James Kettlewell

Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History

Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal–Old Fashioned Art Disguised as Radical Shock.

Photograph of Duchamp's "Fountain" by Alfred Stieglttz

Certain important matters seem to have been overlooked in the case of Marcel Duchamp’s famous Dada urinal, entitled Fountain, exhibited as a work of art in 1917.

In fact, it really was art, according to the most conventional understanding of art. In this age of the rise of industrial design, in the early years of the twentieth century, a urinal would have been carefully designed by an industrial artist who probably had spent four years in art school, and some years as an apprentice. Preparatory drawings would have been made for it, quite like Michelangelo’s drawings for his David.

And it was introduced at a time when two converging philosophies of art would have justified its presence in any museum. It was the limits of these modernist philosophies which Duchamp was testing in his work.

The first Modern principle is that design is the foundation of all art, and the first qualification for anything to be considered as art. The second is that functional design should also be a requirement for all art, that is, design fully in harmony with its materials and its purpose.

So Cubist paintings are flat and filled with angles and straight lines, in full harmony with the flatness of the canvass, and the rectilinear picture format of its rectangular stretcher. In the same way Modern architecture is an expression of the rectangular grid of its framed construction. Without going into it in unnecessary detail, you can imagine how this French urinal was shaped to intimately fulfill its purpose, and its flowing, organic shape is an expression of the organic nature of that purpose.

If you think about it – and it is important in art that you really think about it – this is really quite a handsome form, not unlike something which might have been designed by Duchamp’s contemporaries, Hans Arp and Constantin Brancusi. It is the design factor in all art which provides the pleasurable hook which can draw us by sensual delight, into even the most horrendous of artistic forms, such as those of the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon’s pictures are quite beautiful, though it is not the first thing that would occur to you. The downside of Duchamp’s achievement is that, in our benighted Postmodern era, there is rarely a senior show of a college art department which does not include some form of toilet.

It is interesting that this illustration of Duchamp’s Fountain is by Alfred Stieglitz, creating at least a double artistic whammy, if not a triple one. In the 2007 Dada exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Fountain, actually a replica, was dramatically lighted and displayed as what it was in fact, an impressive piece of sculpture. Of course you can experience this urinal still, in situ, in the men’s public wash room in the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris.