Duchamp's Fountain Essay

Submitted By mmor62
Words: 2091
Pages: 9

Even to those void of a formal art background, the world of traditional art is a realm held in high regard by nearly all. This elevation of art and artists is engrained into our culture, evident even in our own language – with common phrases such as ‘a work of art’ or ‘masterpiece’ used to express utmost skill and admiration. Yet, when asked to define art most would be clueless as where to begin, other than to perhaps describe feelings of awe at the skill of artists. However, admiration is a subjective matter so is clearly not a solid foundation for such a definition. To truly explore the definition of art, a fitting example would be to examine the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp and his famed ‘readymades.’ By placing these ordinary articles of life under the spotlight of a gallery, Duchamp shattered the traditional process of producing art that had existed for centuries, and subsequently triggered thinking about what constitutes as art.

These famed readymades are ordinary manufactured objects that Duchamp selected and barely modified, as a contrasting statement to what he called “retinal art” – art that is purely visual.i Creating these pieces involved a bare minimum degree of interaction between the artist and artwork, hence forming the most extreme form of minimalism up to that period (1915)ii. The term ‘readymades’ was coined for these pieces, as this was a commonly used term in the US at the time to distinguish manufactured goods from hand crafted goodsiii - an assurance that the outputs of industrial life would be a fruitful resource in works of art. However, Duchamp’s submissions of his readymades as art to art juries and the public were largely rejected by jurors or went unnoticed in art shows.iv This was especially the case for Duchamp’s most iconic work, Fountain (1917), a piece which consists of a porcelain urinal laid down flat with an initial and date inscribed on its sidev. In 1917 the board of the American Society of Independent Artists exhibit, after much deliberation of whether Fountain was art or not, hid the piece from view during its exhibition.vi This group of prominent New Yorkers applauded themselves for supporting progressiveness in art, and touted that anyone who paid a $6 fee would be welcome to present in their inaugural exhibitionvii. Therefore, based on technicalities, there was no firm basis for denying Fountain as Duchamp had paid his fee, but nonetheless the Society rejected it as artviii.

Before justifying whether Duchamp’s readymades should be classified as art, we must first define what art is. Historically, artists have followed four steps in creating their works, and pieces that follow this process are generally accepted to be artix. The first step is making the decision of what to portray, then the second step is that artist commences to create the work (sometimes with assistance)x. Once satisfied with the product, the third step is the artist’s decision to claim that the piece is finished, and then the final step is displaying the workxi. Although these steps are seemingly vital for any artwork to exist, Duchamp’s works defy this process by completely skipping the second step by which they were manufactured. This does not imply that the pieces were never created at all – but rather they were ‘readymade.’ Duchamp himself claimed that, “instead of making, I take it readymade… a form of denying the possibility of defining art.”xii Rather than portraying an object, Duchamp merely shows it – he could paint the object, but he chooses not toxiii. Although time has shown us that not all four steps are necessary in producing a masterpiece, it seems that this second step is perceived to be of utmost importance when proving the worth of art, above all other steps.

There are several examples of artworks that are highly regarded, yet like Duchamp’s readymades have skipped a traditional step in that of creating art. The first step of making the decision of what to portray has been