If I had to choose one piece of art that has gotten the most grief over the course of its existence for not being art, it is Duchamp’s Fountain. I know. It’s a urinal. It’s not even a decorated handcrafted urinal. It’s a plain old urinal from a hardware store tipped on its side and signed R. Mutt, 1917. Why on earth are there editions of this thing in respectable art galleries? Why is this thing in the canon of Modern Art?
This is one of those artworks that needs a little context. In 1912, Duchamp submitted his Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 to a Cubist show in Paris. The hanging committee objected to it largely based on the title being “too literary.” Duchamp pulled the painting and later submitted it to a show in New York. New York audiences were considerably less exposed to the modern art movements and the painting caused a positive scandal. One critic said it looked like “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Of course any press turned out to be good press and all the works Duchamp submitted to that show sold. When Duchamp moved to New York in 1915 to get away from World War I he was, much to his surprise, a bit of a celebrity. The whole experience seems to have left Duchamp a bit soured on the whole artist group, gallery scene.
Still, in 1917, Duchamp found himself a founding member of The Society of Independent Artists, a group that ran unjuried galleries. That means as long as you payed your membership fee and the entrance fee for the show, you could display. Which was apparently true until Duchamp, under a pseudonym of Richard Mutt, submitted Fountain. The Society decided that Fountain was not art and refused to display it. Duchamp resigned in protest.
Is the “why is it art” becoming any clearer now?
Of course Fountain is more than just a prank pulled on The Society of Independent Artists. It is one of several pieces of art Duchamp called his readymades. Duchamp was one of the Dadaists, a group that were reacting to the horrors of World War I by questioning the value of traditional aesthetics and intellectualism. They preferred a more nonsense, instinctual approach. The readymades were everyday objects unaltered or altered very little that were pulled completely out of their original context, given a completely new one, and in true Dada fashion, elevated to a somewhat ridiculous level of art. Other readymades include a snow shovel hung from the ceiling titled In advance of the broken arm, a metal and wood coat rack laid on the floor titled Trap, and of course L.H.O.O.Q.
L.H.O.O.Q is a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a goatee and mustache drawn on it. Duchamp made several versions of it during his life, including one where he didn’t alter the face at all, called L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved. So why L.H.O.O.Q.? Well. if you say the letters out loud with a French pronunciation, it sounds a bit like “Elle a chaud au cul.“ That’s roughly French for “She has a hot ass.” Yup. It’s a joke about the Mona Lisa’s butt, or possibly Da Vinci’s supposed homosexuality. No really, this is how Dada works. It tears down our traditional estimations of art.
Fountain is more than just a phenomenal piece of Dada, though. It’s more than just a clever joke at the expense of the art world’s authorities. It is one of the first works that makes a drastic shift in the understanding of art as something that exists in an object to the idea that art is an experience had by the beholder. There’s a lot of fancy art talk I could use to describe this, with terms like Kantian sublime and other such foolishness, but in the spirit of Dada, I’ll keep it simple. Fountain isn’t profound in its craftsmanship. It isn’t an object of beauty. It does, however, cause you to examine the way you view the world around you. It makes you think about a urinal the way you think about art. That is a real feat of creativity, and that is why it is art.