As we nearing a centennial of the work by Marcel Duchamp that many consider the most influential of the whole 20th century, it is a good time to re-process its impact. The 1917 Fountain and its cornerstone position for the institutional establishment art of our day makes it just as intellectually fascinating as on a day it was picked from J. L. Mott Iron Works in Brooklyn (or so we told) .
There is a very well known argument that lies in the very foundation of the Post Modernist philosophical doctrine.
It is taken currently as an article of faith by the institutions of the official art establishment. This argument is attributed to the iconoclastic anti-establishment giant of the turn of the last century Marcel Duchamp and goes back to his 1917 “Fountain.” Though expressly not what he meant by his “Fountain,” the work presented a fascinating theoretical conundrum that resulted in a “Duchampian Argument.” It generally sums up today by many as “it is art by virtue of me, the maker, thinking, affirming it as art” or in Don Judd's formulation "what the artist calls art, is art". Countless characters out of a generation of “profiteers” in immortal definition of Allice Goodman fall back on this argument in their explanation for their important role within Post Modernist art. Tracey Emin used this line in describing why her Bed is considered art, Yuan Cai brought it up in explaining of him and his co-author Jian Jun Xi adding to it by urinating into Fountain’s Tate Modern version.
The obvious consequence of this statement, is two fold - it is obvious that not any thought by anyone about anything being an art will make it accepted as art therefore a cast of inscrutable high priests with absolute authority is required to arbitrarily distinguish which thoughts and by whom shall be indeed considered the source of legitimate art. The "Thought Authority" so to speak. That is the point Arthur Danto persuasively makes in his famous and consequential 1964 essay “The Artworld”. Purely arbitrary subjectivism leads to a completely totalitarian structure within our current Post Modernist official art establishment that presides over perfect reflection and embodiment of the structural ideology of today's ruling class, the monopolistic corporatocracy.
My presentation at the TRAC 2014 art conference was centered around this argument and was very much and very perversely Duchamp-abscessed. The more I thought about it afterwords, the more questions I had. What if I, the maker, don't know whether what I did is art or not? Would this sad fact make it less of an art, more of an art or be irrelevant to it actually being or not being art? So, for the show in conjunction with the TRAC 2015 conference at The Museum of Ventura County to help myself with this apprehension and as an extension of my previous years’ talk I thought of nothing better than doing a really silly piece half-in-jest. Yet, as we say in Russia "every joke has a fraction of a… joke".
What I came up with was a cheap modern urinal oddly similar to the original "Fountain" in shape. It is angled just enough to be viewable inside and that makes it perceived as an upside down. Its conceptual white purity and the institutional establishment sanctified iconic status are brutally and with indignity vandalized and violated with my pathetic scribbles and markings, not unlike Duchamp’s own willful violation of the sacred cow of his time - Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. I signed it "R. Mutt Steele 2015" as a homage to a thoroughly heroic cultural trail blazer and iconoclast much as a reinforcement of the time bridge. I really and genuinely do not know whether it is art or not. So, I titled the piece "Fountain 2.0: Is it Art?" with a question mark as opposite to” Duchampian” supposed affirmation.
The conceptual title picked by curators for our group show that included gorgeous works by my close artistic comrades-in-brush Jeremy Lipking, Tony Pro and Joseph Todorovitch is actually my personal and Classical Underground motto "In ART We Trust." Quite obviously opposite to Duchamp's sentiment. My other pieces on the show represented everything I deeply and firmly believe in.
Seeing that thing sitting in the middle of the room filed with some serious Art made me even more uncertain over its nature. So, to help me answer my anxiety I set up a real voting booth in front of it. Just like in other voting boxes - the objects representing the sacred act of democracy - it carried my Classical Underground insignia and notation "Your Vote Counts". The same insignia and notation were on the cover of a real voting ballot. Inside of the ballot was the title of the work "Fountain 2.0: Is it Art?" followed by two check boxes: "Oh, Yeah!" and "Hell, No!". People actually voted vigorously. The museum has run out of printed ballots and had to replenish them.
When we had our “canvassing committee” count the ballots the result was pretty fascinating.
“Oh, Yeah!” – 91 votes, or 62.3%
“Hell, No!” – 46 votes, or 31.5%
Undecided – 9 votes, or 6.1% (that one just beats me)
With a total of 146 votes
Pretty fascinating on many levels.
There were also some awesome comments on the cards, both “Oh, Yeh!”, and “Hello, No!”
I personally liked the No comments even more.
Here’s some of my favorite:
For “Hell, No!”
“Sure, the first time it was”
“Duchamp yes – R.Mutt Briefly – A. Steele, too late! (Pathetic)”
Checked self-made square “Eh”
“Its waste of time ppl need real hobbies”
and my all time favorite – “I nearly used it!”
On the “Oh, Yeah!” side:
“Yes, muy bien”
“It is something someone constructed to look good so Yes!”
“Yes, it is art”
“Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
“These are amazing”
“It is a work of art.”
“Not excited about the urinal but the art work is exceptional”
“All forms of art are art! No one is to judge what others think (scratched) portray as their own art!”
With some of them on both sides I would agree, with some, also on both sides, I would argue.
What was important for me though that the public had a very tangible way to get engaged into a discourse of what constitutes art. Not a small talk.
What better way to open a centennial celebration of Duchamp's "seminal work" (did I really say that?) than to ask more questions that would challenge the foundation of today's art establishment the very same way he did in 1917?
The museum was actually cool enough to set up a special web page where you can also cast your vote. The experiment in democratic nature of Art and who knows, maybe even of our society at this critical juncture continues!
Cheers to a Duchampian Revolution today!
So, is it
In ART we trust!