In 1917 the Society of Independent Artists made a decision that shook the modern art world - they denied Marcel Duchamp's entry to their unjuried exhibition. Why? Well... it was a urinal. Picked out from an ordinary plumbing store. And signed "R. Mutt." And titled Fountain.
This kicked off what many consider a revolution in modern art - after all, Duchamp was a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, and the show was meant to be unjuried so that nobody could control artists' submissions. Nevertheless, Fountain was rejected, sparking a controversy that brought to light the great question: "What is art?."
I am no art historian, but as a lover of modern art, and especially the Dada movement of this time, Fountain represents to me what is intoxicating about art. It makes you think. It makes you see ordinary objects in a different way, and changes how you view the rest of the world as a result. Did Duchamp have some deep love affair with toilets, that gave him the urge to pay porcelain thrones homage? Was his daring purpose to cause a stir in knowing his work would be denied by this non juried, open to all, exhibition? Did he know that his work would go down in history as one of the most thought provoking pieces in the history of art?
The elusive signature, the 17 recreations, and the unknown fate of the original Fountain, I believe were all part of his master plan. What many do not know, is that Duchamp shortly after creating this piece dedicated his life to a new artform - chess. Recognize this chess board? Duchamp had outwardly expressed his belief that all chess players are artists; calculating your opponent's move, controlling the center, instigating an end-game, and sacrificing minor pieces. These principles have an uncanny resemblance to how the Fountain scandal played out.
I look at Fountain as the world's longest running performance art piece - a performance that has lasted 100 years! Like a Grand Master's game of chess, Duchamp very carefully conducted a series of responses and scandal based off one simple opening move: submitting a urinal to an exhibition. And like Grand Master Magnus Carlsen, he knew exactly what he was doing when the rest of the world thought he was nuts for daring to make such a move. People are still talking and asking questions about the Fountain. It shook the art world and continues to reel the minds of prophetic and fledgling art-lovers alike.
Go pay homage to the toilet that changed the art world forever at:
SFMoMA (and check out 'I Don't Get It' immersive audio walk to hear comedian's Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani take on the Fountain!)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Haus der Kulturen der Welt
...and if you're diggin' the whole "toilet as art" motif... don't forget the solid gold toilet from artist Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim!
“Duchamp understood quite early the profound challenge that the readymade posed to widely held ideas about the significance of originals and copies in art. As time went on, he became more interested in making replicas. He overturned ideas of originality, raising questions that have only grown in significance during our time, and so one hundred years after its conception, Duchamp’s readymade sculpture continues to bewilder.”