Duchamp’s Fountain


Selected artwork in my analysis is Fountain (1917/ remade in1964) by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. The work is classified as sculpture and made of ceramic, glaze and paint (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).


Photograph of the original “Fountain” (source: Internet)

The work, titled Fountain, was a purchased porcelain urinal rotated 90 degree from its usual presentation with Duchamp’s signature “R.Mutt 1917” in black paint at the side and submitted to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. However, his work was rejected despite the exhibition’s rule that as long as the fee was paid, anything would be accepted. The original version was unfortunately lost, what we have today is a replica made from glazed earthenware painted to resemble the original. The original Fountain was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, using a backdrop of The Warriors by M. Hartley.

Duchamp is considered one of the greatest artists and Duchamp’s Fountain is considered one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. Joseph Kosuth once said: “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually (Art after Philosophy, 1969). There are reasons for that.

The work, at a glance, is nothing more than a normal porcelain urinal. It raises the question of its artistry of many people, especially those at that time, because, it looks like, there is nothing about art at a urinal. It is not unique, it can be found everywhere and easy to purchase. A urinal is not something precious. But the unique point it is placed in a space of art, and so are the rest of “Readymades”, which I will explain further below. An urinal, a bicycle wheel, a window or a shovel are all ordinary stuffs but Duchamp made them pieces of art, which is contradictory to the concept of art of the time. So if art is not about its values and standards at that time, what does it mean to Duchamp? Is he telling us that art is something we piss on? Just as the rejection of The Fountain (1917), it was because the committee found it indecent.

The definition of art has changed after Marcel Duchamp. Developing the “Readymades”, he introduced a new kind of that includes ordinary, manufactured objects and presented them as art. Being the first work from the collection, Fountain played a major role in introducing the notion of conceptual art to the society. For Duchamp, a piece of art is its own reality, not a mere imitation of an existing one (Pastore 2002). In my understanding of conceptual art, art is anything we can appreciate and interpret. Each work can be related to various things, it depends on audiences’ imagination and how they decide to translate and understand it.

Different people have different ways to communicate with others, for many artists, art is the medium they use to communicate with people, probably colleagues, probably audiences. Art itself is a powerful way to convey messages. How could Duchamp convey his message through an object that does not seem to have a meaning? And how could an ordinary object invite interpretation? Fountain was chosen to be placed in the gallery in the beginning, which means it was chosen to be displayed as art. It is different from a random urinal at its context, it is considered as art, because it is not placed in a toilet, but the gallery. He made an interesting point. He did not want audiences to focus on the object itself, but the whole context, he probably wanted to tell us that everything has its meaning and the meaning of a work is not necessary to come from artist. This kind of art was a new thing compare to art before him.

The definition of art has been broadened. His kind of art was later accepted and dominated during the 60s and 70s of the last century. Art is not something sublime. Art is anything displayed as art. Fountain, for example, is art. But it is not a random urinal. Also, the nature itself is not art, but a photograph of nature is art.

So what is derived from Fountain (1917) is not only the meaning of the artwork or how art is displayed, but the evolution in the notion of art, that art after Duchamp is conceptual.

  • “Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Pastore 2015, J, “Duchamp, Marcel (1887-1968), GLBBTQ.
  • Scott-Phillips, Thomas C 2015, “What is art? A pragmatic perspective”, Think: Philosophy for everyone, vol. 14, no. 40, p. 87-91

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