Duchamp, Fountain The Anti-art Nature Of Dada

Duchamp, Fountain: The Anti-art Nature Of Dada

Dada was a movement in art, literature, music, performance and film that was invoked by the advent of World War I. Switzerland, a neutral country, became the refuge of many who objected to the war. In Zurich, 1916, Dada emerged distinctly as an active refusal of and attempt to subvert the prevailing values of the bourgeois society that supported and protected itself with the war. Dada sought to refuse these values in every guise they took, to disrupt them with its violence and rhetoric, to destroy and heal simultaneously. Language was targeted through poetry, periodicals and manifestos, because it was being used to present the unjust as just, illogic as logic. Logic itself was denounced in the contradictory statements and actions of Dadaists, because logic turned young men to cannon fodder. So chance, the logic of nature, was granted equal importance to the cerebral process and played an important role in many manifestations of Dada. Considered a culture’s finest and most distilled product, art was to Dada the greatest illustration and support of the social sickness. Art became the bull’s eye over the bourgeois heart and anti-art, a term said to be coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1914, was the weapon. By disrupting artistic and cultural convention, Dadaists hoped to disrupt the values that had brought about and supported the continuation of the war.

Though Zurich was the birthplace of Dada, New York also became a harbor for European artists seeking shelter from the war. Arriving in New York in 1915, the French artist Marcel Duchamp met Francis Picabia and Man Ray. By 1915 the three men had created a whirlwind of anti-art activities around themselves. Though they never labelled themselves Dada, their motivations paralleled their Zurich counterparts. As Richter recalled, Dada activities in New York “were different, but its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were. The notes may have sounded strange, but the music was the same.”

The work most closely associated with anti-art is Duchamp’s Fountain; a urinal signed R. Mutt and positioned so the surface normally mounted on a wall, became its base. Fountain belongs to a broad category of objects called “ready mades”. The ready-mades were mass-produced objects; the selection of which Duchamp claimed in his 1961 “Apropros of ‘Readymades’” was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total lack of good or bad taste. Duchamp made clear his intention of the ready-mades when he stated in Apropos his idea of a ‘reciprocal ready-made’: to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.

Fountain was a powerful affront to the art world and an inimitable success of anti-art. It violated and reset art boundaries, separating it from other anti-art product which tended to reinterpret existing art forms, relying on the work of past modern art schools such as the Futurists, Cubists and Expressionists.

In 1917 Duchamp submitted Fountain to the newly formed Society of Independent Artists, of which he was a founding member and director. Fountain was rejected for exhibition. George Bellows argued that it was a gross, indecent object, which should not be exhibited due to its base association with bathrooms and excreta. It was also rejected on the grounds that the artist didn’t physically make it and thus its exhibition as an original artwork was unacceptable.

Because Fountain was a functional object, regardless of its positioning, it carried its function with it wherever it went. Because it was a mass-produced object it would be recognized first and foremost in relation to the viewer’s prior experience of it. For at least half the audience, the power of recognition would transform gallery into toilet. Bellows obviously recognized Fountain in this way and engaging with it as a urinal, came to the conclusion that it could not be art. Perhaps in this way Fountain was also interpreted as an insult to the art world. Not only by its function (to accept human waste) but also by its title. Fountain; A point of origin or dissemination; a source.

If Fountain was unacceptable on the basis of it being physically made by the artist then what of all the paintings created with manufactured tubes of paint? Duchamp reasoned that these were “readymades aided” and acts of assemblage. Where other artists took “ready-made” tubes of paint and chose their brushstrokes, Duchamp took representational art to its logical conclusion and his economy of means distilled the idea that art was in the artist crafting the artwork until all that remained was choice. In response to the Society’s rejection of Fountain, Duchamp wrote purportedly in Mutt’s defence, that the mere act of choosing was enough to qualify any object as art. For Duchamp, choice was the essence of the creative act.

In this way Fountain undermined certainty of what constituted an original in the age of mechanical reproduction, at the same time questioning the aesthetic value of an original versus a reproduction. Countless urinals could have been used to deliver the same message as Fountain. This gave artists new authority to decide what art was and demoted the critic from the position of referee.

Duchamp may have had other reasons for signing Fountain R. Mutt but in presenting a machine-made object, lacking uniqueness and signed with a spurious signature, Duchamp generated the idea of art without artist. The signing of a machine-made object was also a mockery of claims to individual creativity.

Where was R. Mutt and what had he produced? Nowhere and nothing, but here was Fountain. This rejection of the art market’s worship in the cult of personality is also the nihilistic conclusion of the concept that the creative act lies in choice. Duchamp even used his signature to this end by signing another artist’s painting hanging in a restaurant he was dining at.

Duchamp invited the public to distinguish between Fountain and the art that Dada saw as drained of energy and imaginative power in service to the bourgeois agenda. Before Dada, Western art was dedicated to the ideal of beauty, the mystique of form and the depiction of the good life. Illusionist and decorative, this art wrapped its audience in a cocoon of passive and thoughtless consumption. Dada was in opposition to this, abandoning aesthetics and refusing to comfort the audience. Duchamp’s iconoclastic vision demanded participation and uphill moral consideration from the viewer. Dada perceived society as using taste and form to create a wall of mirrors to keep the reality of the world out and sought to undo the perversion of art to support this self-occlusion. By choosing mass consumer products arbitrarily, with determination to select objects devoid of taste, Duchamp was attempting to separate art from aesthetics. By extension he was attempting to pry society from its gluttonous and desperate desire to see the surface, rather than the nature of things.

Anti-art challenged art but not as an experiment or tentative fingering of cultural boundaries. It revoked boundaries of art, focused on the cancers that had infected the art of a contagious society and offered back a new art. Anti-art was a tool, a gift as much as a revolt, offering a new way of thinking and feeling through art. Through anti-art, Dada liberated society from a false morality that denied authenticity and was marching towards a greater destruction than Dada could ever be accused of.

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