Artwork: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

To the average Joe, 'modern art' doesn't have the best connotations. It's usually followed up with "I could have done that" or, just as insightful, "That's shit".

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square

I have to admit; I never saw anything in single tone canvases until I started researching them at uni. They're now among my favourite artworks (I pretty much had a fit when I found out Malevich, king of arty nothingness, will be at the Tate next summer). I won't try and convince you to think the same as either a) you agree with me already or b) you don't have the time to sit there and listen to me blab on and on about why a black canvas means both the death and rebirth of art, and how it all started with an upturned urinal.

However, what I will do is look at that urinal.

(There's a sentence I never thought I would declare to the interwebs.)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Above, you can see the picture of said urinal. As with a lot of Dada artworks, its origins are mysterious. From reading various accounts, it looks like Duchamp went out, bought a urinal, brought it back to his flat, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and had his friend Stieglitz take a pic.

I absolutely love this. Not for the aesthetic value, because it ain't pretty. No; I love it for what it makes you think about. There are at least four possible 'makers' of this artwork:

  • The designer
  • The manufacturer
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Richard Mutt

Who made it? You might say Duchamp played no role in 'making' this - you might say it's the product of the manufacturer. But Duchamp took some materials, arranged them in his own way, and called it 'art'. Let's think of the same issue in relation to established works of art. When Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus, he took some materials (oils and canvas), arranged them in his own way (painted the composition), and called it art. Because it surely was.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus

So, by default, Duchamp is challenging everyone. To those who think an artist is the sole producer of an artwork: you cannot deny that an upturned urinal is a work of art. And to the others: everyone who contributes to the materials necessary for an artwork (and this includes the world around us, from which the painter or sculptor draws inspiration) plays a role in creating the final artwork.

The average Joe may be capable of the physical action of upturning a urinal, but that's not what Duchamp was doing. He was giving us an ultimatum: either everything is art, or everyone is an artist. Looking at his later works (and I'll get onto those at some stage), my guess is that Duchamp thought both.


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