People often ask what constitutes good art. Who decides whether or not a piece is
art and whether it is good art or not? Marcel Duchamp challenged popular notions of his
day about what art actually is.
Duchamp, a French artist living in New York at the turn of the century, believed
that it was up to the artist to determine what art is. Duchamp is most
1 famous for a type of sculpture he created called “readymades” .
Readymades are ordinary functional household objects that have either
been joined to other objects, or chosen to stand alone as sculpture.
Examples of his readymades include a coat hanger nailed to the floor of his studio, a hat
rack suspended from the ceiling, a typewrite cover concealing nothing, and a bicycle
wheel attached to a stool. Duchamp often altered the objects in some way, sometimes by
just turning the object on its side, or hanging it anything other than the specific way it
was suppose to be placed in. Marcel Duchamps belief was that because the artistchose
the object to be art, itwas,even though the artist did not physically manufacture it.
Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887 to a very artistic French family. Three of his
siblings went on to become successful artists. Duchamp studied art at the Académie
Julian, a studio school in Paris for artists with an academic tradition. Shortly after his
time at the school, Duchamp created what would become a well-known piece:Nude 1 The term “readymade” was not actually in existence at the time of his first readymades. The term didnt come about until after he came to America from France in 1915. Duchamp himself said of these the following: “It was an interesting word, but when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a "readymade," or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn't have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it, or describing anything.” (From the article by Molly Nesbit entitledHis Common Sense- Marcel Duchampsin the magazineArt Forum. Oct. 1994)
Descending a Staircase.The painting depicted a cubist figure in motion. By
superimposing the image of the figure, Duchamp created movement in two dimensions.
This became one of his most famous paintings, and possibly the first one to create
controversy at art shows. Duchamp traveled to New York in 1920.
Having made friends with the likes of artists such as Man Ray,
Beatrice Wood, and Francis Picabia, Duchamp became well known
within the surrealist circle, and even founded the Société Anonyme.
This society was the one that would later reject Duchamps own entry
into their art show. In 1942 Duchamp permanently settled in New
York, and lived there until his death in 1968.
One of Duchamps most famous, and controversial
readymades is calledFountain.Fountainwas first introduced
in April of 1917. Duchamp entered it into an art exhibition
that was being put on by the American Society of Independent
Artists, a group that Duchamp himself was a director of. Duchamp entered the readymade
under the name of Richard Mutt; by using an alias, Duchamp turned the entry into a test
for the society. The main idea of the exhibition was “an exhibitionwhere artists of all
schools can exhibit
together-certain that whatever they send will be hungThere are no requirements for
admission to the Society save the acceptance of its principles and the payment of the
2 initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars” Duchamp sent in his
readymade with the required fees, and according to the rules of the exhibition,Fountain
2 Taken fromMarcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century1990 passage from an announcement entitled “The Society of Independent Artists, Inc.”
was to be accepted. However, because this readymade was originally manufactured to be
a urinal, it was considered, by the society, to be too controversial and inappropriate for
the standards of this time, and they therefore turned it down. Following this action,
Duchamp sent in his resignation to the society. There was much ado over these
happenings. Articles appeared in major newspapers regarding it, but still no one knew
who Richard Mutt was. An article also appeared inThe Blind Man,an art journal
Duchamp himself published. The anonymous author of the article defended theFountain
as art and went on to say “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and
3 her bridges."
This was the early 1900s, so at this time the idea of “modern art” was still fairly
new. People were starting to get use to it, but were not comfortable enough to be
introduced to something such asFountain. A bathroom fixture, especially a urinal, was
considered too inappropriate, and was even said to be immoral. In that same article inThe
Blind Man, the author defendsFountain“Now Mr. Mutt'son this matter by saying,
fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bath tub is immoral. It is a fixture
that you see every day in plumbers' show windows.” This is a very true statement; after
all, bathtubs are not considered immoral are they? However, it being a urinal, and
because of its reference to unpleasant bodily functions, it may seem inappropriate to have
to study and examine it for any period of time, like art is suppose to be studied. This is
certainly valid reasoning. Perhaps, however, because the urinal was flipped onto its back,
and called “Fountain” rather than “Urinal”, it is divorced from the whole bathroom scene,
3 Marcel Duchamp himself most likely wrote this article, however, a dear friend of his, Beatrice Wood, might have written it as well. This detail, like most regardingFountain, is not for sure because everything about its existence was very secretive.
and this therefore makes it more appropriate. As always, with art, its all a matter of
About two weeks after his resignation from the society, Duchamp had Alfred
Steiglitz photographFountain.With the special attention he paid to the lighting of the
urinal, Duchamp tried to equate his “art” with artwork of both the Virgin Mary, and
Buddha. The shadows cast on the urinal gave the illusion of a veil on it, much like the
4 Virgin would wear. Also, all three images have the same general outline shape.
These photographs depict the similarities. This action wasnt so much an effort on
Duchamps part to explain his reasoning behindFountain,or to prove that it was art. It
was more of an opportunity to maybe take the “art” aspect of the object, and personify it
to further create new levels to its artistic-ness. Marcel never felt the need to make people
understand his motives.
Because of who Marcel Duchamp was, and because his art seems toappearso
meaningless that it must have some abstract meaning, there is vast amounts of
speculation regarding the symbolism ofFountain. A very interesting set of ideas is that it
5 is viewed as a highly sexual piece. Because of its position, shape, and original
4 This information can be found in the bookMarcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century 1990 Chapter ---- has more thoughts and information on this action taken by Duchamp. 5 An example of this speculation:“By displaying this utensil upside downinverting it Duchamp slyly enhanced the uncertainty of the objects gender, intimating its androgyny. Camfield described the Fountain as a receptacle for the male "jet" turned upside-down and made
relationship to the male body (as a urinal), it nearly suggests female genitalia. There are
also some that regard it as a bi-sexual piece because of its male and female qualities
mentioned previously. Yet there are still others that see it as a homosexual piece. This is
because as a urinal, it belongs in an all male environment, and, at this time in history, it
was not uncommon for males to meet in restrooms to participate in sexual activities
together. Of course, these are all just speculations, it is not known to anyone if there are
any hidden meanings at all behindFountain.
The originalFountain,like the majority of Duchamps readymades, has long
since been destroyed. There have been many replicas in its place for exhibitions, and
even though they are not the original, they convey the same ideas that the original did. An
artist does not need to create a piece himself to have it be considered art. “Its specific
feature lies not in the work itself, but in the idea behind it. Emphasis is placed upon the
artist not as craftsman, but as gifted perceiver whose choice of an object is seen as a
creative act. The readymade thus becomes the focus of a meditation on the relation
6 between external things and our perception of them.” This is just one definition of “art”;
perhaps though, art doesnt need a definition, perhaps it just needs an opinion.
female, a vagina potentially containing its own fluids. This inversion that accentuates the feminine lines of a utensil intended for males, provides one more example of the theme of androgyny so often noted in Duchamps work.”Excerpt from article by Jack Spector in Tout-Fait, an online journal of Marcel Duchamp studies. 6 From article on website “The Fine Site” http://www.finesite.webart.ru/shocking/fountain-1.htmAuthor unknown
Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal
Duchamps Gendered Plumbing: A Family Business?By Jack Spector
ArtForum, Oct. 1994
His Common Sense, Marcel DuchampsBy Molly Nesbit
Art Journal, winter 1998
Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamps Readymades
By Helen Molesworth
The Fine Sitehttp://www.finesite.webart.ru/shocking/fountain-1.htm
Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century1990 MIT Press
Edited By Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann
The Duchamp Effect1996 MIT Press
Edited By Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon
Marcel Duchamp Work and Life1993 MIT Press
Edited and introduced by Pontus Hulten. Texts by Jennifer Gough-Cooper
and Jacques Caumont