With Dada it is hard to know where the humour ends and the mystification begins. This is certainly the case with one of its most notorious succès de scandale, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Fountain is a ready-made sculpture, a porcelain urinal signed by R.Mutt. It was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition at the inaugural show in The Grand Central Palace, New York. The committee, of whom Duchamp was a member, decided to ‘suppress’ Fountain by hiding it behind a partition, as the rules of the society meant that any artwork presented by a fee-paying artist had to be accepted. After the show Duchamp retrieved Fountain from its hiding place, got Alfred Stieglitz of the 291 gallery to photograph the sculpture, which was then published with accompanying essays in The Blind Man magazine. Shortly after the original Fountain was lost (probably thrown out into the garbage, a fate of a many a ready-made as the peripatetic Duchamp liked to travel light), though in the 1950’s and 1960’s Duchamp made a number of reproductions that can be seen in museums across the world.
Part of the text in The Blind Man in defense of Fountain would arguably have a greater impact on Modernist and Post-Modernist aesthetic theory than the actual work.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary 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.
After half of century of Conceptual Art we are wearily familiar with this view and lose sight of how genuinely revolutionary such a concept would have been in 1917. It also shows how little art and aesthetics have progressed since the high water marks of Modernism. I have never really been sure if Duchamp’s assault on art and taste was anything more than an elaborate piss-take, but by God nobody, not even Warhol, has ever done it better.