The Elegant Pisser: Fountain by "R. Mutt"
One of the most iconoclastic artworks of the 20th century was Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, a time-bomb waiting to blow the artworld to smithereens. The concept of art, and the course of art history, was irreversibly changed as a consequence.
Fountain was not the first of Duchamp's readymades, and it was not the only artwork to scandalise polite society. But this work was so irreducible that nothing else could plumb the depths more completely, more subversively, more resonantly, more wittily. With Fountain Duchamp pioneered the concepts of 'low art', 'minimal art', 'conceptual art', 'body art', 'art as philosophical statement', 'art as provocation', and perhaps more. All became pivotal to cutting-edge or avant-garde art practices, for better or worse.
Currently Sensation: young British artists from the Saatchi Collection is causing sensational ructions in New York, even before the show has opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Catholics, conservatives and Mayor Giuliani are outraged over Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, which in their view desecrates the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. Similarly offensive recent examples were provided by Tania Kovat's Virgin in a Condom in the Pictura Britannica exhibition, and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. The shock value resulting from juxtaposing 'high' with 'low' elements in this way is precisely what underlay Fountain's enigmatic power. Duchamp spawned a host of conceptual imitators parading under the well-worn banner of 'artistic freedom'.
In 1964 the philosopher Arthur Danto singled out Andy Warhol as the artist he believed had laid bare the essence of art: that art essentially lacks an essence (contradictory though that might sound). Warhol's Brillo Box, being identical to the real Brillo box in the supermarket, could only be defined by its artworld context. In Danto's view the Brillo Box had ushered in the postmodern era, having demonstrated that art could now look like (or be) absolutely anything. In diametric opposition to the severe aesthetic restrictions of Greenbergian modernism, postmodern art was an open-ended subspecies of philosophy. It seemed to escape Danto that Fountain had pre-empted the Brillo Box by almost half a century Warhol's claim to fame lay merely in doing to excess, and capitalising on repetition, what Duchamp had already done sparingly and with finesse.
Not that there was anything all that heroic about Duchamp. Signing the urinal "R. Mutt" rather than with his own name indicates, ambivalently, that he was pulling a fast one rather than making a 'serious' artistic statement. Whereas the art forger signs a famous artist's name to a counterfeit work in the named artist's style, Duchamp used a fictitious name simply to protect his own identity. His ruse, it appears, was intended to test the 'artistic freedom' espoused by the Society of Independent Artists, which he had helped found. The Society's moral indignation over Fountain prompted Duchamp to write, portedly in Mutt's defence, that the mere act of choosing was enough to qualify any object as 'art'. Thus was his theory of the readymade conceptualised.
But there is much more to Fountain than hoodwinking an art society in the cause of artistic freedom. An ordinary urinal had, in effect, been metamorphosed into an artwork. It was no longer what it used to be, a 'pisser' in the vernacular, because it had been disconnected (literally and figuratively) from its usual toilet context. It no longer existed to be pissed into, and there were no more pipes to drain the waste liquid away. Men no longer stood in a direct, functional relationship with it but a symbolic one, where all that remained were associations of the personal acts of peeing. Those memories or sensations remained to haunt the spectator viewing the object, but it now generated any number of new meanings, ranging from piss/pisser/pissing puns, to body symbolism, to art philosophical discourse.
And touching on the connotations of the title itself: was Duchamp alluding to Fountain pissing on the artworld, the reverse of the artworld pissing into it, in the sense of biting the hand of high art that feeds it? Or in the sense of fertilising and nurturing 'low' art? These ambivalent senses reinforce each other, and reflect what actually happened to 20th century art. A fount, fountain, or fountainhead can mean the source or origin of anything, of subversion, regeneration, and confusion in this case. For 'low art' eventually became 'high art', and vice versa, and no-one really knows what these terms mean any more.
While the urinal was certainly not intended as an aesthetic object, it clearly emerged as a brilliantly-paradoxical aesthetic concept. Looking at Fountain we see one of the most thought-provoking icons of 'high-as-conceptual art' embodied in a base object of no intrinsic aesthetic interest whatsoever (i.e., 'low art', 'anti-art' or 'non-art). This is the beauty and enduring fascination of Fountain, that these contradictory meanings continue to resonate in our minds ad infinitum, ricocheting to and fro like dialectical tennis balls being slammed from one end of the court to the other. While the actual physical object is totally static, the concept of it as an artwork sets into motion a mental conundrum which is analogous to the 'ghost in the machine' of mind and body. A person is not just a body, but a body with a mind. Similarly, Fountain is not just a urinal, but a urinal activated in our minds by being an artwork.
It seems somewhat ironic that this notoriously iconoclastic work
can now be venerated, at least by artist Mike Bidlo in his Fountain
Drawings, as a quasi-religious shrine, a sacred icon in its own
right, a holy relic of Saint Marcel. Though not really surprising:
with minimal art less generates more, and Duchamp himself held that
each spectator helps perform the creative act by interpreting it.
My Fountain may not be yours, but was it ever really Duchamp's?
He didn't make it, design it, or even sign his name to it. Just what
would we think of it today if he had never revealed the true identity
of "R. Mutt"?
This article originally appeared in *spark-online issue 2.0, November