What is Art, Really? Part 2. The Missing Urinal: The Politics of Artistic Success

Man_Ray,_192f_Portrait of Marcel_Duchamp,
A curious intrigue surrounded Duchamp’s urinal aka Fountain by R. Mutt. The original urinal not only never graced the show it sought to get into. It had mysteriously disappeared. Where to and taken by whom? No one knew or would say. It is, in fact, this disappearance that bestowed on Fountain its notoriety and its place in history—notoriety fueled by Duchamp’s behind-the-scenes machinations.

The case of the missing urinal did not initially cause too much of a stir in the press. But a chain of events supposedly provoked or generated by Duchamp himself, at least according to Thierry de Duve in Kant After Duchamp, finally brought some attention to its disappearance from the safekeeping of the Society of Independents to whom it had been submitted for entry in their first exhibition.

It seems Duchamp paved the way by having someone write in The Blind Man, an art journal, about a publicity-seeking man who might have been certifiably crazy, but whose works were accepted into the show based on the Society’s principles of complete artistic freedom. In its first exhibition, the Society of Independents sought to undermine the tradition of forming juries to curate entries and award prizes. One only needed to pay dues to enter and, by the act of being in an art show, declare oneself an artist.

The consensus of curators was the publicity-seeking man’s works were trash and their loud-mouthed creator was, in fact, later discredited. The discredit to the man was , of course, also an embarrassment to the Independents: it made a mockery of their selection process.

Duchamp and his artist associates had earlier requested Alfred Stieglitz to photograph the Fountain after its rejection by the Independents. Famed photographer Stieglitz had, at the time, enviable clout. Association with him meant you were at least at the doorway of the artistic stratosphere. The artists he promoted were looked upon as gigantic talents and many, in fact, had reputations that have not only endured, but also grown. Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, who became his wife, and Edward Steichen, another well-known photographer; not to mention Matisse, Cezanne, Rodin, and Picasso, relative newbies to the American scene. Stieglitz conferred fame, notoriety, and prestige.

In 1917, despite Duchamp’s success in the famed 1913 Armory Show in New York, he was not one of Stieglitz’s chosen few. In fact, de Duve says Stieglitz thought him a charlatan.

So, why did Stieglitz agree to photograph Fountain? Once again de Duve weighs in: it’s a question of Stieglitz’s ethics. Despite an aesthetic sense rooted in traditional art, he believed in and treasured—as most artists did—the artistic freedom behind the Society’s principle: “No jury, no prizes.” He supported the idea that the merit of an artwork should be inherent in itself and not because the artist is well-known or some critic said the work was good.

Stieglitz took a picture of the urinal in front of a Marsden Hartley painting called the Warrior where it seemed flanked by two flags. The allusion to a warrior may be obvious to you, but what those two flags meant, you need not even guess. Stieglitz labeled his picture Buddha or Madonna of the Bathroom, alluding to a connection with the aesthetics of a classical past. Then, he put it up in his gallery where it was seen by members of elite art circles. Then, to top it all, he wrote an article for The Blind Man that came across as further endorsement of the urinal’s aesthetic merit.

Stieglitz probably believed that in calling attention to the Society’s failure to show Fountain, he’s exposing the Society of Independents’ bigotry in having violated its own principles. De Duve thinks Stieglitz unwittingly played a major role in events that Duchamp might have orchestrated as vengeance for the Society’s rejection of R. Mutt’s entry to its show.

Duchamp, a founding member of the Society, might have initially sent the urinal as a joke. A test of the Society’s commitment to its principles. Speculation or truth? It may no longer matter. The temblor had been set in motion: The urinal attracted much attention, raised new questions about what art is, and fomented a revolution that produced the likes of Warhol, the abstract expressionists, Rauschenberg, etc., etc.

Ironically, while the Society failed the test of adhering to its principles, it lived on for more than twenty years, riding on the scandal caused by a urinal that had gone missing. Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph is the only testimony that Duchamp’s urinal did exist.

If you see Fountain in museums today, it is definitely a replica.

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