What Does a Toilet Really Mean?
Fountain (left), a urinal that Marcel Duchamp presented as art in 1917, as seen in a 2008 exhibition at Tate Modern in London. To its right is period publicity of the same era that presented ceramic toilets as an elite product of fine craft.
We all know about Duchamp's Fountain, don't we? In 1917, he took a store-bought urinal, crude and mass-produced, and declared it to be a work of elevated fine art. A scholar named Ezra Shales, publishing in an obscure Norwegian journal, says that what we all know is wrong. A trove of period documents reveal that, in the early 20th century, ceramic bathroom fixtures were high-end, hand-crafted objects, pitched as such to a rising middle class. Duchamp's "readymade" wasn't about elevating something humble and banal. It was about taking a novel, handcrafted object with elite connotations and changing the register it worked in. Read more about Shales and his research in my article in TheDailyBeast.com, and click through this slide show to see the vintage imagery that supports it.