A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp, a French artist domiciled in New York, paid the entry fee for an exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp’s contribution to the show, titled Fountain, was a porcelain urinal he had purchased on April 2, 1917 and signed with the pseudonym R Mutt. When the show opened on April 10, 1917, Duchamp found his entry hidden away by scandalised organisers. Afterwards, the piece was lost, probably chucked out with the garbage. Although he protested the treatment meted out to his art, the episode was soon forgotten and he faded into relative obscurity.

Four decades later, Duchamp’s concerns found echoes among a new generation of artists looking to break away from dominant conventions. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others, drew on his example in their own work, and by the time of his death in 1968, he had become a celebrated name within a small community of avant-garde visual artists, musicians and film-makers. His reputation has continued to grow since then, and when the British Broadcasting Company asked 500 leading artists, critics and historians to rank the most influential works of modern art, Fountain placed first, ahead of seminal paintings by Picasso and Matisse like Guernica and The Red Studio.

Modern art presents many obstacles to the lay public. A lot of it seems absurd, or lacking skill, or designed merely to shock. Duchamp’s Fountain was all of these. Understanding how it went from the garbage heap to the top of the art pile is a good way to comprehend debates surrounding contemporary art as a whole.

Painting from the margin

The exhibition in which Fountain was included before being excluded derived from a tradition that originated in Paris in the 1860s. Among the must-visit events in the French capital in those years was an annual salon sponsored by the emperor, featuring major creations by the nation’s leading artists. The orthodox taste of the jury clashed with the experimental mood among practitioners, leading to contributions by figures like Gustave Courbet and Eduard Manet being vetoed. In 1863, an alternate exhibition was mounted, consisting of paintings and sculptures that had failed to make the cut for the grand salon. This “Salon des Refuses”, or Exhibition of Rejects, was initially sponsored by the state but soon became an independent enterprise, and the premier showcase of what came to be called Impressionist painting. Impressionism was a cogent revolt against the conventions of realism and soon grew massively popular with the public.

The success of the Salon des Refusés revolutionised the way artists viewed the audience. For millennia, and across cultures, artists and artisans had cultivated patrons and sought widespread popularity. When their vision was at odds with the taste of buyers, it caused bitterness and often self-doubt. In the modern era, artists began to see rejection not as a sign of failure but of originality, of being ahead of their time. They wore it as a badge of honour, convinced that history would vindicate them. If their work was immediately liked by collectors and viewers, it was cause for concern rather than celebration, for it suggested their work was too easily assimilated. In recent decades, the upside-down attitude to rejection has gradually righted itself as the art world has become more receptive to innovation, but it still survives in pockets.

The exhibition organised in New York by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 was democratic in the manner of the Salon des Refusés, allowing works of art to be exhibited without a jury screening. Even such a liberal format could not accommodate Duchamp’s Fountain. What greater proof could there be of a work’s revolutionary nature, of being ahead of its time, than to be rejected by an exhibition of rejects?

Recreated versions of the Fountain, and other readymades, were made to Marcel Duchamp's specifications in the 1960s. (Image credit: tate.org.uk)
Recreated versions of the Fountain, and other readymades, were made to Marcel Duchamp's specifications in the 1960s. (Image credit: tate.org.uk)

Image versus concept

What precisely was revolutionary about Fountain? Let’s go back to the Impressionists and trace Duchamp’s path from that point. For centuries until the 1870s, the primary form of representation in Europe involved single-point perspective, which mimicked the way the human eyes see the world. It’s the style many lay viewers wish had never faded away. From the late 19th century, the conventions of perspective painting began to be questioned, first by Impressionists like Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, and later by artists linked with a welter of movements like Pointillism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism. The revolt against realism was triggered by a complex mix of events but one that stands out is the invention of the camera. Once the way the eye sees could be mimicked mechanically, it felt redundant to attempt the same manually. Painting shifted to exploring ways of representing three dimensions in two that did not involve creating an illusion of depth. Art increasingly focussed on subjective perception instead of attempting to simulate objective reality.

Duchamp’s early paintings displayed the influence of many of the art movements I have mentioned, but he soon grew dissatisfied with all of them. Painting may have broken away from trying to mimic the eye, but the form was still, in his view, “retinal”. Art communicated with viewers primarily through visual means, while he wanted it to be about the brain at least as much as about the eye. His first move in that direction involved taking a bicycle wheel and fitting it onto a stool. Although both wheel and stool were familiar objects, combining the two involved the artist’s intervention. Later, he reduced his role to choosing the object, placing it, and sometimes writing a title or signing it. A bottle rack, a snow shovel, a chimney ventilator, and a dog-grooming comb were among the objects he nominated as artworks, calling them “readymades”.

By divorcing an object from its utilitarian function and presenting it in a location where it would be scrutinised in a very different fashion, Duchamp was making explicit the contextual nature of meaning. He was also questioning the nature of art. If this was art, what was art? He greatly expanded the domain of art, while also considerably narrowing it. He expanded it by effectively proclaiming that art could encompass absolutely anything. All definitions based on mediums, styles and skills were consigned to the dustbin of history. At the same time, understanding art post-Duchamp became more than ever about understanding the history of art. This widened the gap between initiates and the general public. Furthermore, the conceptual turn threatened to develop into a form of navel gazing so arid that it made conventional retinal painting feel refreshing.

The double edge

The dual nature of Duchamp’s legacy is appropriate for a man whose every statement was filled with paradox, whose every work points in two directions at once, whose tongue was perpetually in his cheek. A number of commentators have referred to his creations as “anti-art”, as nihilistic or anarchistic, but none of those definitions fits in my opinion. In the 1930s, he carefully created miniature versions of all his major works and sold these to the small group of collectors that had supported him down the years.

Marcel Duchamp's miniatures. (Image credit: www.christies.com)
Marcel Duchamp's miniatures. (Image credit: www.christies.com)

In doing so, he profited from the market even as he satirised the nature of packaging and consumption. In the 1960s, versions of the lost readymades were recreated to his specifications in limited editions. Many now find a place in the world’s leading modern art museums. They may have been bought from a hardware store initially, but were carefully handmade later by skilled artisans. In a paradox that he must have enjoyed, the original required no skill, the copies needed a lot.

If you go to Duchamp to find certainty or answers, you will draw a blank, but his slim body of work orchestrates a play of ideas unprecedented in the history of art. It is funny, mocks conventions and takes the piss (rather literally in the case of Fountain), while also being challenging and profound.