Duchamp’s Fountain

got to experience one of duchamp’s fountain replicas during our last visit to SF. i can’t remember when or how i knew about the urinal-turned-fountain but i’ve always been interested in the semantical fecundity, or rather chaotic tension, in duchamp’s works. an encounter with duchamp is always another opportunity to flex one’s hermeneutical muscles.

some background info: marcel duchamp was a french-american artist infamously associated with dadaism. dadaism was a ‘post-structural’ art movement in the early 20th century that sought to deconstruct and expose accepted notions of aesthetics and rationality in art and culture.

here we have a urinal turned on its side and re-titled as ‘fountain’. one way of interpreting the work is that duchamp is challenging what constitutes a work of art, that anything, even something that we piss on, can be considered a work of ‘high-end art’ that winds up on display behind a glass case in a museum. that ‘art’ is all in the interpretation. you see a urinal, duchamp sees a fountain. you see something gross, that you defecate into; duchamp sees something utterly rich with possibility and devoid of valuation, something one drinks from. same goes for our concepts of ‘truth’, structure, aesthetics, language, etc. whatever we posit as values can always be re-valuated and turned on their side. there are no dualisms, dichotomies or opposites; there is no ‘good or evil’, ‘this’ or ‘that’. the object is simultaneously a urinal and fountain. being is simultaneously dionysian and apollonian. perhaps. often in essence, but never often enough in praxis. but such is the problem of being. rationality, logocentrism and a will-to-metaphysics, is inescapable apart from death. to structure is to do violence and yet without structure all is left to violence. existence is sin, death is freedom. all attempts at intentional irrationality and/or madness are doomed to failure for they are founded upon that which they seek to critique- reason itself; being. duchamp’s fountain, scandalous as it may be, still found its way into museums. posited as counter-art, it still wound up being ‘art’. challenging notions of aesthetic beauty, it has become seen as ‘beautiful’ itself. so long as interpretations are endless, it is futile to posit absolutes. all grounds are dubious. what is constant is difference. perhaps duchamp knew this. what the display of the fountain means is less revealing about the institution of art in general than it is about human existence. opposite poles are really of the same. there is no absolute standard by which to assess the object, urinal/fountain. attempts to posit aesthetic beauty are bound to the illusory nature of power. to posit art is nothing more than a public act of phallic self-pleasuring. of dissemination. yet without such violence we would not have meaning. we would not be. creation is messy. after all, what is art other than self-représentation? the will-to-illusion, the will to ‘truth’. the french know this all too well. as did nietzsche. where the beginning starts is where the end ends. such is the kierkegaardian/nietzschean moment of the infinite, of the eternal recurrence. it is in this tension that the knight of faith/overman strives and creates.

i was reading a dali painting when i overheard what seemed like two art critics behind me talking about the fountain. ‘look, it’s duchamp’s urinal’ the woman said to the man. i turned around and said, ‘but its not a urinal anymore’. they agreed. indeed, not any-more, for it’s no more or less a  urinal than it is anything else the spectator decides to interpret. its just too bad that things have to wind up in museums before we decide to start thinking for ourselves what they mean and even then, we don’t.

i am now on a mission to experience all of duchamp’s major works in person. which means i need to get my ass to philly.

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  • Mariana

    love this blog! What a great way to keep art preesnt in daily life. In the case of Duchamp, I think that artists had been using everyday objects as inspiration for centuries, but Duchamp took it to another level in that he used the urinal to awaken the imagination of each individual who viewed it, making the possible artistic interpretations endless and totally personalized to the viewer.