The birth of Conceptual Art or taking the piss?


We are about to hit the centenary of ‘Fountain’. One hundred years on, does Duchamp’s seminal work mark the advent of Conceptualism or was the artist just having a laugh? Certainly Duchamp spawned a few monsters in Hirst, Emin et al and in the Conceptual Art of the YBAs once labelled ‘Brit Art’ and soon after dubbed ‘Shit Art’ by critic Brian Sewell, but does the work have more behind the obvious, or is it merely toilet humour or typical Dadaist schoolboy graffiti?

The urinal was signed by the artist “R. Mutt”, which relates to the name of the manufacturer from whom Duchamp acquired it, J.L Mott, and is a pseudonym the artist Marcel Duchamp adopted. “Armut” in German means poverty, and “Urmutter” means “earth mother” which critics have linked to the womb-like shape of the whole, and the parallels with Henry Moore’s primitive sculptures of maternity. The white of purity has obvious connotations also. Armut also means ‘pear’ in Turkish. With the original urinal reoriented to 90 degrees from its normal position, the shape resembles a pear; also the pear shape of a mother with childbearing hips (link = Urmutter, Germ.). If we separate the capital and lowercase letters we get the initials “R.M” and the word “utt”. “R.M” could stand for “Readymade” which is the fountain itself (tout fait, objet trouvé etc.) and “utt” when read aloud sounds like “eut été” meaning ‘had been’ in French (Duchamp’s native tongue). R Mutt is also a pun on the word “Mutt” by the French yet then U.S resident artist, because if you think it is art, then you “are” a “mutt”. The name R. Mutt is possibly a play on its commercial origins and also on the famous comedic strip of the time, ‘Mutt and Jeff’ – perhaps rendering the urinal the first work of art based on a comic, and thus pre-empting Pop Art. Duchamp said the ‘R’ stood for Richard (as per the exhibition label of 1917) which is French slang for ‘moneybags’ and thus when juxtaposed with armut (poverty) is a topical financial paradox. From something ultimately worthless, Duchamp made a great deal of money, thus ‘Fountain’ has been hailed as a scatological Golden Calf. It also gave rise to the artistic phenomenon ‘Arte Povera’ which made an art out of worthless objects. Piss poor if you ask me.

What do you think? Email your thoughts / reactions to: nick@arcadia.edcation