Beyond Shock, the Fountain Still Stands

Pubic hairs imbedded in soap bars, revolting inhumane acts caught on film, garish reproductions of Michael Jackson and puppies.

Contemporary artists working within the realm of shock are often linked back to Marcel Duchamp. On the surface, these lesser-skilled boobs give the impression of working in the Duchampian paradigm by exploiting the vernacular, capitalizing on all things kitsch, and testing our comfort zones in an effort to challenge our notions about art. If you look deeper into the relationship, the so-called shock artists of the past 20 years come off as cheap imitations backed by shallow logic.

Recently, I visited MoMA to take a stroll through works from their permanent collection. Halfway through, I turned the corner and I was face to face with Duchamp’s Fountain, actually a replica of the original urinal Duchamp entered in the 1917 Independents exhibition. It has been ninety years since the urinal had been rejected by the Society of Independent Artists, ninety years since Duchamp dropped a bombshell on the New York art world. At the time, the word “urinal” was considered profanity, not to be printed or spoken. Causing quite a brouhaha, the urinal was intended to question worn-out conventions and to challenge fundamental notions of art. Yes, it was shocking in 1917 to see a bathroom fixture on a gallery wall, but that wasn’t Duchamp’s primary intention.

Duchamp’s critics instantly dismissed the urinal as artistic mischief, but Duchamp was disputing the entire idea of art and the role of the artist. According to Calvin Tompkins, “The artist’s choice gives birth to new ways of seeing and thinking. This was Duchamp’s philosophy of art, reduced to its most basic level and expressed by the readymade.” After ninety years, the Fountain still epitomizes this sense of artist as author. To this day, Duchamp’s inanimate object prompts us to re-imagine basic visual principles we often take for granted.

Shortly after the urinal was rejected from the Independents show, “The Richard Mutt Case” was published in Duchamp’s magazine The Blind Man. The author of the clever editorial was never revealed, but the witticisms point directly to Duchamp:

The Richard Mutt Case
 — They say any artist who pays six dollars may exhibit.

Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion, this object disappeared and was never exhibited. What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:–

1. Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.

2. Others that is was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture which you see every day in plumbers’ show windows.

Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view–created a new thought for that object.

As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has produced are her plumbing and her bridges.


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