of the most iconoclastic artworks of the 20th century
was Marcel Duchamp 's Fountain of 1917, a time-bomb
waiting to blow the artworld to smithereens.
The concept of art, and the course of art history,
was irreversibly changed as a consequence.
was not the first of Duchamp's readymades, and it
was not the only artwork to scandalise polite society.
But this work was so irreducible that nothing else
could plumb the depths more completely, more subversively,
more resonantly, more wittily. With Fountain Duchamp
pioneered the concepts of 'low art,' 'minimal art,'
'conceptual art,' 'body art,' 'art as philosophical
statement,' 'art as provocation,' and perhaps more.
All became pivotal to cutting-edge or avant-garde
art practices, for better or worse.
Currently Sensation: young British artists from
the Saatchi Collection is causing sensational
ructions in New York, even before the show has opened
at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Catholics, conservatives
and Mayor Giuliani are outraged over Chris Ofili's
The Holy Virgin Mary, which in their view desecrates
the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. Similarly offensive
recent examples were provided by Tania Kovat's Virgin
in a Condom in the Pictura Britannica exhibition,
and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. The shock value
resulting from juxtaposing 'high' with 'low' elements
in this way is precisely what underlay Fountain's
enigmatic power. Duchamp spawned a host of conceptual
imitators parading under the well-worn banner of
In 1964 the philosopher Arthur Danto singled out
Andy Warhol as the artist he believed had laid bare
the essence of art: that art essentially lacks an
essence (contradictory though that might sound).
Warhol's Brillo Box, being identical to the real
Brillo box in the supermarket, could be defined
only by its artworld context. In Danto's view the
Brillo Box had ushered in the postmodern era, having
demonstrated that art could now look like (or be)
absolutely anything. In diametric opposition to
the severe aesthetic restrictions of Greenbergian
modernism, postmodern art was an open-ended subspecies
of philosophy. It seemed to escape Danto that Fountain
had pre-empted the Brillo Box by almost half a century
- Warhol's claim to fame lay merely in doing to
excess, and capitalising on repetition, what Duchamp
had already done sparingly and with finesse.
Not that there was anything all that heroic about
Duchamp. Signing the urinal "R. Mutt" rather than
with his own name indicates, ambivalently, that
he was pulling a fast one rather than making a 'serious'
artistic statement. Whereas the art forger signs
a famous artist's name to a counterfeit work in
the named artist's style, Duchamp used a fictitious
name simply to protect his own identity. His ruse,
it appears, was intended to test the 'artistic freedom'
espoused by the Society of Independent Artists,
which he had helped found. The Society's moral indignation
over Fountain prompted Duchamp to write, purportedly
in Mutt's defence, that the mere act of choosing
was enough to qualify any object as 'art.' Thus
was his theory of the readymade conceptualised.
But there is much more to Fountain than hoodwinking
an art society in the cause of artistic freedom.
An ordinary urinal had, in effect, been metamorphosed
into an artwork. It was no longer what it used to
be, a 'pisser' in the vernacular, because it had
been disconnected (literally and figuratively) from
its usual toilet context. It no longer existed to
be pissed into, and there were no more pipes to
drain the waste liquid away. Men no longer stood
in a direct, functional relationship with it but
a symbolic one, where all that remained were associations
of the personal acts of peeing. Those memories or
sensations remained to haunt the spectator viewing
the object, but it now generated any number of new
meanings, ranging from piss/pisser/pissing puns,
to body symbolism, to art philosophical discourse.
And touching on the connotations of the title itself:
Was Duchamp alluding to Fountain pissing on the
artworld, the reverse of the artworld pissing into
it, in the sense of biting the hand of high art
that feeds it? Or in the sense of fertilising and
nurturing 'low' art? These ambivalent senses reinforce
each other, and reflect what actually happened to
20th century art. A fount, fountain, or fountainhead
can mean the source or origin of anything, of subversion,
regeneration, and confusion in this case. For 'low
art' eventually became 'high art,' and vice versa,
and no one really knows what these terms mean any
the urinal was certainly not intended as an aesthetic
object, it clearly emerged as a brilliantly-paradoxical
aesthetic concept. Looking at Fountain we see one
of the most thought-provoking icons of 'high-as-conceptual
art' embodied in a base object of no intrinsic aesthetic
interest whatsoever (i.e., 'low art', 'anti-art'
or 'non-art). This is the beauty and enduring fascination
of Fountain, that these contradictory meanings continue
to resonate in our minds ad infinitum, ricocheting
to and fro like dialectical tennis balls being slammed
from one end of the court to the other. While the
actual physical object is totally static, the concept
of it as an artwork sets into motion a mental conundrum
which is analogous to the 'ghost in the machine'
of mind and body. A person is not just a body, but
a body with a mind. Similarly, Fountain is not just
a urinal, but a urinal activated in our minds by
being an artwork.
It seems somewhat ironic that this notoriously iconoclastic
work can now be venerated, at least by artist Mike
Bidlo in his Fountain Drawings, as a quasi-religious
shrine, a sacred icon in its own right, a holy relic
of Saint Marcel. Though not really surprising: With
minimal art less generates more, and Duchamp himself
held that each spectator helps perform the creative
act by interpreting it. My Fountain may not be yours,
but was it ever really Duchamp's? He didn't make
it, design it, or even sign his name to it. Just
what would we think of it today if he had never
revealed the true identity of "R. Mutt"?
© 1999 by Max Podstolski
Podstolski is an information specialist in Fine
Arts and Humanities at the University of Canterbury
Library in Christchurch, New Zealand, and occasionally-exhibiting
'primitive modernist' painter. He recently wrote
a review of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics for a
forthcoming issue of Art Libraries Journal.
1 For an image of Duchamp's Fountain click here
See the Brooklyn Museum of Art website here
3 An image of Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary can be
4 Read about the New Zealand Virgin in a Condom
For information on the Pictura Britannica exhibition
in New Zealand and Australia click: here
For an image of Serrano's Piss Christ click here
An overview of Danto's philosophy of contemporary
art can be found here
An image of Warhol's Brillo Box is here
See the article with images about Bidlo's Fountain