But Is It Art? Marcel Duchamp and the Fountain Scandal

Photo: Detail of Fountain, 1950 version of 1917 original, Marcel Duchamp, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift (by exchange) of Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1998. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

In the spring of 1917, Marcel Duchamp went where no artist had gone before, transgressing the mores of polite society an upending the art world with the display of a single piece of work—creating one of the most scandalous art shows of all time.

Also: Most Scandalous Art Shows of All Time

The work, titled Fountain was a white porcelain urinal rotated 90 degrees and placed on a pedestal, with the signature “R. Mutt” and the year scribbled along the front. Rendered inoperable, it simply was a reminder of something few were inclined to discuss in public—if at all.

Fountain by R. Mutt, 1917, Alfred Stieglitz, Published in The Blind Man (No. 2), Edited by Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood, May 1917, Philadelphia Museum of Art, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Fountain by R. Mutt, 1917, Alfred Stieglitz, Published in The Blind Man (No. 2), Edited by Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood, May 1917, Philadelphia Museum of Art, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Lest we forget, indoor plumbing was a revolution unto itself—on par with the transformation that the Digital Age has on our own time. It changed lives in ways that most of us hope to never know any other way. At the same time, it was something kept quiet, hidden behind closed doors.

In one fell swoop, Duchamp upended this. He purchased the urinal from a store that sold plumbing fixtures and submitted it to an unjuried exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists in New York, describing the piece as a “readymade.” In an effort to preserve the integrity of the artist and their work, the show had no jury making selections—a fact Duchamp took advantage of with aplomb. It was all very Dada for your nerves.

Its very existence was a charge against the establishment from every vantage point, and like bunch of hit dogs, people got to hollering. Was it art? Was it a hoax? Was it just plain rude? Passions flared. No one was immune. Because, in plain language, Duchamp was taking the piss, or taking a piss, on the bourgeois ideals that surround art—and no one knew what to do.

The original Fountain overshadowed everyone and everything—and then it disappeared. It may have been lost, or destroyed, no one seems to know a thing. But, let’s be honest, for a man who purchased a urinal at a supply shop, he had no qualms about replacing it. In total, 14 replicas were later made, as the world was fully ready to embrace art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Now in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Duchamp’s subversive act, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Marcel Duchamp and the Fountain Scandal, currently on view through December 3, 2017.

The exhibition includes a printer’s proof of Stieglitz’s photograph that appeared in Blind Man, as well as a photograph by Duchamp’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché, in which Fountain hangs above a doorjamb in the artist’s studio at 33 West 67th St. The Museum’s version of Fountain, the earliest of the full-size replicas, was signed and dated “R. Mutt 1917” by Duchamp in 1950—because a copy is only as good as the truth.

But here is where the plot thickens. Was Fountain Duchamp’s idea—or did it belong to someone else, someone who used a pseudonym and Duchamp as a vehicle?

In the book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), author John Higg reports that there was a woman, a very specific woman, behind Fountain. He report that in a letter from Duchamp written to his sister Suzanne on April 11, 1917, attests to this: “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.”

That woman is believed to be Baroness Elsa, a German performance artist, poet, and sculptor who was as live as they come. Decked out in black lipstick and sporting vermilion hair, or just as possibly a shaved head, the Baroness was regularly arrested and jailed for crimes like public nudity.

The Baroness was well ahead of the times; today she would be an Internet sensation back then she was penniless and worked as a busboy. Theories suggest the pseudonym “R. Mutt” is another way to say “armut,” the German word for poverty—another shot at the bourgeois establishment that chose status and appearance over philosophy and principles.

And perhaps nothing proves this true better than the canonization of Fountain. It’s a central work in Art History 101, which teachers present with a straight face, very serious-like. It’s art, after all—there’s nothing funny going on. But that makes it all the more fitting, keeping the punchline fresh. No matter what side of the controversy you choose, you are always part of the joke because so long as you debate its merits, you are trapped in the paradigm that Duchamp sought to obliterate.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.