My college revolutionary was Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who put a toilet in an art gallery in 1917. The urinal, called “Fountain” and signed by one R. Mutt, delivered a swift kick to the world of aesthetics, ideas and culture. And to my world, too.
Where did Duchamp get off? Seriously. As an 18-year-old who had been given to understand the beauty of the Impressionists, the integrity of a crucifix, the intrigue of the one James Rosenquist painting at my hometown museum, a toilet in an art gallery made me question every single thing. Is value – aesthetic, financial, even moral – a decision?
The toilet was a readymade, one of the art world’s first, though Picasso had put oil cloths on canvases in 1912. Readymades have been “a thing” off and on ever since, and are crucial to the conceptual poetry realm currently in vogue in literary circles. It was an object that Duchamp, a painter as it happened, had certainly not made, had only shifted from one venue to another. And it’s regarded as the most influential artwork of the 20th century.
As Duchamp (probably) wrote in The Blind Man, a little art review he edited, "Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - and created a new thought for that object."
A new thought for an object, all right. And a new object for thought.
And there you were, thinking this was beautiful and significant, thinking this had value.
There were other revolutionaries in college—Nelson Mandela, Daniel Ortega, James Joyce—but this creator, with his mocking, Dadaist approach to art, needled me. There’s no writing about it, try as I might. See Jerry Saltz’s essay calling Duchamp’s urinal a Copernican shift in art.
What has value, what is beautiful, what is important, what changes consciousness?
It’s always ideas, after all. Pretty much as I expected.