Jan/Feb 2011 Nonfiction

The Transformation of a Urinal Into Art

by William H. Libaw

1) Introduction

In 1917, an ordinary men's urinal was offered as a work of art. Even now, many people find it shocking that Marcel Duchamp's urinal, renamed "Fountain," was later accepted as an art-object. Art-writer Arthur Danto tells us that George Dickie, an institutional theoretician of art, once tried to offer an explanation. "Why cannot the ordinary qualities of Fountain—its gleaming white surface, the depth revealed when it reflects images or surrounding objects, its pleasing oval shape—be appreciated?" (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1983). About that, we can say only what is obvious: Those qualities can indeed be satisfying, but that can hardly be sufficient reason to transform the urinal into an artwork. Note that Duchamp himself did not share Dickie's interest in the artfulness of things like his urinal. Art-writer Edward Lucie-Smith tells us that Duchamp thought that "much of the avant-garde art... was in fact rubbish, of less significance... than many objects of everyday use" (Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century, 1996). Such opinions from Duchamp did not matter much. The acceptance of the urinal as art was not his doing; it was done by the community of those interested in art.

An explanation more significant than Dickie's will be sought here for the urinal's transmutation into art. Let's start by considering someone taking a brief glance at Duchamp's Fountain. One thing obvious to that viewer was its basic nature: It was a human-made object. Human-made objects, however, come in two varieties. One consists of those that are primarily useful, such as chairs, houses and urinals. The other kind? Objects that are basically significant, such as thrones, cathedrals and artworks.

Note that the world people lived in was changing dramatically at the time of the urinal's acceptance as an artwork. That was because new useful objects kept coming from science and technology. All that novelty produced a change. People saw something meaningful in the fact that their world was gaining many new useful objects. A way of showing this was to regard a useful object as a significant one. In this case, the art community uplifted a urinal into an artwork.

The rebirth of a urinal as the Fountain was one of many changes in modern art. It was, however, a central transformation that we will look at more closely in what follows. We will also look at how the changing world led to changes in art both before and after Duchamp's Fountain.


2) Some Of Art's Late-Nineteenth-Century Changes That Preceded The Urinal

With significant advances from science, the human world started to change rapidly in the nineteenth century. What science gave us then included Pasteur's proof that fermentation is caused by living organisms; Lister's antiseptic surgery; Nobel's invention of dynamite; Bell's telephone; Edison's phonograph; Koch's inoculations against anthrax; Diesel's internal combustion engine; Benz's four-wheel car; and Roentgen's x-ray. At a practical level, cities such as Paris began acquiring broad streets with water and sewer pipes underneath.

What has all that change got to do with art? Works of art indirectly express the feelings and ideas of people living at a given time and place. How did the nineteenth-century art-world respond to the rapidly changing world that came from all the new technology? People interested in art developed mixed views, some good and some not-so-good, of the ever-changing objective world.

Art changed first with Impressionism, which provided mostly positive feelings and ideas about change itself, change in the lived-in world. Impressionist artists showed their obsession with change by painting quick looks at outdoor scenes before the sun's movement changed them. The later works of Impressionist Claude Monet provide a fine example. He painted many ever-changing views of haystacks, cathedrals and water lilies. Sure, we know that the surface basis for those shifting views was the changes in the light. Note, however, that haystacks, cathedrals and water lilies were, in themselves, neither new nor changing. That suggests that, below the surface, a large purpose of Impressionism was to symbolize the idea of change itself.

Change, however, is a dodgy subject for art to deal with. In themselves, novel artworks do not stay fresh and daring for long. When Impressionism ceased to be brand-new, it no longer provided a suitable representation of the idea of change. That was when art took a new turn, one that was called Expressionism. Expressionists showed change by turning away from impressions of the outside world. Instead, they emphasized inside feelings and ideas about the world, which were regarded as more important than the flood of useful new objects. Expressionist artist Henri Matisse was one of the many who showed the increasing turn from the outside of objects to the inside of feelings and ideas. For example, in his The Joy of Life, Matisse showed us something altogether unlike the churning outside world. He painted people enjoying a simple life with no turmoil in a world of vivid unreal colors.

Let's move on now to the early twentieth-century years that led to Duchamp's Fountain. That was when science gave us the Wright brothers' powered airplane, Pavlov's conditioned reflexes, and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. During those years, one of the changes that art took was named Cubism. Cubists shifted the art-community's attention back to the outside world, but it did so with a never-seen appearance. For example, consider Picasso's 1910 Cubist Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Presumably a portrait of the named man, it shows next to nothing of Kahnweiler. Instead, we see the novelty of dismembered planes, much like the novelty of the ever-changing world. Cubism was also credited with illustrating diverse points of view in a single painting. Note that diverse points of view are fundamental to the idea of objectivity that is at the center of vastly-successful science, the source of all that change.


3) Art's Eye-catching Change With Duchamp's Fountain

In 1917, art took a large and lasting turn with the primary subject of this article, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. To understand the full significance of Fountain, we will explore this work as a breakthrough in what was acceptable as a work of art.

To make common sense of this kind of change, we will first answer a basic question: What is a work of art? Here is a detailed answer that will lead us to the high significance of Duchamp's Fountain. Let's start by acknowledging something the creator of a painting may not like: What is publicly recognized as a work of art is not merely what the artist makes, it is an object that most of the art community accepts as art. That informal community consists of people who create, display, sell, buy, write about, and look at what are potential and accepted art objects. Important for our purposes here is this: For a member of that community to regard something as an art-object, that person must have some notion of its significance.

Let us assert membership in the art-community, and treat the former urinal as art. That should help us to see that the significance of Fountain is—precisely, but also perversely—this: It appears to be no more than a urinal, an object that has little significance. This may seem to be a paradox, but it really isn't one. The import of Fountain is that significance was becoming less important in people's thinking at that time. In contrast, that was when information by itself was impressing people more and more. With Duchamp's urinal, the art-community is slightly supporting but mostly challenging the belief that significance is important. The "art-club" supports it a little by (implicitly) asserting that the object is art. More important, the art-community challenges that belief a lot by making that claim about an artifact that—as basically a urinal—has little significance. That is why there was such a tizzy in thinking about the Fountain that was a urinal: Is this object to be or not to be regarded as a work of art?

Here is a detailed explanation of the peculiar significance of Duchamp's modern pee-pot. By presenting the urinal in 1917 as his Fountain, Duchamp showed nothing less than the spirit of the times. Early in the twentieth century, people in Western society began to be less interested in the significance of things. At the same time, something different was showing itself. More and more important was the information that flowed from the new objective knowledge of science and technology.

Astonishingly successful science largely bypassed the idea of significant meaning. In large part, science's amazingly successful method of accounting for things was this: It concentrated on cause-and-effect explanations that were verifiable by experiments. For ordinary people, the information that resulted began to explain inanimate objects, living animals, and much about humans. What also began to exist and to work nicely was—for pee-pot-pertinent example—the plumbing. Running water, what a luxury, began to show up increasingly in houses. With the arrival of sewer pipes, the under-the-bed piddle-pot, once the staple of every home, began to disappear. It was replaced by the flush-toilet—and for men in public places, by the urinal.

Now we can summarize the significance of Marcel Duchamp's transfigured urinal. The modern pee-pot that he named Fountain was accepted as a work of art because it embodied two new related ideas: (1) The increased importance of useful objects and (2) the reduced import of the significance of objects.


4) Some of Art's Changes After The Urinal, The Middle Of The Twentieth Century

Moving on from Duchamp, we know that science and technology continued to make more and more dramatic changes in our world. When nations were engaged in using new equipment to make huge new wars, and were also developing horribly powerful new weapons, the art community did what it was obliged to do. It responded by defining new art movements that showed the new feelings and ideas of people at that time.

Among the first was the movement called Abstract Expressionism, which can be viewed as a maximal expansion of Expressionism. Abstract Expressionists turned entirely away from the frightening outside world, turned all the way to the inside of feelings and ideas. This was done with paintings such as those of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Pollock's creations consisted of drips and streaks of paint. Those of Mark Rothko took the shape of huge colored rectangles.

Once the novelty of that new art movement lost its freshness, art made another change. It gave us Pop Art, which can be seen as an extreme kind of Impressionism. Pop Artists provided pictures that say something like this, "Here are images about living in the current frightening outside world. They show that the only people that could prosper in such a chilling place are humans so shallow that they have little or no feelings."

One of the principle Pop Artists was Roy Lichtenstein, who gave us huge comic-strip pictures that showed people who were as lacking in depth as paper cartoons. Another Pop Artist, Andy Warhol, gave us many pictures showing multiple identical images of famous people like Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe. Note that the only real things that exist in identical quantities are machines and other manufactured objects, from hair-clippers to hydrogen-bombs. So those pictures by Warhol suggest that people should try to be like machines, which, significantly, have no feelings inside. Only such utterly shallow people could live without overwhelming fear and anxiety in the terrifying world of that time. Warhol reinforced this machine idea by calling his workshop a "factory" rather than a "studio."


5) The Significance Of Meaning

About the meaning of the urinal's transformation into an artwork, let us ask: Is that important? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz gives us some broad words that are pertinent to that narrow question. "The imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence" (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1977).


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