Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

Of my art heroes, Duchamp is at the top of my list. I found this article on ‘Fountain’ that clarifies an age old question.  All Duchamp‘s work can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   Comments?

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ Was Subversive—but Subverting What?

By Blake Gopnik – The Daily Beast/Art Beast   Dec 15, 2011

We all know that after Marcel Duchamp installed a urinal in a 1917 New York art exhibition, the genre-bending, class-stretching, anti-craft freedoms of contemporary art follow from that moment—or do they? Scholar Ezra Shales has flushed out a new truth.

Around holiday time, you’ve got to envy the Norwegians. They’ve got real candles on the tree, gobbets of pork fat for Christmas dinner (these are euphemistically known as “ribs”) and aquavit to feed the glow. This year, as an extra Yuletide treat just for them, they’re also getting fresh insights into the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

That’s how Marcel Duchamp’s urinal “Fountain” once polled among experts, and we’re all supposed to know why: In 1917, when Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal to a New York exhibition, he took a low-end piece of mechanical mass production and, by fiat, elevated it to the status of fine art. All the genre-bending, class-stretching, anti-craft freedoms of contemporary art follow from that moment.

Except that, as any reader of the hot new issue of the Norwegian journal Kunst og Kultur (“Art and Culture”) will tell you, that standard view gets many things wrong. According to an article by a young scholar named Ezra Shales, at the moment when Duchamp artified his urinal, that kind of bathroom fixture wasn’t low-end, and it wasn’t mechanically or mass produced. “The toilets we now see as banal were tinged with allure …. a porcelain toilet was a step upwards in social status,” writes Shales. His article lays out how pure white bathroom fixtures were advertised as a hand-crafted elite product, more expensive than mass-produced enameled metal but worth every penny. “‘Porcelain’ was emblematic of refinement, both material and social,” according to Shales. So Duchamp wasn’t mashing up the industrial and the artistic, the crude and the noble, as the cliche would have it. He was doing something more complicated (as he usually was): He was playing games with all the different registers a man-made object can live in. In one of the first discussions of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” published just after he submitted the work, it was described as “decadent plumbers’ porcelain”–a statement that made no sense until Shales unpacked it.

Gallery: From Outhouse to Your House


“I came to realize how much this blew people’s minds about Duchamp,” said Shales, when I met up with him in a Hell’s Kitchen cafe in Manhattan–he’d come in not from Norway but from Alfred University, far upstate in New York, where he’s a recently tenured professor. (His connection to Norway comes from having taught the occasional course there, which bred contacts with the journal.) Shales is 42, slim and intense, dressed in a striped blue shirt and casual gray pants that look like standard young-professor garb. He dates his new take on “Fountain” to the moment when he discovered that, two full years before Duchamp’s gesture, three porcelain toilets had been included in an exhibition at the Newark Museum, not far from New York. “I remember it was too easy: ‘This is just like Duchamp.’ And then I realized, ‘No, this is nothing like Duchamp,’” says Shales.

As a ceramics historian, Ezra Shales says he’s more interested in how the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen came late to their plumbing than in ‘the transcendent genius of Duchamp.’

John Cotton Dana, the museum’s director, had exhibited the toilets in a genuine effort to elevate them, without any hint of Duchampian irony. “The genius and skill which have gone into the adornment and perfecting of familiar household objects,” wrote Dana in 1915, “should receive the same recognition as do now the genius and skill of painting in oils.” It’s not clear that Duchamp knew of the show, since he arrived in the U.S. a bit after it closed. (Though his colleague Alfred Stieglitz, who made the only photo of Duchamp’s urinal, had paid visits to the Newark Museum.) But Shales realized that Dana’s comments raised all-new issues about what bathroom fixtures meant at the moment that Duchamp appropriated his. “Fountain” wasn’t about charging up an aesthetically neutral object; the object Duchamp chose came buzzing with aesthetics already.

Shales went digging for more facts, and came up with a pile of fascinating ones: that porcelain fixtures (they weren’t actually porcelain but were called that for prestige) were challenging to make at the time; that a giant bathtub that famously overcame those challenges, made for President Taft’s White House, was provided by the supplier J.L. Mott–a likely source for the “R. Mutt” signature that Duchamp scrawled on his “Fountain;” that porcelain fixtures were displayed for sale among Persian carpets and posh potted plants; that people would gather to gape at them in plumbers’ store windows; that the very first American-made, “all-porcelainous” bathroom had only been achieved in 1904, when it won a gold medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair; that, in 1914, the Trenton Potteries Company had branded a new line of urinals “Craftsman,” to emphasize their arts-and-crafts essence. “‘Made by hand’ was not a hollow or a minor boast,” writes Shales, “it was essential to the identity of producers of sanitary ware.”

Books about Duchamp:

  • The World of Marcel Duchamp – Calvin Tomkins for Time-Life Books 1966
  • Marcel Duchamp  The Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art 1973
  • Duchamp A Biography  Calvin Tomkins 1996

How to Get Ideas

From:   How To Get Ideas  by Jack Foster
I’ve wondered how the Creative Process works. I came upon Jack Foster’s How to Get Ideas. I found his 5 Steps of great insight and wanted to share it. His book goes into it in much greater depth.
An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.

5 Steps (that should be taken in sequence)
1) Define the Problem
Since all problems have solutions, it’s critical that you define your problem correctly.
“How can I do all this work on time?” is vastly different from “How can I get all this work done on time?  The first question will result in all sorts of laborsaving techniques and shortcuts; the second, in dividing the work load up among others.
Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine for smallpox simply by changing the question from “Why do people get smallpox” to “Why don’t milkmaids get smallpox?”

2) Gather the Information
“A creative man can’t jump from nothing to a great idea. He needs a spring board” Bill Bernbach
Get as much information as you can. Most important- put your mind to it. It’s amazing what happens when you keep something in the forefront of your consciousness. It’s true. Think about anything and you’ll see it, you’ll hear it, you’ll sense it all around you.

3) Search for the Idea
“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” Linus Pauling
Getting many ides is easier than getting the impossible ‘right’ one. Most important- Do something. Don’t just sit there and wait for an idea to come to you. Go after it. Work at it. Search for it. Do it.

4) Forget About It
“Saturate yourself through and through with your subject…and wait” Lloyd Morgan
The secret is to switch gears; to let your unconscious work on the problem that’s giving you trouble, while your conscience mind woks on something else; to ‘sleep on’ one problem while you start to work on another. Beside, your unconscious doesn’t know or care whether it’s working on a project that might change the world or on solving the latest trashy whodunit. It works just as hard regardless.

5) Put the Idea into Action
In an interview, when asked about her son, George Ads’s alleged capricious style and wobbly structure and shallow characterizations she said   ’“Oh, I know that many people can write better than George does. But he does.”
The truth is: There is no difference between (a) having an idea and not doing something about it and (b) not having an idea at all. You must screw up your courage and tell somebody about your idea. And if it meets with yawns or jeers, you must press on.

“Never Give Up on Something  You Can’t Go a Day Without Thinking About”