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The Urinal

by Lowell Warren

Let’s set the scene:

It’s 1917. I like to imagine I’m a museumgoer, standing before William Bouguereau’s 1893 painting L’innocence, admiring his delicately rendered depiction of innocence represented by the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, cradling a baby and a lamb.

Or perhaps I marvel over German painter Severin Roesen’s 1860s painting Fruit Still Life in a Landscape, which captures in excruciating detail the bubbles of a sparkling beverage, the frayed edges of a grape leaf, and minute thorns upon a sprig of black berries.

But then, in another room, I find myself face to face with an object I was not prepared to see: a urinal. Not a sculpture of a urinal, not a painting of a urinal, but an actual urinal. A slab of porcelain glistening under fluorescent museum lights, flat on its back, bestowed upon a pedestal.

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I’m taken aback. I’ve never been put in a situation like this before. Do I laugh at it? Do I scoff? What am I supposed to think? What are other people thinking? Is it a joke? I came to the museum to admire the Monets and the Renoirs, yet I’m presented with this wall toilet! The room starts to spin. I grip my friend for support as I reach for a handkerchief to blot my perspiration. My entire perception of what is and isn’t art is crumbling. What’s happening?!

This is how I like to imagine the public’s initial reaction to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 work Fountain. In actuality, I was sitting in a high school art history class when I encountered Duchamp’s masterpiece for the first time. A urinal? In an art museum? Hilarious! To me this was the ultimate joke. How could anyone take this seriously?

That’s when my teacher explained its significance.

For centuries, art’s main objective was to serve as a commodity for the elite. Art was used to document royalty, to spread religion, and to flaunt wealth. But after WWI, for the first time, people began to question religion and question power. If there was a God, how could he unleash something as horrible as war? How could people in power allow something so brutal to unfold? The world suddenly seemed like a senseless place, and artists like Marcel Duchamp didn’t want to make sense anymore.

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Duchamp submitted the urinal (titled Fountain and signed “R. Mutt 1917”) to the Society of Independent Artists in New York, an organization which promised to accept and exhibit any work of art. They rejected it.

Fountain caused outrage! The Society of Independent Artists put out the statement: “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.” Supporters of Fountain, like artist Beatrice Wood, argued that “whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain 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.”

Fountain was not a lazy practical joke. It was a direct attack at the bourgeoisie and at the elitism of art. Duchamp’s urinal was the first example of art in a museum that was not mimicking anything in the world–it wasn’t a statue, it was a urinal. It recontextualized a mundane, everyday object in a gallery setting to give it a new meaning, and it wasn’t trying to impress anyone. No longer was art exclusive to members of high society. Duchamp proved anyone could experience art, anyone could understand art, and most importantly, anyone could create art.

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High School Lowell’s mind was blown. I come from an artistic family–my grandparents are artists, and my father encouraged me and my siblings to pursue the arts our whole lives–but suddenly I understood that art could be so much more than drawings or paintings or sculptures. Art could be revolutionary. It could be humorous, and controversial, and deeply moving. It could induce fear, or rage, or hope. It could change the world in unexpected ways, and shock people, and conjure ideas previously unthinkable.

In this blog, I hope to write about artists and artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries that have had profound impacts on the society in which they occurred, art that has been controversial, been innovative, stirred uproar, and pushed the limits of what can even be considered art.



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