When modern or contemporary art comes up in my everyday conversations with art newbies, there are a number of responses that I can reliably expect to receive. The first is what I call the “My Five Year Old Can Do That” factor. Think of a Jackson Pollock painting, for example-- it looks like a bunch of haphazard splatters across a canvas, like anyone with little or no fine motor skills can pull it off. It looks so easy to create-- even if, in reality, there’s a real skill and rhythm and form to these pieces. Closely connected to the “My Five Year Old Can Do That” factor --whether or not we realize it at the time- is a really big question. How is something like this an important work of art? Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that art-- like beauty--can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. What’s a great masterpiece to me may look like total crap to you. But one of the reasons that something becomes part of art history is often when someone has the audacity to try something first. Timing is everything--and in art, that’s no exception. And one artist changed the name of the game when he was the first to put a urinal on display in an art exhibition.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we’re covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, it’s the groundbreaking work of art that proudly declared that anything...can be art--Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Marcel Duchamp is an interesting nut to crack, and certainly not an easy one at that. He looks like he was a bit of an outsider, the kid who was always trying everything but not really fitting in anywhere. He was born in Blainville, a town in Normandy on the northwest coast of France, and came into a family who had already enjoyed a strong artistic tradition, beginning with a grandfather who was a talented engraver. Marcel’s two older brothers were artists, and he easily followed in their footsteps, and did whatever he could to get as good as he could be, and fast. It appears that he cycled, as many artists do, through the popular art modes of the day en route to trying to figure out what he really wanted to create-- beginning his art career first in Paris at the famed Academie Julian, but then he discovered that academic art was not for him. But then, neither, really, were the hallmarks of Post-Impressionism, or Primitivism, or Cubism. He tried it all, but found an excuse to reject every one of them--too boring, too obvious, too colorful, too serious. But he himself was taking art seriously, so much so that he used his talents, while traversing this experimental learning phase, to support himself financially by selling original cartoons. What’s wonderful about these works is their sense of humor-- mostly based on the combination of verbal and visual puns. This unorthodox joyfulness or tongue-in-cheek fact would end up being a key feature of Duchamp’s later works-- including his most famous work, our star of the day, his Fountain from 1917.
Not that Marcel Duchamp was new to shocking audiences with our shocking focus of today’s episode. His first brush with controversy (and sorry not sorry for that pun) was a 1912 painting called Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, which is today noted as one of the absolute hallmarks of Modernist painting. It presents a figure in varying brown tones as it does as the title notes-- it walks down a staircase. But it’s not like a snapshot, frozen in time, where you see one split second of the action-- here, Duchamp has nestled each moment, each movement, like a film strip overlapping and overlapping, or stop-motion photography superimposed one frame at a time. It’s a stunning work, taking inspiration from Cubism and also from Italian Futurist concerns about motion and speed. But viewers--perhaps even Duchamp himself--noted that the title was a lie, or at least some kind of joke. Because it’s not an image of some languid or elegant nude woman. In fact, it’s really hard to tell if its human at all, let alone if it fits along a gender binary. Art critic and writer Robert Lebel--himself actively involved in the Surrealist movement and the first writer to produce a monograph--or an in-depth look at a single artist-- on Marcel Duchamp in 1959--writes about this work, noting the potential reason that this work caused outrage. He says, quote, “In the Nude... there is no nude at all but only a descending machine, a nonobjective and virtually cinematic effect that was entirely new in painting. When the Nude was brought to the 28th Salon des Indépendants in February 1912, the committee, composed of friends of the Duchamp family, refused to hang the painting. These men were not reactionaries and were well accustomed to Cubism, yet they were unable to accept the novel vision. A year later at the Armory Show in New York City, the painting again was singled out from among hundreds that were equally shocking to the public. Whatever it was that made the work so scandalous in Paris, and in New York so tremendous a success, prompted Duchamp to stop painting at the age of 25. A widely held belief is that Duchamp introduced in his work a dimension of irony, almost a mockery of painting itself, that was more than anyone could bear and that undermined his own belief in painting. The title alone was a joke that was resented. Even the Cubists did their best to flatter the eye, but Duchamp’s only motive seemed to be provocation.” unquote.
Provocation, you say? The art world had no idea that an even bigger provocation was on its way a few years later, and on the opposite side of the Atlantic, but still at the hands of the same mischief maker. Duchamp and his brothers stayed and worked in Paris until the onset of World War I, and feeling unsafe in France, they fled, en masse, to the United States in 1915. It must have been a fascinating time-- Marcel Duchamp was lauded as an intellectual and a stimulating creator by New York, having made friends and connections when visiting the Big Apple for the renowned Armory Show in 1913. Collectors clamored after him-- but only one, a wealthy poet and donor named Walter Arensberg, really seemed to get him, and it was there that Duchamp toiled on a frustrating project that in and of itself is a strange story and art concept that we’ll be sure to cover a different day--an inscrutable work of art titled The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, also called The Great Glass. But as Robert Lebel’s quote mentioned, he had basically stopped painting entirely after Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. He was more about the mechanics of things, of how we think about art, and why. Much of it, I think, has to do with art history itself-- what kind of traditions do contemporary creators feel beholden to, when it comes to the long history of works that came before? Are there rules in art? Shoulds and should nots? What is art, really?
I know. All of this is enough to set your mind on fire, which is definitely how I feel about all of this, sometimes-- and I’m an art historian, for goodness sakes! Duchamp was really into breaking the rules rather than following them. And if you think that he was breaking them with his paintings, just you wait. It’s about to get far, far weirder-- and that’s coming up next, right after this break.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
Marcel Duchamp’s questioning of the art world and art methods-- and indeed, what is art in the first place-- is something that I touched on loosely on this podcast during our first season, when we did a joint episode with our amazing pal Andrea over at her podcast, A Thousand Things to Talk About. (Check out her show-- it’s so fun and so smart). In that bonus episode, we talked about the strange development of an art movement called Dada, which erupted in Europe as a response to World War I’s terror and bloodshed. Imagine it-- war had been a reality of life for millennia, but a war to end all wars, that had repercussions across the globe? It was unspeakable, unthinkable, and, to many, it seemed nonsensical-- and so what better way to mock the weirdness of modern existence than to go all out with the idea of nonsense? In visual art, poetry, dance and performance, Dadaists overturned the concepts of creation and the identification of a final, permanent art product. And Duchamp took this idea to a whole new level with his contribution: the readymade.
Around 1913, Duchamp started taking widely-available items-- things that were mass-produced, super common, and easily identifiable-- and began presenting them as art. A bicycle wheel attached to a stool. A windowpane. A snow shovel. Things that were most definitely not considered art by any means-- these were utilitarian objects, meant for functionality and not for beauty or aesthetic enjoyment. But with this concept of the readymade, suddenly Duchamp turned everything on its head. A bicycle wheel became art simply because he said it was. The artist, the godlike creator, could basically create nothing with his own hands and could still be a godlike creator, at least in his or her own mind. Art moved from a process of making to a process of thinking. If you think it is art, apparently it is.
Obviously this was a concept that really, really angered a lot of people. How does one man get the right to determine what is, or what isn’t, art? And how dare he subvert expectations, again and again, and shunning millennia of artistic training, rules, and practice to start from scratch and come up with his own rules-- or lack thereof. It was insulting. It was nonsensical. It was a huge controversy. And one that was made even larger in 1917 when Duchamp really twisted the knife in the wound and debuted his iconic work, Fountain.
Let’s just jump right into it. Duchamp’s Fountain is an inverted urinal, made of white porcelain. Duchamp didn’t have anything to do with its manufacture-- but what he did do is simply scrawl a signature onto it, and ta-da! The hand of the creator is present! It is Art, with a capital A! Here, in messy black paint, he scrawled the name “R.Mutt” on the outer left side of the sculpture and dated the piece, as if it was quote-unquote “real art.” It was probably taken straight from a plumbing warehouse, and nothing was new or original about it. And that was the whole point, because it was Duchamp’s thought that counts.
Fountain broke the New York art world. No one knew what to do with it because it went against every fiber of the critics being, this urinal as art. Was it a test? Was it a joke? Let’s break it down from the beginning, with its inception. Legend has it that in 1917 the so-called Society of Independent Artists was established in New York, with Marcel Duchamp as a member of their governing board and an advisor. In helping to establish the society, he noticed something interesting. The Society’s constitution stated that as long as an artist paid an entrance fee to their exhibition, whatever artwork they submitted would be accepted. What a difference this was from the way the art world usually worked, where everything needed to be so vetted and judged-- in comparison, this seemed like a crazy blanket policy, and one that Duchamp, being a rebel, wanted to test out. And so, he went to a plumbing warehouse, bought a urinal, scrawled “R. Mutt” on the side and submitted it for the exhibition. And even that name-- “R. Mutt” was meant to be a jokey aside. Originally, Duchamp intended to sign it R. Mott, after the J.L. Mott Iron Works and Sanitation Company. But perhaps signing a urinal after the name of a famous sanitation company was too on-the-nose, so Duchamp removed it by one step and went with “Mutt” instead, possibly with the intention of referring to the famous Mutt and Jeff comic strip. Either way, the hope was the same-- to anonymously push the envelope and have a big laugh about the art world, and though it’s still a bit unclear as to why he felt the need to test the Society’s policy to this degree, what we can assume is this: Duchamp thought people took art too seriously, and that groups who claimed to control what art was, how it was shown, and what the so-called “rules” are could not be trusted, and thus, maybe they needed to be brought down a notch.
And you know what? The Society of Independent Artists were totally fine with this idea.
No, of course, not, no way!
Even though Society’s board of directors were bound by the Society’s constitution to accept all members’ submissions, given that they paid the entrance fee, they nevertheless took strong exception to Fountain, believing that a piece of sanitary ware – and one so obviously associated with bodily waste – could not be considered a work of art and was completely indecent. And although they didn’t explicitly say so, there was the thought that this kind of object would be absolutely horrifying to the gentle minds of women. It reminds me a little bit of the image of the patient’s mother swooning, disturbingly, in the corner of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, as we discussed in Episode 48: Women are so weak that they couldn’t possibly deal with the sight of a urinal, whatever shall we do? Thus, following a discussion and a vote, the directors present during the installation of the Society’s inaugural exhibition at the Grand Central Palace narrowly decided on behalf of the board to suppress the submission when the show opened to the public on April 10, 1917. Note the use of the word “suppress”-- because the work, as Duchamp himself later said, was quote, “not rejected. A work can’t be rejected by the Independents. It was simply suppressed.” unquote. This vote of so-called suppression caused a rift within the Board of Directors, and with that, Duchamp and one other board member resigned in protest, stating that the decision not only violated the newly-set constitution, but was also tantamount to censorship.
Fountain, strangely enough, then seemed to be in a no-man’s land for the duration of the Society’s exhibition. It was neither part of the exhibition, nor was it able to leave the show grounds, especially since the artist was unknown and thus unable to be contacted, really. As Duchamp later said, quote, “The Fountain was simply placed behind a partition and, for the duration of the exhibition, I didn’t know where it was. I couldn't say that I had sent the thing, but I think the organizers knew it through gossip. No one dared mention it. After the exhibition, we found the Fountain again, behind a partition, and I retrieved it!” unquote.
Even though the work was hidden behind that partition and remained unseen for the run of the show, that didn’t mean that it was absent from the exhibition. On the contrary, it loomed rather large in the public’s imagination. When the exhibition opened, the Society of Independent Artists faced enormous pressure from the contemporary art community over their decision to --ahem-- suppress Fountain. An established Dadaist zine titled The Blind Man covered the exhibition extensively and highlighted the hypocrisy of the board, thus bringing further attention to the scandal. To be fair, Marcel Duchamp himself was one of the organizers of The Blind Man, so it wasn’t very biased, but the editorials did make an important point: who can draw the line, really, in saying what is or isn’t art? All anger and arguments aside, though, the Society’s board nevertheless felt that they were still in the right, and so they made a public statement defending their position, writing, quote: ‘The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.” unquote.
After Duchamp retrieved his sculpture from behind the partition where it was hidden, he immediately took it to be photographed for posterity by none other than his friend Alfred Stieglitz. But though the how-and-why have never been fully determined, we do know one thing: after the documentation, Fountain was actually lost for good. Any current display of the sculpture that you can see is actually a replica of the 1917 original, with sixteen made in total during the 1950s and 1960s and with Duchamp’s specifications and approval. Interestingly enough, these are more hand-produced than the original ever was, which is a bit ironic-- they are made of earthenware and instead only painted to appear like porcelain-- the reason being that the earthenware is a stronger material and less expensive than porcelain thus ensuring that it can travel safely for exhibition, and plus, if it were to break, it would be far easier to make a quick replacement. So even though it is hand-sculpted in a way that Duchamp’s original never was, it still fits with his intent. After all, Duchamp himself once declared, quote, “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.” With the creation of Fountain and its numerous replicas, Duchamp made clear that it was the thought that counted-- not the object itself.
As part of the Dadaist movement, Duchamp’s invention of the readymade cannot be understated. Dada pushed the boundaries of art, pushing those boundaries onward towards the weird, the interesting, and the completely ridiculous. The readymade was the epitome of the type of chaos that Dada craved and hoped to release into the world. It paved the way for much of the art of the 20th century, and even, beyond, into our 21st. But its long-lasting effects were not just to poke fun at art and undermine all those pesky rules. It not only determined what art could be, but it also opened up the possibilities as to who could actually be an artist. Art no longer had to be just huge paintings or monumental marble sculptures, created by white men, most likely, with the addition of astronomical costs and exuberant amounts of time. Duchamp proclaimed that anything can be art, and thus, that anyone could make it. And with that, he changed the art world forever.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com. Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts.
The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit Anchorlight Raleigh Dot Com.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.