Did Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” Really Come Completely Out of Left Field?

In April 1917 Marcel Duchamp shocked the directors of the Society of Independent Artists in New York and the art world at large by submitting into their jury-less exhibition a mass-produced urinal, tipped on its side, signed with a fake name, and entitled, “Fountain”. Although this work is considered a watershed moment in the art world, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It originates from a long history of artists disrupting the status quo.

In this essay, I will compare and contrast Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece of bathroom plumbing with the art of the Vorticists, Cubists, and Futurists that preceded it.

Most works in this 1917 exhibition were shocking to the standards of art at the time, such as Beatrice Wood’s “A Little Water in Some Soap” (1917) in which an actual bar of soap is nailed to the canvas to cover the private parts of a crudely drawn nude woman emerging from a bath. But even though Wood’s piece challenged the tradition of the female nude, she received the wall space that her six-dollar entry fee into the exhibition had paid for.

Beatrice Wood’s “A Little Water in Some Soap” (1917)

Duchamp’s “Fountain” however, was so offensive to the traditions of art that the directors of the Society of Independent Artists, despite their stance for democracy in art, refused to show it. The members of the society argued that it would demean the other artworks on display to allow “Fountain” in the show. The society’s board of directors released a statement to the press: “The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.”

The directors had no way of knowing that the criteria for judging art would change so much in the years following that in December 2004 a survey of 500 British artists, curators, critics, and dealers would name “Fountain” as the “world’s most influential piece of modern art.”

Although “Fountain” challenges in an extreme way the traditions of art that came before it, it is similar to art from the Vorticist, Cubist and Futurist movements in spirit, in that it is a critique of the flaws of the social system of the time as perceived by the artist.

I will begin by discussing how (even though Duchamp was upending the basic Bergsonian principles of Cubism) there can still be parallels drawn between the urinal and some Cubist works regarding their use as a critique of the hypocrisy of the elite. Then, I will contrast Duchamp’s cold intellectual form of social critique with the heated emotional politics of Futurist artwork. Finally, I will look at how Vorticism relates to the famous bathroom fixture, delving into how Jacob Epstein and Marcel Duchamp both used the ready-made as a tool for criticism, but to different ends.

Cubism was inspired by the ideas of the French Philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson rejected Euclidean geometry and the conventional scientific view of the world and formulated a new way of regarding reality. He argued that what appeared to be solid matter was energy in a state of constant movement, diffusing and interacting with the matter around it. He also claimed that clocks were insufficient for measuring time because the passage of time was qualitative and different from one moment to the next.

The Cubist artists attempted to depict this alternate view of reality in their art. The Cubists abandoned pictorial traditions of perspective, form, light, and volume in order to create images that were true to this qualitative and individual experience of space. The figures in the paintings changed shape as they moved, multiple views were shown in the same painting to convey the physical movement of the artist around the subject, and artists gave themselves the freedom to include objects that were in reality far away from each other and only conjoined by memory and associative meaning. Paintings such as Braque’s “Violin and Palette” (1909), and Metzinger’s “Tea Time” (1911) illustrate these Bergsonian ideas.

Braque’s “Violin and Palette” (1909)

Duchamp’s “Fountain”, however, was “art less, mass-produced and lacking in emotion, empathy or originality” , the exact opposite of the intuition and individual experience that the Cubists were trying to achieve. The urinal that Duchamp chose was mass produced from a machine the same way seconds and minutes are mass produced from a clock, all exactly identical. On the surface it may seem that there are no similarities at all between “Fountain” and any Cubist art, until the intentions of the work are examined.

The Society of Independent Artists prided themselves on being as democratic as possible. This governing principle was demonstrated by their total absence of a selection criteria or jury to censor artworks, and their decision to hang all the works alphabetically to prevent a bias. However, Duchamp knew that this patriotic American artistic democracy would only go so far, so he submitted “Fountain” under a false name to test its lengths.

When it was refused, Duchamp’s attempt to expose the hypocrisy of the system was successful. Picasso also makes a social critique about the hypocrisy of the elite in his Cubist collage “Glass and Bottle of Suze” (1912). The collage includes newspaper clippings regarding a series of wars that occurred before WWI in the Balkans. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro were at war with the Ottoman Empire, and that was a serious issue among the French working class because they were worried France would be drawn into the war.

Picasso’s “Glass and Bottle of Suze” (1912)

One news article Picasso includes is a description of demonstrations by workers against France joining the war in the Balkans. This clipping is juxtaposed with excerpts from a satirical novel about the decadent life of the upper class. Picasso makes the social comment even stronger by pasting the upper class decadence upside down, and the war protests right side up. This literal inversion of the social classes was Picasso’s subtle way of critiquing the elite, in the same way Marcel Duchamp is turning the art elite upside down with “Fountain”.

Italian Futurism is arguably one of the most emotional art movements of the early 20th century. The Futurist artists were on a highly politicized campaign to renew Italy and their artworks intended to transform the viewer into Futurist ideas of heroic violence.

Futurist art was emotional, the artist wanted to effect the viewer psychologically and bring them into the center of the picture. Umberto Boccioni, in his book, “Plastic Dynamism” rejected all art that was not “interior and interpretive”. He claimed that art that emulates “mechanical processes of reproduction” such as photography is inferior. “Fountain” is the antithesis of the idea that art should be unique, emotional and personal, it is mass-produced by mechanical processes, and there is no emotion. The only interpretation is a cold, intellectual analysis.

For example, “Funeral Of the Anarchist Galli” by Carlo Carra (1910) depicts a funeral procession for an anarchist protestor being attacked by the police. The painting is predominately a passionate red, and “force lines” exaggerate the actions of the protestors fighting back at the police officers.

“Funeral Of the Anarchist Galli” by Carlo Carra (1910)

The painting has a psychological effect on the viewer, so that he or she obliged to struggle along with the protestors in the picture. In contrast to this heightened emotion, “Fountain” contains no human drama, and the viewer is not drawn into a narrative or struggle. Duchamp’s porcelain ready-made is cold, intellectual and unemotional.

Another difference is highlighted by Ezra Pound, the Vorticist poet. He critiqued Futurism as being “accelerated Impressionism”. He was referring to the fact that, even though the Futurists were depicting modern life and revolutionary ideas, they were still depicting it in a traditional way. Compared to the Vorticists, who strove for pure geometric abstraction and a complete removal from representing the natural world, Futurism is perhaps not as untraditional as the Futurists thought it was.

Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”(1913)

Although Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”(1913) represents modern Bergsonian ideas about the way that matter changes and interpenetrates as it moves through time and space, the subject of the work is still the human figure, one of the most traditional subjects in the history of art. “Fountain”, however, does not reference the human figure or any other traditional subject.

There are other differences between Futurist art and Marcel Duchamp’s famous ready made. The Futurists made images that were visually powerful and emotionally arresting in their beauty, whereas Duchamp was vehemently against the quest for beauty in art. He believed that aesthetic beauty was linked to commercialism and “fatally compromised modern art.” Futurist artists were still using traditional art-making materials, such as oil paint on canvas, and in the case of “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”, bronze. A urinal is definitely not a traditional art-making material.

Still, the similarity between Duchamp’s urinal and Futurist art comes back to subverting the ideas of the elite. Duchamp’s “Fountain” is a direct attack on the art elite. He is rendering them useless and confused by subverting the concepts of the sacredness of the art object, the aesthetic criteria that determine what is “art”, the role of the artist as creator, and the hierarchy of dealers, critics, and curators.

The Futurists also wanted to do away with tradition. Marinetti believed that museums should be burned and all past Italian history should be destroyed. In his lecture “The Beauty and Necessity of Violence” Marinetti called for a general strike and violent revolution on the part of the working class to overthrow the ruling class. “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” (Carlo Carra, 1910–11), “Interventionist Demonstration” (Carra, 1914), and “The City Rises (Umberto Boccioni, 1910–11) are all visual representations of the Futurist ideals of working class revolution. The Futurists sought the overthrow the ruling class, while Duchamp sought to overthrow the ruling art elite.

“Interventionist Demonstration” (Carra, 1914)

Finally, we look at Vorticism, an art movement concerned with the distinctions that the art critic Wilhelm Worringer makes in his book “Abstraction and Empathy” in 1908. Worringer argues that there are 2 distinct trends in art. The first is Art by Empathetic Cultures, in which art accepts and imitates the outside world. The natural order of birth and death is accepted and depicted. This is exemplified by the realism of classical Greek and Renaissance art. The second is an Art of Style, which is produced by cultures with a fear of nature and mortality. Geometric abstraction is employed to “impose order on the arbitrary and temporal life of the natural world.”

Believing that empathetic naturalism held too much of an optimistic view of man’s place in the universe, The Vorticists strove away from naturalism towards pure geometric abstraction, as seen in such works as “Timon of Athens” (1913–14) by Wyndham Lewis and “Vorticist Composition with Figure in Blue and Yellow” (1915) by Helen Saunders.

Helen Saunders “Abstract Multicoloured Design” circa 1915

While Duchamp’s “Fountain” is not an example of geometric abstraction, it can be compared to some Vorticist work in its use of mass-produced objects. Jacob Epstein’s sculpture “Rock Drill” (1913) consists of a mechanical-looking abstracted human figure operating an actual ready-made rock drill, direct from the manufacturer. Epstein is commenting on the fact that man and machine are becoming more and more alike in our rapidly industrialized world.

Duchamp is choosing to designate a urinal as art to challenge the notions of what is accepted in the art world and putting the role of the artist as “creator” in question. Duchamp and Epstein are both using ready-made objects as a form of social critique. Duchamp is critiquing art tradition, and Epstein is commenting on industrialism in England.

Jacob Epstein’s sculpture “Rock Drill” (1913)

In comparing Marcel Duchamp’s ready made “Fountain” with the art of the Cubists, Futurists, and Vorticists, it can be seen that although “Fountain” is different than all that came before it, there is one unifying factor, the intention of the work as a social comment. Each movement studied had a political agenda and the artists conveyed their views on society through their artwork.

Cubism sought to communicate the innovative ideas of Bergsonian metaphysics and also was a protest against France joining the war in the Balkans. Futurism was a highly political movement attempting to inspire a revolution of Italy’s workers to overthrow the ruling class. Vorticism was a response to the industrialization of England and the mechanization of human life.

Like the art that came before it, Duchamp’s “Fountain” also had a political agenda, to challenge the traditions of art itself and overthrow the art elite. Duchamp was successful; his “Fountain” has forever changed the way we look at art. However, this shocking and controversial statement is part of a long tradition of artists challenging, rather than passively accepting and depicting, the status quo.

Like what you read? Give Kelly Dunning a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.