How to enter a bazaar
and leave made an artist
In 1917 the Society of Independent Artists of New York organized an exhibition in which anyone who paid the $6 admission fee could exhibit their work. No exceptions. No exceptions… a priori.
One Richard Mutt sent a urinal made of industrially produced porcelain with a black painted inscription bearing a signature and date. The “sculpture,” entitled Fountain, was to be placed on its flat side, 90 degrees from its original position.
The exhibition arrived, and the Fountain was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t even in the catalogue. However, in the Independents no work could be rejected. It was obvious that the organizers had no intention of making any urinal appear in their exhibition as if it were a real work of art. It was vulgar, it was not aesthetic, it had not even been made by the artist and, of course, it was not art.
Marcel Duchamp, a jury and founding member of the Independents, was in no way satisfied with this decision. He was not consulted about it and his disagreement reached such a point that he left his position in the Society of Independent Artists. I want to believe that it was a reaction that Duchamp would have had by any other artist in a similar case; but the truth is that Richard Mutt and Marcel Duchamp had a very peculiar relationship: they were the same person.
R. Mutt is nothing more than a pseudonym that the then renowned French artist used to exhibit in the Independents without being associated with a work that he only hoped would form a scandal.
But what exactly happened to that piece? Why didn’t it appear in an exhibition where you couldn’t refuse works. Marcel Duchamp himself explained it this way:
“The Fountain was simply placed behind a partition and, throughout the exhibition, I did not know where it was. I couldn’t even say it was me who had sent that object, but I think the organizers knew that from the gossip that had circulated. No one dared to talk about it. I got angry with them because I retired from the organization. After the exhibition, we found the Fountain behind the partition and I got it back.”Cabanne, Pierre. Conversaciones con Marcel Duchamp: Barcelona, Anagrama, 1984, p. 83.
In any case, the Source served exactly what Duchamp wanted it to serve. I only hope that at least the organization would return his six dollars.
By the end of the 19th century modern art had reached unimaginable heights in terms of originality. With the birth of the 20th century, doing something new and groundbreaking was really difficult. Dadaism and Surrealism championed this struggle, stretching the limits of art with a point of provocation. “Let’s see how far it goes”, it seemed that their most representative artists were thinking.
A ready-made, also known throughout the history of art as a found object (objet trouvé), is a way of creating an artistic piece based on the choice of an already manufactured object and the decontextualization of the same, with null or slight modifications. The Fountain is a perfect example: The same urinal that is vulgar and devoid of any artistic value bolted to public services can become a collector’s item after two simple but significant actions: a ninety-degree turn, chosen by an artist. It is based on the maxim that “art” is everything that an artist decides is art, and that creation is an intellectual exercise and not necessarily an artisan. This is absolutely accepted in 21st century art, in which great artists rarely stain their hands, leaving the task of “construction” to a team of technicians and craftsmen; or in other fields, such as architecture, in which no one denies the authorship of a building to its architect on the grounds that he has not laid a single brick.
What does it matter, once this has been assumed, that the artist in question has not ordered the urinal to be made, but has settled for one that has already been made? Does that minimize the intellectual and creative value of the final piece?
The home of the brave
It is evident that some ready-made have been better treated than others by art criticism and history. When Jasper Jons painted the United States flag on a canvas in 1955, probably no one considered that what the artist was doing was a ready-made. However, if we think about this work with a certain distance, we can argue that Jons takes an element that already exists – in this case a symbol (and what a symbol!) – and takes it out of context. It deprives it of its official, representative and even political charge. It elevates it to the category of art through the authority given to it by its status as an artist. It dislocates it from places such as town halls or government buildings. And he hangs it on the wall of a museum or an exhibition hall. And it is all these steps, and not the fact of painting the canvas, that turn the flag work into a work of art. It may be a more or less controversial work, but nobody denies Jons’ authorship of that piece.
And if we continue searching in the world of art, we can find many other occasions in which there are hidden in some way some ready-made that we had never seen as such. But there they are: They were not created in the first years of the 20th century, nor are they framed within surrealism, or Dadaism. For example, the visual poetry of contemporary photographer Chema Madoz is often based on a reinterpretation of found objects, slightly modified, to offer a different reading from the initial one. A purely intellectual and creative work. What has become a ready-made, again.
For a handful of dollars
What is certain is that we find that a ready-made is not an element framed in a particular period and style within the history of art, but is one more resource when it comes to telling a story. It is another dialect within the language of art. Another form of expression.
And that can only expand the lexicon.
Enrich the vocabulary of art.
Give more freedom to creators.
And, above all, knowing that when you hang a CD on a tree to scare birds, or rewind a cassette with a bic pen (if you lived in the nineties, of course), the only thing that keeps you from being a brand-new contemporary artist are six dirty dollars.