The Duchamp Misunderstanding

The Duchamp Misunderstanding

The Duchamp Misunderstanding

Marcel Duchamp’s world-renowned fame came, of course, from his iconic 1917 artwork titled Fountain, where he presented a urinal with the signature, ‘R.Mutt’. Yet why is there often the misunderstanding that therefore anything can be art? Perhaps the common speculation surrounding the more pretentious artwork, or the general timid nature towards art, comes from the appeared difficulty in understanding the work – and, understandably so in the case of Duchamp’s urinal.

In causing such confusion, Duchamp ironically achieved his main purpose as people continue to ruminate the boundaries of what art is, even now, nearly one hundred years later.

Originally submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists anyone who pays the six-dollar fee is accepted to the exhibition. This was in hopes of displaying society’s openness towards to the new and most advanced art of the time. However upon the last minute entry by ‘R.Mutt’, Fountain was surprisingly rejected, breaking the singular rule the society had itself made. Does Duchamp’s rejected submission denounce that the urinal was not art, even though the ready-made had already existed at this time? What was it that made it so radical?

A month later Fountain appeared again in the magazine, The Blind Man – which Duchamp co-edited – where he defended and further explained his motivation behind the work, which lead to its rejection. He explained Fountain by the fact he chose the object himself, whether or not the object was made by his own hands or not was of no importance. He offered to make new thought for the object beyond its traditional functional use; thus by further attributing new thoughts to the objects, hence new value is attained.

Produced at a time of major change in the arts, when Cezanne had recently died and Cubism was in its early stages – not to mention the impact Duchamp had on Dadaism, as they quickly adopted the ready-made and fully explored the object as art. Furthermore, Dadaism progressed to explore the object in painting, as with Francis Picabia who incorporated the quotidian of a comb into his paintings.

What started as a prank from Duchamp, introduced a new perspective within the arts as no one could have anticipated. Regardless of his initial joke, it developed a new intellectual understanding towards the ready-made and contributed to the intellectual value of art itself. The successful practical joke, uprooted histories of traditional art as though it were a slap in the face. Where since centuries before works of art had been purely representational, therefore it is understandable that the public of the time would receive his work as being immoral and almost worthless. He alleviated the earnest attitude towards the arts with a practical joke, which ironically, is now regarded as a highly intellectual input to art history.

In making Fountain, Duchamp set to challenge the barriers of what we consider art to be. The nerve that Duchamp touched has continued to trigger responses from the public ever since. Most artists now work within a multidisciplinary field, forcing connections across mediums and concepts, demonstrating that there is never one singular way of expressing an idea. Within this freedom of creative expression is where the beauty of the arts lies. As can be seen with Damien Hirst’s 2007 piece, For the Love of God where a human skull was encrusted with nearly nine thousand diamonds. This work reassessed use of the object as art and therefore, continued to question our current values of art.

Understanding the influential impact of Duchamp on contemporary art has lead to a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of the varied possibilities of what art can be. It furthermore brings to question what future artists will create beyond the multitude of specialism that we already have. With a urinal being the most shocking work of art for the early twentieth century, we have since developed to various levels of nudity, sexual references and even putting the body through pain as seen in 2013 with Petr Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to Red Square outside the Kremlin, and all in the name of art. It seems we are always asking for more, but how much more will it take to shock us?


Written by Tara Parmar

Images via and

duchamp__fountain1352237367562The Handsome Pork-Butcher c.1924-6, c.1929-35 by Francis Picabia 1879-1953hirst-for-the-love-of-god