On Warhol and Duchamp

© Donald Richardson, July, 2009

 

Writings on Andy Warhol usually assume - although never argue - that the aesthetic and ethical rights that he exercised in his Brillo Box (1964) - i.e., to designate an apparently un-transmogrified, mass-produced, commercial object as 'art' - were derived from Duchamp's 1917 Fountain . The contention of this paper is that this assumption is insupportable because - in fact - there are significant differences in the way the two artists operated, in what they intended, and in the outcomes. It is a matter of extreme disappointment that - nearly a century after Fountain and half a century after Brillo Box - this has rarely, if ever, been discussed.

The most obvious difference is that, whereas Brillo Box is virtually a facsimile of the cardboard cartons in which Brillo soap-pads were shipped, the basic material of Fountain was an actual ceramic urinal. Secondly, while both works are three-dimensional objects and, notionally, in principle - in the art context - 'sculptures', with clear relationships to the functional (i.e., the field of commercial design), they do not even share the fact that they are non-art things that were exhibited in art galleries. This is because the original Fountain - although a non-art thing - was never really shown in an art gallery at all 1 , whereas Brillo Box was fabricated specifically as a 'work of art' for exhibition.

But there are more significant differences. Most importantly is the fact that, whereas Brillo Box is, apparently, true in every detail of representation to its subject (as if it were a three-dimensional photo-copy)2 , the actual urinal itself was used in Fountain and it underwent certain transformations which, although materially quite minor, are of very great aesthetic significance.

It is certainly undeniable that, considered purely as material, Fountain is a commercially available urinal (a work of design). But, this particular example of the mass-produced product Duchamp transformed into a work of art by the modifications listed below; not - as has generally been assumed - simply and solely by its having been exhibited in an art gallery. And it is important to recognise that Fountain was actually rejected for exhibition at its first and only attempted showing - in 1917, by the Society of Independent Artists, in New York. Following this rejection, one story has it that photographer Alfred Stieglitz showed it (for a few days) in his 291 Gallery, where he took the generic photograph, which was published in The Blind Man (No.2, May, 1917) - the sole visual record of the original work. It then disappeared (to where?, it would be interesting to know). Apart from this brief exposure, the original Fountain was never exhibited in an art gallery 3.

But, although this rejection is an historical fact, Duchamp's intention - and the acceptance of his principle - remains as if it actually happened. By virtue of this, there are now facsimiles of Fountain exhibited in several galleries; however, some of them - because they use mass-produced models that differ in small, yet very significant, ways from the one Duchamp used in 1917 - are not true facsimiles in spite of the fact that they were all made, and with Duchamp's imprimatur, in 1964.

 

FOUNTAIN
But, even if Fountain had been exhibited by the Society of Independent Artists, this would no more have meant that Duchamp exhibited a urinal than that Picasso - when he showed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - exhibited 'a piece of canvas'. In both cases, the urinal and the canvas were only the raw materials from which the respective artists created works of art. It is amazing that this fact is rarely noticed. It is even more amazing that Duchamp's work - a masterpiece which did no less than transforming the understanding of what art is - is still so little understood nearly a century after it was created 4 .

Duchamp himself did little to elucidate the 'reading' of Fountain. And, as Michael Betacourt points out 5 , in New York Dada - of which Duchamp was a key figure - there was great 'emphasis on puns, ironies and "inside jokes"'.

Despite its apparent banality, the work is redolent with visual metaphor. Whether Duchamp was fully aware of the extent of this we can never know. But, he must have been aware of his position in the art world of the day after the succes de scandale of his Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 6 . And, although the general public - and the popular press - ridiculed his work, it is certain that others (Stieglitz, for instance 7) appreciated that he was moving to explicate the parameters of modernism's re-definition of art. One of the points he was raising was to question what is so sacred about the traditional art materials. But, more importantly, he was affirming that what is valued in a work of art is the artist's mental concept rather than the material or artisan skill used 8. And, in taking this position, he was - incidentally - pointing up the distinction between art per se and what at the time was called 'applied art' or 'decorative art' - i.e. crucifixes and stained-glass windows in churches and other more obviously functional objects like clothing, cars and urinals - objects we would now designate as design.

Another distinct possibility is that Duchamp was putting to the test the concept, which was popular among avant-garde artists of the day, that the works they wished to exhibit should not be subjected to scrutiny by a jury or any other form of authority: the concept of 'no jury, no prizes', which is discussed by Thierry de Duve op cit.

The various published interpretations of Fountain include: a 'buddha-like image' (suggested by the article in The Blind Man. However, there is no evidence that this was ever intended - or seen? - by Duchamp himself); a thing of beauty and - conversely - as an ugly, shocking or obscene thing; a homo-erotic object (with love-handles); a Madonna; a joke; as anti-art; as a fetish-like object; as alchemy; and an occult, mystical, hermetic or cabalistic object. However, none of these does anything like justice to the complexity and subtlety of the work.

Octavio Paz 9, avers that the ready-made is not an instrument of anti-art. Instead, he designates it 'an-artistic', 'an attack on the notion of the work of art' and 'the plastic equivalent of the pun' 10. Duchamp was not the only artist to use the ready-made, and the principle had been established in the use of collage by the Cubists. Actually, both the collage and the ready-made are no different in principle from the other materials artists use: basic materials (more usually paint, clay, bronze) that are manipulated to create works of aesthetic and, perhaps, monetary value. And this is exactly how Duchamp used the urinal in creating Fountain . There is no doubt that this point was well worth making at the time.

In attempting to understand Fountain it is important not to miss the most significant fact that Duchamp placed the urinal horizontally, lying on its back, with the water-inlet facing the viewer 11. Thus, it can easily be seen as a visual metaphor for a female human lying flat on her back, brazenly presenting her sexual organs for intercourse (or, perhaps, parturition) - or, at least, as reminiscent of the limbless and headless trunks of ancient Greek and Roman marble Venuses that are in the museums 12. It was Duchamp's genius to see this in a 'male' object. Certainly, one can discern without difficulty what Barry Humphries13 described as the female 'map of Tasmania' - the triangle of pubic hair (the perforated drain-hole for the passed urine)14 . Such interactions - and contradictions - between male and female sexuality inform the work - as they do much of Duchamp's oeuvre.

Duchamp 'signed' Fountain 'R.Mutt 1917' and did not initially reveal that it was his work 15. However, it is rarely recognised that, as Mutt is not Duchamp's name, this inscription is clearly not a signature, but part of the work. And it is clearly a sexual - if not incestual - inference to mother (the German word mutter - if the 'signature' is read as 'Mutt, R', a common enough variant). This is in addition to any lover-mistress implication. Ur (homophonically close to the sound of the letter, r, as pronounced in German) is a German prefix meaning primitive or origin 16. And, 'sometimes it merely adds an intensive force' to a word 17. Hence, Urmutter - the source of everything, the Earth-mother, the '"fountain" of creation'?

And the work is also infused with perplexing and confusing ingress/egress inferences. The orifice in an untransmogrified urinal is an inlet, as is the vagina in sexual intercourse; however, both the vagina the fountain are also sources of water. And, in the case of the fountain, at least, a source of a specially positive kind, recalling beneficent and healing waters.

Further, this metaphorical conflation of sexual/mating/birth and eliminating/urination functions of the body reflects the actual dual function of both male and female genitalia in procreation and elimination 18. Such cross-gender and universal inferences remove Fountain far from the concept of the purely male, functional object. It is, in fact a big, multiple, complex metaphor for the generative forces of human life. This is its continuing psychological power, which is transmitted so subliminally that it now seems beyond discussion.

It is also the reason one can discuss the work without ever having actually seen it.

 

BRILLO BOX

Fountain is redolent of intriguing humanistic and aesthetic associations, but not so Brillo Box. There is, in fact, little more that can be said about it other than it exists.

Whereas both Duchamp and Warhol lived in New York at different times of immense social change, following each of the two world wars, Warhol's America was a predominantly materialistic, consumerist and commercial culture dominated by advertising and marketing (in which Warhol worked initially). Certainly, Warhol and the other Pop artists based their populist reaction to abstraction - which mystified the public - on this materialism and - thus, incidentally - returned visual art to recognisable subject matter. But often their motivation was little more than a fashionably ironic cocking of the snoot at what was popularly seen as the 'effete' aesthetics of the art establishment. (It is curious that - given the fact that advertising draws constantly on our deep, subliminal intuitions 19 - American artists were not inspired to create work on this theme.)

Warhol admitted that he painted 'things you use every day and never think about' 20 , so Sebastian Smee's comment 21 that, 'with the passage of time [his art has] turned into a rhetorical fizzer', is a completely justified one.

 

CONCLUSION
It is now all but a century since Duchamp created Fountain - an event that, it is universally agreed, changed the concept of art irrevocably - yet it is clear that the art world has never fully understood the significance and subtlety of what he achieved. It has usually been considered that Fountain established that anything can be art, but nothing could be further from the truth. Duchamp's point was that, in principle, any material - if suitably transformed - can become a work of art, not that anything and everything is/can be art, a point that has been missed by many since 1917 22. If art theorists had only realised this, we would have been spared the millions of meaningless heaps of rubbish that have littered galleries and museums in the past few decades.

Whatever may be the value of Warhol's art, it is certainly not the heir to Fountain 23 . Warhol's message is that of the un-reflective rap 'singer' (who is his heir) and the anti-consumerist t-shirt: 'Work, consume, be silent, die; I rely on your apathy': the total antithesis of Duchamp's. The comeuppance of Warhol's philosophy is now rocking the economic world.

 

 

NOTES

1 Apart from (possibly, but this is contested) a brief appearance in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in 1917.
2 Although it is actually made of plywood, and larger, but these are insignificant as matters of principle.
3 Surprisingly, this very significant fact is ignored by many authors, including Kurt Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik in High and Low (Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1990). Incidentally, this means that the 'institutional theory' (which holds that exhibition in an art gallery defines whether an object is a work of art or not) can hardly be applied to it, although Fountain is often invoked as provenance of the theory. Arthur C Danto fails to elucidate the problem of the art-status of either Fountain or Brillo Box because he does not recognise the distinction between art and 'commercial art' (i.e., design). See Arthur C Danto Embodied Meanings (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, NY, 1994, p.386)/
4 Although the oft-repeated statement that, in 2004, 500 British art experts voted it the most significant work of 20th century art (see B B Perlman, 'Font of Inspiration', Art and Antiques, September, 2005, 70-73) seems to be a furphy: all attempts by the author to verify the fact have been unsuccessful.
5 In 'The Richard Mutt Case: Looking for Marcel Duchamp's Fountain', Wikipedia on-line in 2008.
6 In which he deconstructed Cubist form to represent movement.
7 Athough Thierry de Duve, in his Kant After Duchamp (MIT Press, 1996) is sure that Duchamp duped Stieglitz into taking the photograph to ensure his posterity.
8 Thus, Duchamp is truly the father of Conceptual Art. He only toyed with modernism's crusade to restore form to the centre of art, instead seeking - as he said - to 'put painting once more at the service of the mind'.
9 In 'The Ready-Made' (Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, Prentice Hall, 1975).
10 The analogy between 'anartist' and anarchist was intended.
11 Which may, of course, have been the way Duchamp saw it in the hardware store he bought it from and which gave him the idea for Fountain.
12 A metaphor emphasized by its being made of porcelain, which has something of the colour and texture of marble.
13 Once - if not presently - a practising Dadaist.
14 This feature is only present in the Steiglitz photograph and in the facsimiles that use the exact same type as that of the original urinal.
15 Thus, honouring not only the un-juried principle of the Society but also the literal meaning of the principle of the Société Anonyme, which Duchamp, Drier and Man Ray were to form three years later - in 1920. And he may have been putting the principle of un-juried exhibition to the test. And the principle failed then (as it has ever since, and always will): Fountain was rejected by an ad-hoc jury!
16 Duchamp made a similar homophonic transformation in the title of his L.H.O.O.Q. (1920).
17 From a German-English dictionary. The oft-repeated suggestion that Duchamp was referring to the contemporary Mutt and Jeff comics of Bud Fisher is not worthy of serious consideration. Similarly, any possible implication from the German word 'armut', which means 'poverty'.
18 It is appropriate here to recognise a further layer to this complex work: the French word 'fontaine' can mean 'cistern' in English - the over-head water-container for a toilet. And, in another, similar, typically-oxymoronic double-entendre, Duchamp subtitled his Etant donnés (1946-66) 'la chute d'eau' (Waterfall).

19 A limited range, admittedly, being related solely to sexuality and cupidity: the historic classification of our instincts into those relating to self-preservation and procreation of the species - 'sex and self'.
20 Time, 11 May, p.192.
21 Commenting on an exhibition of Warhol's work in the Queensland Art Gallery, The Weekend Australian Review, 22-23 December, 2007, pp.12-15.
22 The most extreme examples of which must be Guillermo Habacuc tying up a dog in an art gallery and starving it to death (2007), and the proposal by a German conceptual artist to have a person live out his/her last hours - and die - in an art gallery.
23 Although it may be heir to Duchamp's other (untransmogrified) ready-mades - but this is another story.


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