In the spring of 1917, when Europe’s armies were mired in bloody stalemate, Marcel Duchamp, a young sculptor who had fled France to join the roiling New York art world, took a porcelain urinal, flipped it on its back, signed his name as “R. Mutt” and christened the piece a work of art. He paid $6 to show it as “Fountain” in the inaugural exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists. At an emergency meeting, the organisers rejected it. Though they prided themselves on championing everything new and progressive, this was too much. It wasn’t art. Or was it?
A little magazine called the Blind Man, co-edited by Duchamp, ignited a debate still running today. “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not 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 – and created a new thought for the object.”
More musing than manifesto, that idea was prophetic. Conceptual art was born. Critics opined that the piece had the shape of a Buddha, the colour of an angel; it contained “references”, a phrase that became beloved of 20th-century writing on art. Duchamp turned everyday, ready-made objects into art. Without Duchamp there would have been no Damien Hirst.
When the American Society rejected Duchamp’s work, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer, took it to his studio, snapped it and then threw the original away. But what is original here? The factory version or the photographic one? Or any of the 17 reproduction fountains Duchamp commissioned out of glazed earthenware and signed in the 1960s? Today these urinals stand as pillars of the Tate, the Pompidou Centre and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Nearly 20 years ago one fetched $1.8m at auction; none has been sold since.
Duchamp barely bothered to take credit for the first, rejected urinal, but extolled his own mastery as the pennies from the later Fountains tinkled in. Earlier this year Siri Hustvedt, an American essayist, presented a detailed case showing that Duchamp didn’t dream up the work himself: she claims he pinched the idea from Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a German artist whose contribution he then expunged. She must have been pissed off.•