Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1916/17)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1916/17). Porcelain, 360 x 480 x 610 mm. Original Lost, Replicas made with approval of artist in San Francisco, Paris, London, Philadelphia and Indiana.

When Duchamp called all art from the Impressionists on "retinal" it may have sounded like he was not quite translating his languages correctly, but the quote, now famous, gives insight into the inspiration for this revolutionary work. Retinal art, Duchamp said, was art that appealed only to the eye and went no further. He advocated art that could be experienced by the mind, instead of in a superficial visual sense. From this damning opinion only the Surrealists were exempted.

*I should write here, as an aside, that while I admire this works innovation and the immense change it caused in the history of art I loathe this work. Anytime I see it at a museum I glance at it quickly, once again experience the sheer wonder at the idea that an upside down urinal is in a museum exhibition space and not in a restroom and turn away quickly to look at other things. My strong reaction to this piece is the work of art itself and I freely acknowledge and admit my conformity in reacting strongly and adversely to it but what can I say? Though I may not aesthetically like this work, and I find it extremely hard to believe many find this "retinally" pleasing, Duchamp was an innovative genius and deserves his fame. Now, back to the work and the derogatory tone I'm sure will emerge as I write this post. I should warn you that this post will have many tangents as it takes some time to explain this exceedingly simple work, an irony that is not lost on many art lovers I'm sure.

The Fountain was first exhibited in 1917 when Duchamp submitted the work to the New York Society of Independent Artists. He had been previously working with "readymade" pieces in his studio but this was the first time it was exhibited in a public space. The term readymade means exactly what one would think. A manufactured object which the artist found either exactly, or close to, how it was eventually exhibited. The object itself is the important aspect of the work, while the signature of the artist or some small addition or edit to the piece is the only part that shows the hand of the artist and therefore turns into art what was previously a common inanimate object. This type of readymade art is also often referred to as found art.

Duchamp's contribution to this piece of work was first its purchase from the J. L. Mott Iron Works company in New York. He then rotated the work 90 degrees from its original position. After this he scrawled the signature, R. Mutt 1917 across the rim. Is this art? This is the question that has plagued this work for the entirety of its existence. When originally submitted to the Independent Artists exhibition, whose slogan was that ANY work of art submitted would be exhibited, it was hotly debated by the board, who did not know Duchamp had "created" it and submitted it (he was a board member at the time), and eventually it was hidden from view on the exhibition floor, causing Duchamp to immediately resign. The original work was lost (the picture above is of the original, and was taken by Alfred Stieglitz), and the copies currently in San Francisco, Indiana, London, Philadelphia and Paris were manufactured and approved under Duchamp's direction*. Soon after that incident the Dadaists went, the early 20th century version anyway, of viral and published articles on the work in their publication, the Blind Man. One of these articles, by Beatrice Wood, outlined the importance of this work and the artists role in creating it. She stated that it was not important whether it had been crafted by artisan hands, the fact was that it had been CHOSEN by the artist and if he felt that made it worthy of the name, it was. This change in the valuation of work for skill or technique and critical praise was radical and changed the idea of art forever.

Though the Fountain is an important work itself, it true significance lies in the legacy left. Many of the greatest living artists have drawn one way or another on this work in their own pieces, whether consciously or subconsciously, it has affected every generation of artists and art appreciators since its exhibition. From Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons to many other artists from a list too long to name, the Fountain remains one of the most pivotal moments in 20th century art, if not the entirety of art history.

But is it art?

*this has raised its own questions about whether or not this changes the meaning of the works because they were not, in fact, readymade but rather commissioned. Duchamp excused this on the grounds that he hated to repeat himself and finding more urinals would have been a repetition of the previous work. So what does that make them?

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