When I cover 20th Century Art in my courses, I can always count on hearing –“…OMG, you call that art? It’s just a dang urinal…” at least twice. Maybe three times…
“Fountain” and many other pieces from the avant-garde tend to bring this type of reaction. As long as I’ve been teaching the class I have heard similar reactions, and I’m pretty sure that I had similar thoughts the first time I viewed the work. But I thought I might spend a few lines waxing enigmatic on the value of those who push boundaries.
Marcel Duchamp, the French born epicenter of the NYC Dada Movement of the post WWI era, was not merely being sensational. He and the concurrent proponents of Dada in Zurich were reacting to what they considered to be the “mass suicide” of the First World War. To them, if logic and reason and the whole social evolutionary process of the Western World had only led to the carnage of the Somme – then a complete break from that mind-set was needed. Many of Duchamp’s critics who focused on “Fountain” argued that he must not posses any actual artistic talent, if that was the work he put out.
The first work of Duchamp’s to be shown in the US was “Nude Descending a Staircase” at the groundbreaking Armory Show in NYC in 1913. This was the first showing of much of the avant-garde work from Europe and it had a profound impact on young American artists and collectors. The critics panned the entire collection, but they focused much of their vitriol on Duchamp; “…it looks like an explosion in a shingle factory.” The critics of Fountain must have missed this piece – it is an extraordinary combination of both Synthetic Cubism and Futurism, two of the dominant new painting styles of the day. Duchamp combined the faceted planes and muted hues of the Cubists with the sense of motion demanded by the Futurists to produce something for which the critics were unprepared.
In Duchamp’s Dadaist works, he focused on what he called “found objects,” things of mass-production and commonplace; know in Art History as “Readymades.” He rectified these objects, either modifying them or adding other objects to them in juxtaposition. To his critics, he responded in true Dada fashion by stating that any critique based on concepts of good or bad taste were completely hollow, as they were based on the aesthetic of the bankrupt social order that had brought on the war.
“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 – and created a new thought for that object.”
The “Art” is not in the aesthetic of the urinal; it is in the artistic choice to use a urinal. Feel free to insert your own pun here as to his desire to piss-off the critics… In truth, I don’t think that Fountain is one of the first pieces that I would want to display in my home, but again, I don’t think that was the intent. Duchamp and the Dadaists wanted only to wake us from our acquiescence …to make a loud noise in our minds that might get us to really look at the world. I like noisemakers for I am too prone to nap, and the world is much too sneaky not to keep an eye on.
We should all take a good hard look around.