Episode 17: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)


Okay.  I’m going to be blunt.  This is the episode where I get to explain to you how a urinal is art. 

Actually, not only is it art, it’s one of the most important art objects of the 20th century.  No kidding.  Well, there’s a little kidding.  Because it’s also one of the most elaborate, subversive jokes of the 20th century—a joke that I’m going to now methodically explain, because who doesn't like that?  And while we’re on the subject of jokes, here’s a good one to start us off.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts an art museum, where a crowd of visitors, bedecked in fur hats and squinting into opera glasses, are staring intently at a gridded square on the wall.  A little further away, one guard is leaning conspiratorially towards another.  The caption?  “I’m not going to be the one to tell ‘em it’s a ventilator.”


The beauty of this joke, again, at the risk of ruining it with over-explanation, is how elegantly, and caustically, it captures both the art and the museum worlds, as well as the museum-goer’s perception of both, through the eyes of the larger public’s view of those museum-goers.  Let’s de-pretzel that.  Art museums, in housing art, shape a visitor’s expectations of what an artwork is.  There’s an unspoken trust there, and what this cartoon portrays is how sincere, but maybe sometimes misguided, that trust can be.  You’ve got the sweet, earnest, gullible museum-goers who are so willing to accept that anything hung on the hallowed walls of an art museum must be significant.  Even if all they see is a heating vent, well, it can't possibly be the banal everyday object it appears to be, and maybe it’s on them to make meaning out of it.  Meanwhile, you’ve got generations of Modernist and Post-Modern artists who have, at least according to outsiders, whittled their work down to something so obnoxiously inaccessible that we can’t be expected to know the difference between a heating vent and “art”.  And then you’ve got the guards, the stand-ins for larger public, and maybe the ones you relate to the most, rolling their eyes at this suspension of disbelief, this trust a viewer has in what the museum is offering them, and yet lack the authority to break it.  Or maybe just don’t have the heart to.

Three weeks ago, almost to the day, the art world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the joke that rocked the foundation of art, museums, and the public’s expectation of what constitutes art, and left them all irreparably changed: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” It’s been one hundred years, and countless bits of satire about the absurdity of taking art too seriously, since Duchamp purchased a mass-produced porcelain urinal from a New York plumbing manufacturer, lay it on its side, signed it, put it in a museum, and then stood, smirking, in the smoking wreckage of the bomb he had thrown, while everyone else ran around with their ears ringing, trying to process what the hell had just happened.  Because it was a serious thing, this joke.  Modern art had flourished because there was no talk of an emperor, or his clothes.  You can't pay attention to the forest, to how janky Cezanne’s bowl of apples was starting to look, when you’re focusing on the trees, that is, capturing successive subjective perceptions, which is what we know he was doing.  And now it was 1917.  Modernism is in full swing; World War I has given European artists something much more urgent to focus on than apples, yet these artists are still indebted to Papa Cezanne and his fellow Post-Impressionists for the subjective aesthetic language they now had to capture the traumatic insanity of the world around them.  Art was flying off the conventional rails at a breakneck speed, and it was beside the point for artists to waste time by defending these aesthetic choices to the public, and sometimes even to each other.  So they pretty much stopped trying. 

Thankfully, the one thing that was dependable and authoritative, that upheld standards, that lifted up these aesthetic experiments to the realm of fine art, was the museum space.  Museums always played the role of the grown-up in the room: they were created to house valuable and unique curiosities, and that authority began to seep into the walls and rub off on the objects, heightening their value.  Heck, that authority even rubs off on the visitors: we all know the expectant feeling of being in a museum—the contemplative distance, the airy quiet, and the intimidating aura of all that history and humanity.

In the early 20th century, like now, these deliberately erudite spaces had a reputation for being withholding and elitist, which wasn’t escaping the attention of Marxist philosophers from the period, who were writing in the wake of populist revolutions and anticipating more.  And like today, it behooved museums to, shall we say, get with the times, and use its authority to validate the work of these bohemian, reactionary artists.  And so an exchange took place between art and museums.  Modern art breathed fresh, young, relevant air into those dusty halls, and those halls, in turn, lent their credibility to Modernists and elevated their work.  The art world and the museum worlds merged; modern artists became collectors became curators, and the shows being hung accepted that the art world was a new and experimental place, and that many art museums would just shrug their parental shoulders and allow themselves to become asylums run by innovative and avant garde inmates.

Marcel Duchamp, "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" (1912)

Marcel Duchamp, "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" (1912)

This was a delicate new partnership, and still getting its bearings when Marcel Duchamp arrived, having been welcomed into the New York art scene with open arms, and, effectively, pissed all over it.  Before I get to how, some background on Duchamp.  I think I can say with impunity that Duchamp wasn’t someone I‘d enjoy hanging out with for long periods of time.  You just know his type: sarcastic, easily bored, impossible to offend, and too clever by half, like that guy who wore a fedora in high school.  He was born in Normandy in 1887, and made a name for himself in the Parisian art scene with his groundbreaking synthesis of the intellectualism of French Cubism and energy of Italian Futurism that culminated in his Nude Descending a Staircase from 1912 – a dynamic attempt to show multiple layers of kinetic movement on a single canvas.  Think Cezanne’s apples, but, you know, if they also moved. Duchamp had been living in Paris in 1914, at the onset of WWI, and watched as the war broke open a whole new series of art movements that aimed to articulate this new, shocking trauma: the pain of it, the willful denial of the pain of it, and, as we'll look at now, the sheer senseless absurdity of it all.  And this absurdity came to be known as Dada.

The Dada stew is actually comprised a number of reactionary art movements across cities in Europe.  Some, like Berlin Dada, which we’ll look at another time, were relatively straightforward.  Others, like the Zurich branch we’ll look at now…not so much.  It won’t surprise you that Zurich Dada appealed the most to Duchamp, and that trying to describe it is a little like thumbtacking Jell-O to the wall, in that it’s futile and absurd thing to do, both doing it and describing it.  And that nonsensical quality is entirely the point.  Dada embraced a naïve understanding of logic, like a child would have, combined with the utter randomness and groundlessness that occurs when you empty words of their meaning.  Language becomes its own soundscape, words become free agents; you start to notice the way they then feel on your tongue.  Maybe Dada is best explained by the mythology of its name: some say it was the childish utterance, Da-da, both a signifier and also just playing with sound; others say that one of its early members simply stabbed a knife in the dictionary and landed on the word.  Dada revels in the absurdity of a free-flowing, associative mind, unencumbered by wet-blanketed reason.  Here’s another joke for you: how many Dadaists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  An iron.

Yet for all of its nonsense, it actually makes quite a bit of sense that this movement came from a society futilely trying to wrap its head around the very real World War that tore through the continent, with no understandable causes or logical paths to victory. Even the word victory, with more than 38 million dead in 1917, seemed like a nonsense word devoid of meaning.  And Dadaist art reflected this.  Not necessarily in the objects that they produced – which, when taken individually, are almost entirely banal and inscrutable – but in how these objects were conceptualized.  Words can change their meaning, Dadaists argued, and so can objects.  And that change itself is the art. 

Jean Arp, "Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance)" (1917)

Jean Arp, "Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance)" (1917)

This is of course revolutionary – we’re used to the final product being the artistic act, not the act itself.  And this is what Dada changed.  They believed that art could be about the idea much more than the end product.  Take the collage of Zurich Dada artist Jean Arp, Untitled, with the subtitle (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance) from 1917. On the surface, it’s just a collage of squares.  But that’s just the end product.  The real art is in the idea, knowing that they were dropped randomly, arranged according to the laws of chance.  Which makes the image kind of neat, even if, visually, it seems a little uninspired.

And all of this brings us back to Duchamp, whom we left pissing all over everything, with, appropriately enough, a urinal.  When Duchamp escaped Europe to come to New York in 1915, he brought with him this Dadaist idea of art as a concept, as an idea, and channeling it into his radical contribution to modern art: the Readymade.  A readymade is exactly what it sounds like: an ordinary, manufactured, ready-made object that he decided could be transformed into a work of art simply by saying it was.  He takes the object and alters it slightly, but profoundly, which I’ll explain in a minute, and then transforms its entire conceptualization, the entire idea of what we know a urinal to be, by placing it in the museum.

Now, as I said earlier, the New York art world had no idea what was about to hit it.  They had loved Duchamp’s European art, and invited him to be a founding member of the American Society of Independent Artists, even electing him the chair of the hanging committee of their first annual forum exhibition in 1917.  This was meant to be a revolutionary exhibition, in that a founding principle of the show was that it was unjuried.  So long as you paid the $6 entrance fee, your work would be accepted, and exhibited with care.  Remember the new truce between modern art and museums: modern art had merit, and merit deserved authority.  And you would think that a former Neo-Cubist like Duchamp would have appreciated that attitude.  But of course, Duchamp gonna Duchamp, and instead, he spent two years conceiving of – note: conceiving of, not making – an object that would make, well, a splash.  He went to JL Mott Ironworks, a major – and therefore unremarkably recognizable—plumbing manufacturer in New York, and purchased an ordinary, mass-produced urinal.  He then lay it on its side, rendering it unusable, and signed it “R Mutt” – a play on Mott Ironworks, and on the popular, and again, recognizable, American comic strip, Mutt and Jeff.  Jokes on top of jokes on top of porcelain.

He submitted it anonymously, and you can imagine, after all this build-up about an unjuried show, what happened.  It was of course rejected, labeled vulgar, and immoral, and, in what must have been Duchamp’s catnip, not art.  Because this critique, more than anything, was the one that he was waiting for.  He was no dummy, he knew it would be rejected, and he was armed and ready.  He used the incident not only to resign in protest from the Society of Independent Artists, but he then also published an unsigned editorial in a prominent Dada journal that detailed the scandal and disparaged the committee.  “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance,” Duchamp wrote.  “He CHOSE it.  He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under its new title and point of view—and created a new thought for that object.” 

What Duchamp did to that urinal, how he reframed and reconstituted its conceptual idea, or, in the words of art critic Jerry Saltz, “altered its philosophical and metaphysical state,” was really, if you think about it, not so unlike what the museum does to an object.  Museums take an object and make it something else, something profound.  We not only accept that museums will do that, but we trust them to.  If we can accept that a museum does that, why can’t he do that with his toilet?

Which of course makes the museum look ridiculous.  And it makes the earnest, art-viewing public look ridiculous for falling for it, for looking for meaning in that heating vent.  Moreover, the whole idea of readymades allow an artist to create a “legitimate” artwork when he has no discernible technical skills, and it allows him to claim artistic responsibility over something he had no tangible hand in creating.  And the deeper you go, the more clever the joke gets: here’s this urinal, an extremely useful but culturally invisible product of everyman American assembly-line industrialization that is now a highfalutin piece of conceptual art.  A factory worker’s hands created something that the artist never really put his own hands on.  Deeper still, there’s Duchamp’s believe that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and bridges,” which might praise American ingenuity but lands pretty a sick burn on the American art scene.  Really, this urinal just insults everyone in one fell swoop, it’s pretty amazing.  And people hate Duchamp for it, but they also kind of love him for it, precisely because he so aggressively poked us in the eye.  It’s no accident that he’s become a bit of a hero to agitators and iconoclasts, and I’m not even going to touch on all the people after the fact, some who are even famous and I'll let you google them for yourself, who have claimed to “contribute” to the Fountain by urinating on it.  Which, if you ask me, also kind of ruins the joke with too much explanation.

But I digress.  Back to the joke itself, which us really just warming up.  It's not just on the 1917 committee, or on American art, or on the museum world.  It’s on us ever since. Because although its entire MO is to thumb its nose at the art world, The Fountain, just by virtue of the joke’s success, is now treated as a prized artwork.  I mean, it’s under glass.  The original Fountain was lost – the lore is that the furious jury destroyed it.  But Duchamp authorized eight replicas in 1964 – he had long since retired from the art scene to play chess – and these replicas are in museums and private collections all around the world. The most recent replica sold at Sotheby’s for $1.7M.  I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.  This is a mass-produced urinal we’re talking about, and not even the original mass-produced urinal that Duchamp anonymously submitted, but a replica, which kind of just makes it a mass-produced urinal again, that sold for almost $2M.  When it comes to the eye-roll-inducing, heating-vent extolling art world, I think that’s what we would describe, in our common parlance, as peak.  You can imagine Duchamp just shaking his at us head in pity.  We fell for it.

No one wants to be the butt of a joke, and it’s so easy to want to wash our hands of all of this.  But the thing is, Duchamp also, and maybe quite by accident, did something hugely important.  And, for once, serious.  He made us look at this urinal differently. He made us see it as art.  And clearly, this is something we need, and crave.  It’s not for nothing that those viewers are squinting at that heating vent, trying to make out its balanced grid and clean, elegant lines.  Because really, what’s so wrong in seeing the beauty in every day objects?  Why should we be embarrassed that we take the aesthetics of an object seriously?  People comment on the smooth, almost feminine curvatures of the white porcelain.  There’s something graceful in the symmetrical dip on the sides, the recursive triangular drain that echoes the rounded shape of the whole.  Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp’s own biographer, wrote “it does not take too much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal’s gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance Madonna.” 

And this is brilliant legacy of this one subversive, hundred-year-old joke: without Dada and Duchamp, not only would we have no conceptual art, but we’d also have no Pop Art, no Warhol, no El Anatsui, no artist who felt validated by seeing beauty in the mundane, and thought that the mundane could then be beautiful.  There would be no continued effort put into design, into the faucet you just used to wash your hands.  It’s a really, really good joke.  And, I’d imagine to Duchamp’s delight, it’s on everyone, including him. 

Huh.  Maybe every joke is better when it’s explained.