In a few words write down your response to Duchamp’s Fountain
My immediate response was to laugh. I think of Dada in general and Duchamp in particular as satirical, in the sense that they were challenging the art establishment of that time. There is, therefore, another interesting dimension to this work, namely has the urinal become a famous work of art? If so, does this represent a negation of the satirical element of the work?
Having been asked the question, and being somewhat ignorant of the Dada movement, I decided to undertake some superficial investigations.
Larry McGinity (2010:410) describes Dada as encompassing “…both a deeply destructive urge and seemingly limitless, playful inventiveness.” He goes onto say that their artists “…vigorously challenged previously held notions of artistic merit…”
Norbert Lynton (1980:127) expresses a similar view. “Dada artists had…the intention of challenging established notions of what art should be.”
Both quotes suggest that I am, at best, being too simplistic in describing Dada as satirical whilst, at worst, underestimating its intentions and impact. Larry McGinity (2010:411) goes onto highlight Duchamp’s role in the Dada movement. He describes Duchamp as pushing “…the iconoclasm of Dada to extreme with its ‘ready-mades’ (sic)…” Furthermore McGinity suggests that Duchamp “…questioned what constituted an artwork and – in a materialistic society – undermined notions of material value.”
Hence Dada is described as going beyond satire and forcing us to consider how we recognise and value art to such an extent that it questioned the materialist values of society at that time.
Turning to Fountain specifically, it is an example of a readymade. McGinity (2010:411) describes readymades as “…industrially manufactured functional objects that [Duchamp] displayed with little or no alteration.”
Norbert Lynton (1980:132) sees them as presenting a huge challenge to the public. He believes that Duchamp was proposing an inversion in the “…artist/art-object/public relationship. Instead of conceiving a work…as an object bearing some specific significance, the artist merely selects – and selects…uncaringly.” He goes on to say “…the public is forced to ask itself whether the exhibit is a work of art at all and thus what a work of art is.” He concludes by stating that “…the public is faced with a problem that threatens to shatter all cultural values.”
So Dada in general and the readymades in particular, encourage us to question many aspects of “art” to such an extent that we question our values. Lynton’s use of the adjective cultural, however, strikes me as ambiguous. Is he using cultural in the narrow sense of culture as used to describe the arts in their broadest sense? If so, then this would appear to accord with McGinity’s view. If Lynton is suggesting that Dada is a challenge to culture in terms of the behaviour and customs of society then this would feel like a large claim to me. It is a view, given my limited knowledge of art history, for which it is difficult to find evidence. I would tend to err on the side of culture being used in the narrower sense.
My response reconsidered
Despite the seriousness of Dada’s threats to the then art establishment and its longer-term influences, my reaction to the fountain is still to laugh. The presentation of a urinal is a challenging act but it is still a satirical one which suggests a comedic sense of the absurd on Duchamp’s part.
When he presented it for exhibition in New York in 1917, Norbert Lynton (1980:131) explains that “…the hanging committee could not countenance this piece: it stayed in the exhibition space but was screened from view.” It seems to me that the very act of screening it off confirmed the strength of the challenge of Duchamps’ views. The piece was dangerous and presented a threat and so it was hidden from view. I suspect that this conferred on the piece an even greater importance and significance than the committee intended or wanted. Arguably that decision raises an even bigger laugh than the piece itself.
Another readymade and another thought
The DK Book of Art uses Duchamps’ Bicycle Wheel (see figure 3 below) as an example of a readymade. Incorporating a bicycle fork (including the wheel) with a wooden stool, the book describes it as being an “assisted readymade” as it comprised two objects which needed some form of assembly
I find the contrast between Bicycle Wheel and Picasso’s Bull’s Head (see figure 1 above) interesting. The former is the deliberate connection (physical and metaphorical) of two entirely unrelated objects for no figurative purpose whatsoever. The object produced is a statement of challenge. Picasso’s Bull’s Head, however, is the product of two related objects welded together for an entirely figurative purpose. It is almost whimsical. Lynton (1980:212) considers it a visual pun. Either way, the intention is clear – it represents a bull’s head.
I much prefer the Bicycle Wheel. The simplicity of the work belies the strength and power of its challenge. The Bull’s Head is similarly simplistic in its presentation. Its name, however, directs the viewer to see a bull’s head and so its component parts then play their assigned roles of head and horns. Not so the Bicycle Wheel. The sum of the work eclipses the parts. Together they mocked, challenged and shocked the viewers and art world of its time.
Thus I return to a question I asked myself at the start of this blog; does the fame of Fountain represent a negation of the satirical element of the work? My answer would be a resounding no. The fame of Fountain suggests that the strength of the challenge presented by the Dada movement, including its satire, as well as its subsequent influences are, in fact, fully recognised. The piece has not been corrupted by its fame!
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Duchamp, M. (1917 – replica 1964) Fountain At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573 (Accessed on 2 April 2017)
Figure 2. Picasso, P. (1943) Bull’s Head At: https://www.moma.org/images/dynamic_content/exhibition_page/129641.jpg (Accessed on 1 April 2017)
Figure 3. Duchamp, M. (1913) Bicycle Wheel At: https://cdn.mhpbooks.com/uploads/2014/08/duchampbyclce.png (Accessed on 1 April 2017)
Bland, D. and Reid, P. (2017) ‘Use Rembrandt as an Ironing Board! Bicycle Wheel (1913), Marcel Duchamp’. In: DK The Art Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited
Lynton, N. (1980) The Story of Modern Art. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited
McGinity, L. (2010)’Dada’ In: Farthing, S (ed) Art The Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson