Marcel Duchamp has been a personal hero of mine since Orion Letizi and I managed to shoehorn the phrase “Nude Descending” into a rock song 30 years ago. It was Fountain, however, Duchamp’s “readymade” urinal that really appealed to my anarchic, adolescent humor (and still does). Its inception goes like this:
It’s April, 1917, and Duchamp is in New York. He drops into the showroom of J. L. Mott Iron Works and buys a urinal (why not?). He signs it “R. Mutt” and submits it, anonymously, to the Society of Independent Artists (of which he’s a member) for an upcoming an exhibition. The society claims a “no jury” policy and yet, it rejects the work. In protest, Duchamp resigns from the group. Because, hell yeah.
So, Duchamp simmers for a few days and then brings Fountain to his photographer pal Alfred Stieglitz who promptly photographs it for an avant-garde magazine called, naturally, The Blind Man. The magazine publishes the photograph of the urinal with essays in defense of not only the work but the urinal’s fictional signatory “Mr. Mutt.” Did I mention that Duchamp was one of the mag’s publishers? This is how one of the defense read:
“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.” — Anonymous (of course)
Presto. Conceptual art is born. The sentiment is echoed in the Artspace piece linked below, which made a quick study of conceptual art and everything you need to know, readymade (haha) for a cocktail party conversation.
…Objects became art simply because Duchamp chose to call them art, and he had the authority to do so because the art world considered him an artist.
Lamentably, they left out Fluxus-era artist Yoko Ono, whose “Smile in a Box,” which still upwardly tugs the corners of my mouth when I think about it.
Check out some of my own conceptual art endeavors at Culture Dept.