The Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp

In 1917, A Urinal Changed the Course of Art History! For the price of 1$, the Society of Independent Artists declared that any artist could become a member, and that any member can pay $5 to enter a work to the Independents Exhibition. It was the largest show of modern art to be held in America, and was meant to be a forward looking intellectual stand against what they perceived to be a conservative and stifling attitude of the National Academy. Marcel Duchamp entered a work to the show, and, you guessed it, it was a urinal! It wasn’t a urinal that he sculpted from porcelain and baked in a kiln, no, it was a perfectly made, mass produced, and very ordinary object that Duchamp bought in a store. He took the urinal, placed it on its back, then signed and dated the work with black paint “R. Mutt 1917.” He even gave it a title: “Fountain” In other words, Duchamp appropriated an existing object, rendered it non-functional, and positioned it as an art object. He called this new form of art a “readymade” So why did Duchamp sign his work with the pseudonym R. Mutt? One part of the answer may be that Duchamp was actually the director of the Society and was part of the organizing committee, but another part was the Duchamp loved to play with words. The name Mutt is a play on Mott, which is the store he bought the urinal, but it is said to also reference the popular comic strip “Mutt and Jeff,” in which Mutt was a dimwitted, greedy character always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes, and Jeff was his gullible sidekick, and inmate of a mental asylum. So this can be Duchamp’s way of poking fun at the pompous art world. In fact, it has been suggested that R. stands for Richard, which is a French colloquialism for “moneybags” So when the urinal arrived at the Exhibition hall, Duchamp’s co-directors actually refused to allow the Fountain to be shown, despite having attached the required $6 to be entered. The unjuried show accepted all 2,125 works of 1,235 artists, all except the work of R. Mutt. Many felt that it was insulting, a joke. In fact, the fountain disappeared, and was probably destroyed. A possible remake was photographed a few days later, but that too disappeared. Duchamp, of course, was quick to point out that the “liberal and progressive” art Society was failing to carry out what they originally set out to do. “The Richard Mutt Case,” published in a magazine through Duchamp’s prozy, Beatrice Wood read: "Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object." -Blind Man, Vol. 2 The Fountain forces the viewer to leave old questions of art behind. No longer are we concerned with aesthetic questions of craft, medium, and taste. Arise are new questions that are ontological, epistemological, and institutional. Questions still called into question in art today.


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