Is the “Fountain” (1917) art?

Marcel Duchamp. “Fountain” (1917)

In the art world there have always been scandalous figures, in the past, now and, most likely, in the future. Marcel Duchamp could be considered a member of this particular club. He was, for example, an active member of the outrageous Dada artistic movement, a group based on absurdity, irrationality and unprincipled ways of life.
In 1913 he started to think of everyday objects as pieces of art, whose essence he could capture with a very short sentence. Duchamp would, later in time, name these objects “ready-mades”. Finally in 1917, after having had a very good time with these objects, he presented an rotated urinal under the name of “Fountain”. However, and as to challenge the art world, he would not sign it under his name, but under the pseudonym of R. Mutt. The art critics, as Duchamp expected, threw it away, as if it was trash. 
At that time Benedetto Croce (1866 – 1952) and Clive Bell (1881 – 1964) were already aware of what was going on in the artistic world. As critics, neither of them were keen on the “Fountain”. Later in time Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) would appear on the scene with very different ideas about what art should be. But, how different could those ideas be? Could the different époques in which these crtics were born influence them so much as to contradict each other? What did they all think about the rebellious ideals of the Dada? Did they consider the “Fountain” to be a work of art? Did they cosinder it to be trash?
In a brief text written by Marcel Duchamp in 1961, he explains what the “readymades” were to him in the moment of their creation. It’s obvious that all his “readymade” works of art could be defined as objects. Not any object, though. These objects were, first of all, “never dictated by esthetic delectation” and at the same time caused “visual indifference”. Having said this, and because of what Clive Bell wrote in 1914 “the starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion”, we know that Clive Bell did not consider the “Fountain” art. Both declarations, Duchamp’s and Bell’s, contradict one another, Duchamp’s rejects esthetic argument and Bell’s states the need for peculiar emotion in order to consider something art. Croce also would object to Duchamp’s explanation, as for Croce art is intuition, and therefore, aesthetics. He believes that art should be experimental and should allow spectators to intuit a picture in their minds. However, the third theorist, maybe because of his relative youth, saw more than merely intuition or composition in art. He understood that artists had to express “reality as felt” and therefore, if Duchamp thought that an everyday object with no aesthetic quality would best represent his reality, it was an appropriate object, even if only spectators from that time could understand it, and not future generations, who would not share the artists culture.
This relationship to reality that Motherwell felt was essential to understand our “need” for new art, distinguished him from the previous critics. The period in between wars was very tough, especially for communist artists; that was why Croce and Bell understood art as unrelated to ethics or social life, so as to protect it from the agitated times in NYC. Moreover, Motherwell, with his emphasis on real life, said that works of art capture certain aspects of the time they were made, and Duchamp’s art was no exception. American society was becoming more and more materialistic and needy. The fact that Duchamp decided to use an everyday object such as a urinal, which, let’s recall, caused him visual indifference, relates him to the middle class of his times, as Motherwell wanted, by alluding the increasingly whimsical population. Nevertheless, Bell could not think more differently, as he stated that “art’s kingdom is not in this world”. He rejected artists and spectators  search for the embedded messages in art, as formal composition was what made art.
Furthermore, beyond the object, for Duchamp the “important characteristic was the short sentence” which carried “the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal” and expressed his main idea. This, of course, clarifies why Croce and Bell would, once again, fail to see this as art, and why Motherwell could easily see the artistic values of it. It is obvious that Clive Bell would have the most opposition to a short sentence, because he felt that “who can feel pure aesthetic emotion often have no idea what the subject of a painting is”. So, most certainly, he would not read the sentence as ideologically loaded, but merely as an element of the composition. This was the opposite f what Duchamp wanted. On the other hand, Croce disengaged reality and art work by considering art as intuition, which implies “the denial that it has the character of conceptual knowledge, intuition refers precisely to the lack of distinction between reality and unreality – to the image itself – with its purely ideal as mere image”. This quotation obtained from Croce’s writings erases all possibility of him valuing the “fountain” as art based on its sentence. To Croce, “the idea should all be dissolved in the representation”. In any case, this formalism would not be enough for Motherwell, who would appreciate the intellectual core of the piece, because to him “painting is the medium of thought”. And, how better to express it than with a sentence that impacts us directly.
Anyhow, Dada was not all about sentences and material objects, and it is for this reason that some more “traditional” works of art produced by this movement may have been of the interest to Clive and Bell.However, it is obvious that the radically different times when they were born had something to do with their approaches to art. Clive and Bell were both born in the second half of the 19th century, whereas Motherwell was born at the beginnings of the 20th century. Do not misunderstand me, Clive Bell and Benedetto Croce do not have the same theories, they disagree about aspects such as abstract art, but, they both think that art should have nothing to do with ethical issues.
Duchamp, as a surrealist and a Dada, enjoyed breaking the rules. He had fun naming things and distinguishing common objects as art. He was aware of what a difference and shock that would be to already well-known art theorists; but not to future art theorists like Motherwell. Still, these contradictory positions make me ask myself, is it art just because an artist says so? Even today, can anything, once freed of its slavery of function, become art? Was Duchamp’s gesture just the beginning? Or was he trying to point out the turbulence of the art world?


Credit to:

1 Duchamp, Marcel. Apropos of “Readymades”. 1961

2 ibid. 
3 Bell, Clive. The Aesthetic Hypothesis”. 1914
4 Duchamp.
5 Croce. Benedetto. What is Art? 1913
6 ibid.

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