Marcel Duchamp: What is art?

Marcel Duchamp (1877-1968) was a French artist who worked in the Dada style*. He was a modernist artist with very strong opinions about art and he produced many provocative works in a variety of mediums. The following are some examples…

Bicycle Wheel (1913)

Nude Descending a Staircase (1913)

L. H. O. O. Q. (1919)

The work Fountain is a urinal, turned in a different direction, with the name “R. Mutt 1917” painted in black paint. It is one of the most provocative works in the history of art. It caused great controversy when the public first saw it and it is still very controversial today, almost a hundred years later. Many people would argue that this isn’t art, but Marcel Duchamp argues that it is art. And I agree.

The reason that Fountain can be interpreted as art is not necessarily due to the artist’s effort, but due to his selection. Duchamp selected a urinal, an everyday utilitarian object and rendered it useless by rotating it. He also brought it out of its typical environment, that is, the men’s restroom.

Moreover, the controversy itself that this work of art caused can be seen as a part of the artistic process. Marcel Duchamp completed this work in 1917, when he was the director of the Society of Independent Artists. This group claimed to accept any artwork as long as the artist was willing to pay the modest membership fees. Marcel Duchamp submitted his work using a pseudonym, “Richard Mutt”, to the Society of Independent Artists. However, his work was rejected. After this incident, Marcel Duchamp quit his position as the director of the Society of Independent Artists. Marcel Duchamp then wrote a newspaper article explaining why this work by “Richard Mutt” was rejected and why he did not believe it was fair.

Today, the original Fountain is lost. Scholars believe that it has been destroyed, either on purpose or by accident (it is very likely that it could have been mistaken for a typical urinal). However, before it was destroyed, Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer known for popularizing photography as an art form and emphasizing the artistic qualities of photography in his photographs, took a picture. Later on in his career, Marcel Duchamp allowed others to replicate some of his works, Fountain being one of them.

Thus it’s important to consider the entire process of Fountain as the work of art, from its creation, to its rejection, to Marcel Duchamp’s defense of his own art, and to its replication.

Therefore, I agree with Duchamp’s artistic beliefs. To determine whether a work of art is indeed art, one should not look for the amount of work an artist has put in or use any other tangible criteria. Instead, one should examine the artist’s intent.

*Technically, as part of his artistic views, Duchamp claimed that he was not affiliated with any artistic movement (after his works were rejected from the Society of Independent artists in 1917, which claimed to be open to any artist who could pay the modest membership dues and exhibition fee). However, it is obvious that Duchamp’s works of art fit the Dada style, which rejected reason and order, and instead, embraced irrationality and nonsense. Dadas believed that rational thought had led to the creation of the bourgeois capitalist society and to the First World War, so they wanted to create a kind of “anti-art.”

**Supporting this belief, Duchamp is very well-known for his countless readymades, works of art made from everyday utilitarian objects.

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