I included the tweet above because it distills much of what I think of when I think of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), now 100 years old this week. Duchamp, I think, would have loved Twitter, or at least certain segments of it. The character format is limited in Twitter; one has no way of signaling that one is being sarcastic, or ironic. Sincerity and absurdity are given equal weight and the responsibility lies with the reader to determine which is which. The best writers in this format refuse to signal and part of the appeal is sending utter insanity out into the sea of the Internet, letting one’s messages be interpreted freely. Even if you’re not being serious, your message must demand to be taken seriously.
This all serves to erode sincerity. Humor and the entropy that occurs within the limited character format work together to kill certainty. I once took a lit class with a professor who created a linguistic model for humor. Humor is what happens when our register of the setup fails to account for the punchline. We laugh because there’s a discrepancy between the two; laughter is our response to chaos. This would suggest a continuum with certainty at one end, followed by increasing absurdity that leads us to chaos, the death of all meaning. It’s probably hilarious.
So when @boissongazeuse calls Fountain the original irony post, xe’s recognizing that Duchamp’s sculpture is injecting chaos into a place where there was once stability. If you’re a ceramics freak, you already know the story. Duchamp found a porcelain urinal, signed it R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists. This was part of Duchamp’s vendetta against what he called “retinal” art. Rather than creating something that was pleasing to the eye, Duchamp wanted his art to happen in the intellect of the person who received it. Art that could once be safely confined within the borders of a frame now had nothing restraining it. The response becomes part of the piece, as much a part of the work as the object itself.
So when the stuffy nerds at the Society of Independent Artists refused to show the piece, when they and everyone like them spent the next ten decades arguing whether or not Fountain was art, they became a piece of the work. They grew so used to the box created by a frame, to the box created by the walls of a gallery, to the box created by the register of acceptable artistic endeavors that they never saw these things as objects themselves. Duchamp made these objects fair game and Fountain became a black hole, swallowing every attempt weiners like the Society or your philistine art-hating uncle make to dismantle it.
This is all ancillary to what Fountain actually is. The absolute madness implied by singing the praises of a urinal isn’t lost on me. It’s easy enough to paint Duchamp’s work as some art world version of the slobs vs. the snobs, but on the other hand there’s myself and everyone like me who are treating a zero-effort found object like it’s the Sistine Chapel. Duchamp is trolling people on both sides of the fence. Consider that the guy quoted in the tweet above used a three-dollar phrase like “a transubstantiation of material” to describe an object that guys were pissing in twenty-four hours before Duchamp yanked it off the wall of a public restroom.
I’m assuming Duchamp found the urinal. Even a cursory read of Fountain’s Wikipedia page will give you more than enough material for a conspiracy theory that could rival “9-11 was an inside job.” The urinal is a ghost. It disappeared shortly after its non-debut. There are several people who could claim responsibility for it. Who the hell is R. Mutt? The urinal photograph is a composite image? Did you know that people researched catalogs of urinals and couldn’t find a match for it? We have a piece of work that comes from nothing, can be definitively credited to no one and ended up nowhere. What. Is. Going. On. Here?
Pop culture caught up to Duchamp’s irony about twenty years ago. That happened when people started watching bad movies to laugh at them. We’re getting into the shadier conspiracy theory zone as we speak, the far end of the spectrum between sincerity and chaos. The detachment, that nagging feeling of unreality that accompanies Fountain, is present among us right now. Decaying meaning that sells itself with po-faced seriousness isn’t happening in galleries or on Twitter or in the art exhibit I currently write for (#shamelessplug), it’s on the news. If you haven’t heard our president is KGB and so are the people who oppose him and so are thousands of people who demonstrate against police abuse. Authoritarian regimes are propped up by science fiction writers. Your local pizza shop has a warren of secret underground tunnels where the elite commit unspeakable crimes (but fear not! vigilantes armed with assault rifles are on the case). Reality is defined not by facts, but by the conviction with which we present our version of the facts. Conceptual art is not only art, it also has the power to kill us all. Happy birthday from all of us who make our livings through Chaos.
Hail Fountain. Hail Duchamp. Hail Eris.
Bill Rodgers is a writer for cfile.daily.
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