An influential work of Art:
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

by Malcolm Potter Brown

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford, 2005  -

©  Copyright Malcolm Potter-Brown, 2005

In Early December 2004 art experts in Britain, when asked to select the most influential work of 20th century art, voted for The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. This seminal work, submitted pseudonymously to a New York exhibition in 1917, and rejected, consisted of a urinal to which Duchamp had added only the artist's signature, R. Mutt. Readers of the Daily Telegraph seemed to think that the original designer of the artefact was more deserving of the artistic accolade than Duchamp, and one, whose grandfather had been a designer of sanitary ware for Armitage Shanks, drew attention to his grandfather jocular "aiming mark", a bee, or, in Latin, apis.

The work of art submitted by Duchamp, however, was not the object, the urinal, but the meaning he gave to it, an example of the prank as art. Clearly he would have enjoyed the designer's pun. Attention has been drawn to the contrast between the title and the object, fountains having long been a traditional subjectof Classical and Romantic Art, and to the idea that the modernist Duchamp was metaphoriacally pissing on Art. Less attention seems to have been given to the signature, R. Mutt.

This is a bilingual pun. "Mutt" in English refers both to a dog of indeterminate breed and no great intelligence, (from 1906 according to the Oxford dictionary of modern slang) and also to "an ignorant stupid or blundering person" (dated from 1901, according to ODMS, and said to derive from "mutton-head" used since 1803 to mean a dull, stupid person). It also calls to mind the German word Armut "poverty", here poverty of artistic ability and aesthetic appreciation. So, in place of the image of a fountain, created with loving care and delicate artistry by a craftsman able to evoke both the solidity of stonework and the evanescent luminosity of falling water using pigments on a flat canvas, Duchamp subsitutes a piece of plumbing picked up by a cack-handed, unimaginative, ignorant fat-head who claims to be an artist but suffers in fact from poverty of inspiration and skill.

We can distinguish between influential art and good (that is aesthetically effective) art, and if we make this distinction there is no doubt that Mutt's Fountain is one of the most influential pieces of the 20th century, overthrowing the conception that an artist becomes an artist by developing the ability to produce aesthetically effective pieces of art beyond the capabilities of most human beings, and subsituting for it the idea that a work of art is something so designated by a person who is called (perhaps self-called) an artist. It is the direct ancestor of trash like Tracey Emin's unmade bed, or the strange notion that a list of names embroidered on a tent is significant because they are all names of men who have slept with Emin and that a list of her sexual partners is of interest to other people because she is an "artist". (For artist one could, of course, subsitute celebrity, a person famous for being famous rather than well known for any achievement).

Iif Mutt was Duchamp, Duchamp was no mutt. As we have noted , the work of art was not the urinal but the prank of submitting a urinal as a fountain signed R. Mutt. It was not the first piece of found art Duchamp had submitted for exhibition, and perhaps he already saw the dangers to Art of such a practice. Certainly from our point of view at the beginning of the 21st century we can regard Fountain as a satirical piece, mocking before their creation its own progeny: the famous piles of bricks, the plastic rubbish sacks mistakenly thrown out by gallery cleaners so that the artist had to prowl around the back streets of London searching for replacements, and the work of the Turner Prize winner of December 2004, Jeremy Deller, who, on his own admission, can neither paint nor draw, but simply scrawls words on a wall.

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