Duchamp’s Infamous Urinal

I read art books. Not often. Sometimes I just need a break from made-up stories.

My interest in artsy pursuits dates from childhood. I got into drawing growing up with three brothers who refused to play with me. Today, I have pretensions to being a painter of sorts.

Anyway, I read this book—all 500-some intimidating, fascinating pages of it. It teased me into expecting that, by the end of those pages, I’d have a very good idea of what art really is. More beguiling is the book’s premise that a urinal is a key that can unlock the meaning of art! How could it fail to intrigue?

Time was when the question of what art is didn’t bother anyone. It would never have occurred to Michelangelo. Centuries later, Edouard Manet and the impressionists might have had it back of their heads when they broke with classical traditions. Their paintings made the art world take a serious look into what constitutes art. After that, every time artists break from the current “ism,” our notion of art gets tossed into a bull ring.

Even so, everyone agreed art is about creating, using one’s chosen medium. In painting, medium consists of tubes (or buckets) of paint and support (canvas, wood, board, etc.). Along comes Marcel Duchamp, a Frenchman armed with a urinal. He upset every artist’s paint cart. Duchamp’s urinal is at the heart of Kant After Duchamp.

Kant After Duchamp is written by another Frenchman, a long-winded one. Thierry de Duve writes in a deceptively semi-conversational style. But, you can’t rush through the book. It is dense with ideas.

In the first section alone, Art Was A Proper Name, de Duve goes ad infinitum into the nuances of art along with why it is what it is. I hair-split, too, but never to this extent. I think that excess lies in the purview of philosophers who think through questions logically, without messing with reality. In fairness, de Duve does do some reality-checking.

Duchamp’s Urinal
At the center of the issues de Duve raises is the confounding story of Marcel Duchamp ‘s urinal aka Fountain by R. Mutt. A curious intrigue surrounded this urinal. No other piece of work has caused as much consternation. For at least one very good reason. Technically, Duchamp did not create it. Is not art all about creating?

Duchamp took an object we all know—a ready-made, as we now label this sort of thing—turned it upside down, and slapped on a title. He attributed it to an unknown, R. Mutt, and submitted it to an exhibit ran by the Society of Independents.

Some curators of the show were offended by it. Others suspected R. Mutt was Duchamp and wondered if the piece was a joke or a hoax.The curators must really have been flummoxed because a debate ensued. Though they had earlier declared they would exhibit every art work submitted, they argued over Duchamp’s urinal. To show or not to show?

When the exhibit opened, Duchamp’s urinal was not in it. It had mysteriously disappeared from the Society’s safekeeping. Where to and taken by whom? No one knew or would say.

At first, the case of the missing urinal did not cause too much of a stir in the press. But de Duve believes Duchamp provoked or started a chain of events that finally drew attention to its disappearance. It seems he persuaded Alfred Stieglitz, at the time the leading figure in the art world, to take up his cause by publicizing a photograph Stieglitz had taken of the urinal.

R. Mutt’s Fountain gained notoriety. And as time passed, a coveted place in history.

There is more to this book, of course, but the saga of Duchamp’s infamous urinal illustrates the changing nature of art. His behind-the-scenes machinations offer an interesting look into the politics of artistic success. Is there a lesson in all this for writers?

Curious about my paintings? A Sampling:

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