Consideration of a standard item in the men’s restroom might help us to ponder life’s deepest questions.
Since the beginning of time art has reflected the state of the world. As soon as people found ways to express themselves they have created impactful pieces of art that represented the societal pressures (or lack thereof) from that time period. World War I was one of the first wars to drastically alter the art community. Some artists focused on the destruction and hyper-violence of the war due to experiencing life at the front firsthand as a soldier, medic, or war artist documenting the disastrous life around them. Other artists however followed the styles of Dada, an essentially anti-war art movement that originated in Europe and later spread to the United States. In reaction to the war, the Dada movement rejected the logic and reason of anti-bourgeois; they sought to replicate styles of spontaneity or anything that rejected conformity.
A leader in the Dadaism movement, Marcel Duchamp, procured his infamous 1917 readymade sculpture “Fountain.” This sculpture is a wonderful example of the Dadaist’s rejection of conformity. “Fountain” is a porcelain urinal. Yes, you read that correctly, it is indeed a urinal. In fact, it’s not a urinal of any divine specification, it’s a regular urinal that Duchamp bought during a visit to New York City (the booming center for Dadaism at the time). The only difference is that it was placed in the exhibition on its side, and the words “R. Mutt 1917” are sloppily written on the side of it in black paint. It’s easy to diminish the importance of a work such as “Fountain.” Perhaps aside from the rising stigma of Charmin ultra soft, since when have we glorified restrooms to such a degree as to place items from them in a museum? But that’s exactly the driving point of the piece itself: to question what is and isn’t considered art. In a rather startling way, “Fountain” challenged the traditional notions we hold about what should and shouldn’t be displayed in a museum.
What’s the difference between the urinal used yesterday and the one seen on a family visit to the museum? Nothing other than one is far more glorified than the other. There is an esoteric nature in some artistic theories which often leads to a wall that divides the general public from the so-called intellectually deemed community. “Fountain” managed to break down this wall rather dramatically by mockingly portraying an everyday object as an important piece of art. It challenged the art community and asked: “Who decides what is art?” And while artistic conventions may have a history of higher society; artists now readily accept that art is for the people.
Yet despite Duchamp’s best efforts we still heroize the object that is placed in a museum rather than the same one seen in everyday life. We can read poetry without question of the price of paper or the amount of money procured for its creation. We read poetry and think about how it transforms us, how it can make us question something or see something in a new light. But in the visual arts we are still too often tied to the handicraft. Duchamp intended for the viewer to distance themself from the handicraft, rather to delve into the conceptuality of the piece.
“Fountain” was originally procured in a cynical light, trying to poke fun at artists themselves. It was a radical sort of anti-art. He was mocking the very people who would stand before it and either try to make some deep sense out of it or reject it as a whole. The avarice of the art community has prevailed despite Duchamp’s eager attempt to undermine it.
Why must an artist place an everyday object in a museum for us to view it differently? And what does the art produced today say about the state of the world? We are too often bogged down by social conventions that we discount re-evaluating our everyday life. Because of social media and the news, it’s easy to become preoccupied with a certain kind of thinking, the kind of thinking we are force-fed. I think we could all use a healthy dose of Dadaism in our lives: to see things for ourselves, to question our surroundings, and to relentlessly challenge the status quo. If putting a urinal in a museum is what inspires us to question the world around us, then Duchamp was successful. In a world perhaps as dangerously chaotic as WW1 we cannot afford to be submissive; we must be collectively strong and fearless in our pursuit of individuality.
Photo: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp by Gerald Lau on Flickr