Problems with “Art” & Urinals!


Hey there! I was just sitting here at my
breakfast table and pondering the definition of art. And I was looking at
some pictures that I came across, and I came across this picture that my husband
took of me at the Pompidou Center in Paris a few years back. And as you can
see, I’m pretending to make a shocked face as I gaze upon Marcel Duchamp’s
infamous sculpture called “Fountain” produced in 1917. In this video, I’m going
to address just why this work was so shocking and why a hundred years later,
it continues to drive us crazy and poke holes at our definitions of art. So let’s
go! Okay, so in 1917, Marcel Duchamp, a French painter, entered this sculpture in
an exhibition put on by the edgy “Society of Independent Artists” and waited for it
to be rejected. He didn’t make the urinal, he simply chose it, flipped it upside
down– and in doing so– flipped the art world upside down along with it.
He signed the work “R. Mutt” referencing a plumbing manufacturing company, as well
as the name of a cartoon strip. Duchamp like to use puns and push the envelope,
and so some of his rebellious work like “Fountain” can be seen as a stick-it-to-the-man kind-of response to Western ideals. At the time he produced “Fountain,” Europe
was smack dab in the middle of World War 1. And so the world as he knew it had
been overturned and was going down the toilet. And so you can see that there’s
some significant historical context that that frames our understanding of the
work. But but what I want to get to in this discussion are the questions that
this piece raises about what counts as art. This work pokes holes at
historic definitions of the word “art” and it demonstrates all of the the
problems that Duchamp was finding with those historical definitions. Okay so
problem number one that Duchamp addresses is beauty.
Our first gut-level reaction to this work when we realize it’s a urinal is
“eww” you know, “gross!” And there’s a reason that he chose a urinal! He wanted to
choose an object that automatically triggers disgust, and in doing so, raises
the important question, “Must you like something for it to be art?” and “what
about works that are ugly and disgusting– does that fact disqualify them?” I think
most of us would admit– okay no, because we can see the importance of art being
able to speak into the realities of our human existence. Life is is not
always beautiful and pleasant. Sometimes life is cruel and unfair and painful
and sometimes, terrifying. And so there are times when we need truthful art to
help us sort through these emotions, as well. Here are a few examples of works
that I find particularly gross or are terrifying, but they were all coming from
real places of pain and angst. And although no one would say that they’re
necessarily pleasant or beautiful, we wouldn’t say that this fact it
disqualifies them as “art.” Another problem that Duchamp raises with our definition
of “art” is the concept of time and and craftsmanship. He didn’t make the urinal
himself and the alterations he added didn’t take much time, and I think this
is one of the greatest frustrations that people have with this work–myself
included. So just how much technique and skill is required for mething to
be counted as “art”? You know, I could spend 80 hours making a single painting,
but are my two minute sketches considered “art”? Or
what about the art of an untrained child? Is there a line in the sand
between “art” and “non-art” when it comes to the skill level or or the time invested?
A third problem he raises is about the concept. How much expression and thought
is required? Can a simple idea be considered “art”? Here’s another ready-made
he produced involving a snow shovel. And here it is hovering over my husband’s
head at the Pompidou. Duchamp forces us to consider, how much does that work have
to communicate? And can that work be open to interpretation and its meaning be
left to the eye of the beholder? Another problem that Duchamp raises in
his works is the idea of intent. Can art be accidental? How much planning and
involvement is required on the part of the artist? And how much can be left
up to chance? This is a work that Duchamp made on a large piece of glass, and
when the glass broke in shipment, he actually embraced that fact. He viewed
the accident as part of the work, as well. Artists know that one’s intent is often
surrendered in the creative process. As Bob Ross famously says, you know, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” This leads me to another
problem that Duchamp addresses and that is the idea of location and origin.
Where does an art object end and where does it begin? Is Duchamp’s
“Fountain” just an upside down urinal or should the consideration of this work
also include the the myriads of conversations it provoked, its cultural
context, significance in art history, its artistic influence, and this video itself?!
Which gets me thinking of another question when it comes to the definition
of “art” and that concerns audience. What role does the audience
play with what we deem as “art” and must there even be an audience for something
to be considered “art”? Instead of the question,
“If a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound?” What about the question, “If
an artist’s it creates a work of art but no one ever sees it, is it still
considered “art”? I think about James Hampton, who who worked as a janitor
but then secretly built this large assemblage of religious art from all
these scavenge materials like aluminum and cardboard. He spent 14 years
putting together 180 objects in his garage as this monument
to Jesus. His art was not discovered until after his death– when the the owner
of the property came into the garage to check on rent– and then discovered all
that he had created. The discovery attracted a lot of attention, and it was
eventually acquired by the Smithsonian Art Museum, where it’s currently
exhibited. I think something that is admired about Hampton’s work is that it’s
special and unique–even if it was created in secret. And that brings me
to another problem that Duchamp addresses in this work, and that concerns
originality. A common frustration with this piece is that it’s not special. It’s a urinal, and for–I guess–at least half the population, it’s
something that they see every day. And so it begs the question of: how unique must
have work be for it to be considered “art”? And this is a question that is actually
asked again and again throughout the 20th century. Four decades after
Duchamp raises this question, Andy Warhol asked it again but by raising up
everyday items like Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola to the status of a
fine art. And he asked for these everyday items–these common items–to be
reconsidered. In fact, Andy Warhol purposefully chose screen printing as
his technique because he was able to replicate the kind-of factory-like
settings of these mass-produced items. He also preferred screen print because it
was a technique that didn’t require him to
physically touch the artwork. Now I think one could argue that the more unique an
object is, the greater its value. But this applies to things even outside the art
world. Basic economics demonstrates that the more limited the
quantity, the the greater the value. So can originality be a determinant when it
comes to what counts as “art” and what doesn’t? A final issue to address is
authorship. Some people might say, “Ok, I’ll concede that this ceramic object is “art,”
but I’m not willing to say that Duchamp is the artist. He didn’t make it with his
own hands, some poor worker in the factory made that. And so the real
artist is that factory worker! So it begs the question: who should
get credit for this work? And how much involvement is required for an artist to
receive attribution? Here’s an entire room in the Louvre of the famous Marie
de Medici Cycle that’s attributed to Peter Paul Rubens. So Rubens is
credited as the artist of these works, but he certainly didn’t create each work
by himself. In fact, he had a large workshop with many apprentices and and
although he may have designed the compositions and painted the hands and
the faces, he certainly would have had help with the backgrounds the clothes
and so forth. In fact, this was standard practice for many artists throughout
history. When it comes to to artists and architects, we are constantly crediting
those with with the idea and in the vision over those who just merely
execute that vision. One might even argue that animals have the facility to
execute simple artistic tasks. So when it comes to more conceptual
expressions, it’s the artists unique vision that warrants the attribution.
Louise Norton actually addressed the thorny issue of authorship in the midst
of Fountain’s controversy by stating, “Whether
he made it with his own hands has no importance. He chose it.
He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that it’s useful
significance disappeared under the new title and point of view -and created a
new thought for that object.” And so Duchamp creates these works to poke
holes our beloved standards, and the questions that he raises continue
to agitate us to this day. And, you know, as annoyed as we get with works like
“Fountain,” I do think there is value in actually noticing what we are reacting
or responding against. If it’s the disgust issue, maybe you can see it
as an indicator that–hey there’s something about beauty and beauty’s
relationship with art that will always be important. And yeah, there are our
instances and exceptions, and I know beauty is a loaded term, but I do
think it’s interesting that 100 years later, we’re still not willing
to let go of it, and the disgust factor continues to to agitate us about
this work. Maybe you’re frustrated by the
simplicity of its construction or or the lack of craftsmanship. So perhaps
that’s an indicator that there’s something about the the act of creating
that we don’t want to let go of. You know, even in the age of machines and
technology, there there’s something about handcrafted objects that asserts
something about our humanity, or our unique creative capacities. I think
there’s also merit and wanting art to be a meaningful experience. One of
the greatest things about art is its ability to to transform and to shape the
way we look at the world. We don’t want art to be a pointer to to nothingness,
and so I think if one were a hard- pressed to to find value in Duchamp’s
“Fountain,” it may just be in the streams of thought and meaningful thought that
flow out of it– no pun intended. So when you consider tough works like Duchamp’s
“Fountain,” I want to encourage you to pay attention to what you’re reacting
against, because I believe these frustrations may be just as important at
helping you appreciate and understand what art is then what it’s not. Okay so
so that’s it for today, thanks for your attention, and we’ll catch you next time!

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