Note the female passivity in the receptacle of the phallic, and how Duchamp has carefully laid the piece on its side.

No. No. And no. Fountain, the urinal experience, is not about observing the quality of the lines, any deep symbolism, the porcelain, or the inscription, though how sex intersects with modern technology is Duchamp’s defining theme. Today, the shock value is past tense but the intention is clear. To submit a common urinal as art was to playfully disrupt the transition from the old patronage system to the new marketplace of dealers, critics and publicists. Duchamp dared them to try and market such an outrageous piece of “art.” He sharply reminded these brash entrepreneurs that the revolution in art was not made to line their pockets; he did not create in order to sell, but to introduce play into life and all that that suggests. Fifty years before Andy Warhol would beatify the Campbell soup can, Duchamp encouraged us to make ordinary life beautiful with the same tools of perception we use to make beautiful art.[2]

The story of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain provides a powerful example of dada as anti-art, of how the most mundane objects could become art by virtue of the artist saying so and altering the context through which we perceive that object. Or is he having a laugh at our expense? Ridiculing artists or elevating artisans (He was a big fan of American bridges and plumbing)? A rather playful attitude in the face of what was again becoming a serious subject, now that art was officially modern.

[1] Quoted in Duchamp, by Calvin Tomkins (New York: Henry Holt, 1996, p. 185).

[2] And in the 1960s, the original having been lost or destroyed, Duchamp commissioned 17 replicas.


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