Zoe Antona Art Blog
In the 19th century, the shift from traditional academic art was beginning to immerge due largely in part of artists feeling suffocated and confined. Artist during this time were beginning to break free from the decorative and seemingly meaningless art displayed in institutions. Enter the avant-garde, artists wanted to push for a revolutionary approach to aesthetic and societal ideals of what art can truly be. The practice of art in this movement rapidly caught attention and eventually grew less controlled as each new style and technique came about, which not only shocked the public but enraged critics. In spite of the negative responses of the public and critics alike instead of turning away from these practices artists began to start desiring the shock and disgust of their viewers. It would be naïve to say that there was one singular artist that was the most important during this era. However, it is arguable that Marcel Duchamp was one of the most, if not the most, influential artists during this period. Especially his piece titled Fountain. Marcel Duchamp’s piece Fountain revolutionized the way art is not only made, but also challenges the idea of what can be considered art.
Being the first of its kind, The Fountain is both the most notorious Ready-made pieces and successful pieces that Duchamp created while also being extremely controversial. In terms of its visual composition The Fountain is a urinal placed on it‘s back. Being a mass produced American product signed with R. Mutt 1917 on it with the signature R. Mutt 1917. The signature as well as the decision to display the object on its back is the only original aspect from the artist himself. The possible intent of this was so that the viewer seeing the object not only out of context of its intended use, but also to be viewed from a different aspect in terms of its composition. It is interesting that not only did Duchamp coin the term Ready-made but he also chose perhaps the most undesirable of objects that are readily made in order to display it. In The Blind Man which was a publication at the time Duchamp’s piece was considered outrageous for two reasons being that,“1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar. 2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing,” (Lippard). Aside from the object itself looking at the title of the piece instead of titling it urinal the idea that titling it Fountain alienates the object from what it truly is. Even the very signature that is on the object itself is challenging the object and perhaps the institution.The name R. Mutt when rearranged is the German word Mutter meaning mother. It is arguable that Duchamp was using a play on words when choosing to sign the piece R. Mutt because the urinals shape is very similar to that of a vagina. The concept and the ideas behind the piece became more important than the physical work itself challenging what art is and what the public deemed as tasteful.
Once again in The Blind Man publication Duchamp states “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 — created a new thought for that object,” (Lippard). In short the idea that it doesn’t matter who made the actual urinal itself what matters is the context in which the piece is understood. It is considered that the precondition of the avant-gardists intent is that art was dissociation from the praxis of life. So by Duchamp displaying a piece of plumbing as a work of art he is challenging what the middle class status of art. What is interesting is the idea that had the urinal not been in an art gallery space it wouldn’t have sparked as much outrage had it been in any other setting space. Duchamp’s idea that The Fountain needed the institution and all the work that coincides with the institution is what makes “it logically possible for the avant-garde to call art into question, and therefore the fountain (Burger). What makes The Fountain and the whole Avente Garde movement so successful is the fact that is completely rejects that is considered to be art by the institution. It is a complex relationship though. When The Fountain was entered into the 1917 show the gallery space rejected to even show the piece because of the piece itself. Though it was not displayed just by the audacity to even enter such a work of art to the institution it is a criticism of not only the artist to the institution but also the institution to the art. Through satirical humor Duchamp epitomized The Fountain as a rejection of the institution and used the conception of the idea to be superior. The aesthetics of art are called into question with Duchamp’s piece.
So what is the role of aesthetics of a work of art and how important is it especially The Fountain? In Peter Burger’s,The Theory of the Avant-Garde he states “Aestheticism turns out to have been the necessary precondition of the avant-gardists intent,” (Burger). Objects and just what is found in day to day activities can be deemed as a viable art piece. In this case, a urinal, can be considered a work of art based off of its aesthetics and the concept that drives the work. It is interesting that to displace a piece such as The Fountain from its “intended purpose or function, the avant-gardist manifestation is difficult to define. In the aestheticist work of art, the disjointure of the work and the praxis of life characteristic of the status of art in bourgeois society has become the work's essential content” (Burger). It is because of Duchamp’s piece that it is arguable that he is considered a Genius. Depending on who one might ask. Duchamp can be a Genius in the sense that he had a different way of thinking than that of anyone who came before him that helped paved the way for other artists and conceptual works all with a piece of Ready-made porcelain plumbing.
Thus Duchamp created this notion of who can be a critic, as artists create a movement based that rejects every art idea, aesthetic notion, object, and everything that Dada embodied. Duchamp created the idea that the avante garde movement rejected the rejection: so what and who is left to reject? According to Ferial Gbazoul in Edward Said and Critical Decolonization he writes “In bourgeois society art has a contradictory role: it projects the image of a better order and to that extent protests against the bad order that prevails,” (Gbazoul). During The Fountains time the institutional self criticism and the advancement of both literature and art in terms of thinking were making self criticism more critical. With this idea Duchamp and his Fountain mocks individual creativity by making claim over work that is mass produced. So therefor his signature is more important than the piece itself making it a manifestation. By signing a ready made object, The Fountain, Duchamp has adapted to the art market once the piece is excepted in that space. Perhaps this is why the art market splintered because even the critic (the institution/ salons) didn’t want the criticism of what The Fountain presented. The notion that the avante garde is meant to challenge the past only allows for it the evolve even past what Duchamp’s intent was with The Fountain. Ideas such as the Neo-Avante Garde weren’t necessarily meant to be the death of the Avente Garde but to evolve it past itself.
Why cant a piece of everyday plumbing be considered a work of art? The quick answer to this question is that it can be. Marcel Duchamp not only challenged individual creativity but also criticized and revolutionized what art is be creating the idea of conceptual art. The Fountain is the embodiment of what the art world needed in order to evolve into a new era and sparked new ways of thinking and creating. Duchamp paved the way for all artists to not be able to have a basis to argue that the signature on a ready made object can be considered a work of art.
Bürger, Peter, et al. Theory of the Avant-Garde. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Ghazoul, Ferial J., and Ferial Jabouri. Ghazoul. Edward Said and Critical Decolonization.
American University in Cairo Press, 2007.
Lippard, Lucy R. Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others. Dover Publications Inc., 2007.