Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is a urinal turned on its side and signed– and I can’t stop thinking about it. “Fountain” is a ‘ready-made’ piece of art, meaning that it is an ordinary object that has been selected by an artist to become art, assigning something mundane a grander meaning. The artist, in this sense, has not created a new object, but created a new idea for an object.
“Fountain” was initially submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 under the pseudonym R. Mutt, but was rejected for its alleged indecency. Duchamp, who was on the board for the society quickly resigned in protest. What Duchamp had endeavored to do was test this organization’s that claimed to accept any work of art for display, and frankly, it failed. The result of this failure, however, is the infamy of “Fountain” and the introduction of a wholly new idea to the art world, conceptual art.
When we look at “Fountain”, it is glistening white and generally curved. When viewed straight on, it is reminiscent of the seated Buddha, or a woman’s cloaked head. This may not be purposeful, but is relevant to the way the viewer experiences the piece. Above the aesthetic is the original purpose of the object, a urinal intended to collect waste and be observed in the private space of a bathroom, rather than in the scrutinous eyes of the public. Context is important. History is important. “Fountain” challenges the institution of the museum or gallery as a home for greatness at the discretion of an elite board. “Fountain”‘ is a house guest that scoffs at its hosts.
What is most essential to “Fountain” is the idea. This is an exemplification of the transcendental quality of art making. Even less conceptual pieces take pigments and cloth and turn them into works that we regard as masterpieces, but materials are ephemeral. Despite the best conservationist’s efforts, physical materials are only capable of lasting so long. The copy of “Fountain” that the Tate Modern has on display is but a copy of the original, which has been lost. Despite this, to see it is to experience the idea that the very first “Fountain” carried within it– that physical objects can be lost, but ideas last forever.
For more information on “Fountain”, check out this Art Assignment video “Art or prank?”