Photograph below by Alfred Stieglitz.
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by Allan Antliff
In December, 2004, the Guardian Weekly ran a short news item entitled "Urinal comes out on top," which announced that a survey of 500 British artists, curators, critics and dealers had determined that "A humble porcelain urinal—reclining on its side, and marked with a false signature—[is] the world's most influential piece of modern art, knocking Picasso and Matisse from their positions of supremacy."
The item in question was Fountain, an industrially produced urinal that the French artist Marcel Duchamp signed "R. Mutt" and submitted for inclusion in a large-scale 1917 exhibition of modern art mounted by the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. Fountain was one of a series of industrially produced items—"ready-mades"—Duchamp purchased following his arrival in New York in 1915. How and why it came out on top is an interesting story.
At its point of origin, the urinal was a mockery of Cubism, a movement Duchamp had participated in, but abandoned just before the outbreak of the First World War. The Cubist aesthetic was based in the main on the metaphysical speculations of the then world-famous French philosopher Henri Bergson. Briefly, Bergson argued that the conventional scientific view of the world—based on the standardized measurement of time, Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometry—was an intellectual formulation invented to serve our utilitarian needs. In Time and Free Will (1889), Creative Evolution (1907) and other widely read works, he constructed an alternative to this utilitarian, rationalizing world view. Whereas Newtonian physics assumed matter was solid and inert, Bergson speculated that matter was actually energy in a perpetual condition of flux and interpenetration. The quantitative division of time epitomized by the clock, with its standard units of seconds, minutes and hours, was also done away with. Time's passage was actually qualitative: each moment was different from the last, similar to matter itself in its unceasing evolution. In the course of our day-to-day lives, Bergson contended, we routinely suppress this knowledge out of necessity. Artists, however, potentially had more freedom. Bergson singled them out and invited them to throw off the rationalist shackles and reveal the reality that lay hidden behind the veil.