Anything that moves

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: How a reject became the most influential artwork in the world

The porcelain urinal was thrown out of a 1917 New York exhibition, but its recreations now find pride of place in leading museums.

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.