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Marcel Duchamp’s most political work of art

A hundred years ago last month, two of the most influential historical events of the twentieth century occurred within a span of three days. The first of these took place on 6 April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany and, in doing so, thrust the USA into a leading role on the world stage for the first time in its history. America and American foreign policy would be forever changed as the nation tasted imperial grandeur it would never again relinquish.

War led to the passage of espionage and sedition laws that restricted free speech and authorized government surveillance of private citizens. From this exigency, the national security state was born. So too was the military-industrial-entertainment complex, in which the armed forces, the federal government, corporate America, and the popular arts consciously and unconsciously conspired to transform the nation into a powerhouse unlike any in the history of mankind.

The other earth-rattling event occurred three days later, on April 9, 1917, when an expatriate French artist named Marcel Duchamp affixed a false name (“R. Mutt”) to a white porcelain urinal that he had purchased in a Manhattan plumbing supply outfit and, under the droll title Fountain, submitted to the first annual exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists.

The liberal members of the Society had proudly announced that this was to be an egalitarian exhibition, with no judges, juries, or rejections; anyone who paid the nominal membership dues and entry fee would be guaranteed a place. Duchamp, under his pseudonym, paid the required fees, but his submission was rejected all the same, and with vehement indignation, because a signed, store-bought plumbing fixture could not be countenanced as “art.”

Duchamp at the Fountai. Photo by Salim Virji. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The organizers of the exhibition did not know that the urbane Frenchman who had gained international notoriety four years earlier at the Armory Show for his cubo-futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was among them that spring morning when the urinal was unpacked from its shipping crate. Thus they did not hold back in their scorn.

They rightly understood that Mutt (even the name was intended as an insult) was “pissing” on their time-honored beliefs about artistic authenticity, originality, and beauty, insolently demanding reconsideration of such beliefs. As one of his few allies of the time contended, “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—created a new thought for that object.”

Surprisingly, no one ever made a direct connection between America’s declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917, and Duchamp’s declaration of war on traditional art and its value systems a mere two or three days later. Surely that has something to do with the still-commanding formalism in the art world, especially the elite, theoretically dominated art world, preventing us from grasping how the most acclaimed artwork of the twentieth century, famous for its Dada overturning of conventional aesthetics, could also and at the same time, have been a blistering counter-response to America’s brash entrance into the global war.

Another reason the highly political nature of Fountain, its “obscene” comment on the obscene nature of the war, has long gone unrecognized is that Duchamp, as an artist, gentleman, and dandy, cultivated a persona of impeccable detachment. The persistence of that persona in the half century since the artist’s death in 1968 has made it difficult to regard him as anything but perfectly suave and preternaturally untroubled by the external political world erupting into flames around him.

Mythology aside, Duchamp was anything but indifferent about the politics of the moment. He despised the war in particular, having fled his homeland two years earlier because, as he explained in an interview, “Everywhere the talk turned upon war. Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived existence was heavy and dull.” A grand understatement!

Now, in 1917, with his adopted homeland plunging hysterically into a conflict he thought barbarous and unnecessary, Duchamp wanted to take the mickey out of two intertwined organizations. One was the state, with its pretentious and hypocritical claim that it was going to war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy,” when, as a member of the Left, he believed quite the contrary. The other was the so-called progressive art world that self-flatteringly claimed to be democratic and non-hierarchical in its support of artists and new forms of art but was in fact not that way at all.

Fountain was the insolent response of a resident alien to his adopted homeland’s vulgar and disgusting embrace of war. It was a “piss on both your houses” gesture of antagonism.

The gallery owner, photographer, and champion of avant-garde art Alfred Stieglitz understood it as such when he had the rejected Fountain hauled up to his Gallery 291, where he photographed it for posterity (the original readymade disappeared almost immediately after that, probably discarded by Duchamp as no longer serving a need). In choosing a backdrop for the photograph, the art impresario could have used a plain white background, as would become typical later in the century for displaying sculptural objects in pristine isolation from the world around them—the white cube approach. Or he could have photographed it in front of one of the semi-abstract paintings of the newly discovered artist to whom he as giving a solo exhibition at the time, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Instead, the gallery owner photographed it against an unsold canvas by his protégé Marsden Hartley, who, in love with a German cavalry officer, had lived in Berlin on the eve of the war and painted a series of radiant quasi-abstractions of Prussian horsemen in tight white breeches parading on imperial review. Stielgitz “posed” Fountain directly in front of a Hartley oil painting called Warriors, establishing a powerful, if highly ambiguous, link between militarism, as celebrated by the American modernist painter, America’s declaration of war against Germany, and Duchamp’s declaration of war against the art establishment. The urinal is placed in front of Warriors in such a way as to invite the viewer to urinate on militancy, be it German, American, or any other kind.

Several years earlier, the Italian poet F. T. Marinetti, in his first Futurist manifesto, had proclaimed that war is good because it purifies society; he called it the “the hygiene of the state.” Strange as it may seem to us today, many of Marinetti’s fellow artists and intellectuals looked forward to the Great War, naively believing it would overturn stale, outmoded ways of thinking, wash away the sediments of the past, and launch society into a better, purer, more ideal future.

Fountain rejected futurist rhetoric. It condemned Wilsonian progressivism, too, and spat on—or, more specifically, pissed on—idealism of any sort, be it political, military, or aesthetic.

Thus the two birthdays we are about to commemorate—that of America’s military-industrial complex, as inaugurated by the nation’s leap into the fray of the First World War, and of the Duchampian strain of modern art, as marked by the submission and rejection of Fountain—are twinned episodes in the lives we collectively lead. To understand how Fountain, in the context of its electrifying historical moment, was not only anti-art but also anti-war is to help artists today better understand the extent to which making art can, or cannot, be an alternative to making war.

Featured image: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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