Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ Was Subversive—but Subverting What?

Duchamp’s intention with his ‘urinal as art’ gets a new interpretation, writes Blake Gopnik.

Around holiday time, you’ve got to envy the Norwegians. They’ve got real candles on the tree, gobbets of pork fat for Christmas dinner (these are euphemistically known as “ribs”) and aquavit to feed the glow. This year, as an extra Yuletide treat just for them, they’re also getting fresh insights into the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

That’s how Marcel Duchamp’s urinal “Fountain” once polled among experts, and we’re all supposed to know why: In 1917, when Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal to a New York exhibition, he took a low-end piece of mechanical mass production and, by fiat, elevated it to the status of fine art. All the genre-bending, class-stretching, anti-craft freedoms of contemporary art follow from that moment.

Except that, as any reader of the hot new issue of the Norwegian journal Kunst og Kultur (“Art and Culture”) will tell you, that standard view gets many things wrong. According to an article by a young scholar named Ezra Shales, at the moment when Duchamp artified his urinal, that kind of bathroom fixture wasn’t low-end, and it wasn’t mechanically or mass produced. “The toilets we now see as banal were tinged with allure …. a porcelain toilet was a step upwards in social status,” writes Shales. His article lays out how pure white bathroom fixtures were advertised as a hand-crafted elite product, more expensive than mass-produced enameled metal but worth every penny. “‘Porcelain’ was emblematic of refinement, both material and social,” according to Shales. So Duchamp wasn’t mashing up the industrial and the artistic, the crude and the noble, as the cliche would have it. He was doing something more complicated (as he usually was): He was playing games with all the different registers a man-made object can live in. In one of the first discussions of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” published just after he submitted the work, it was described as “decadent plumbers’ porcelain”–a statement that made no sense until Shales unpacked it.

“I came to realize how much this blew people’s minds about Duchamp,” said Shales, when I met up with him in a Hell’s Kitchen cafe in Manhattan–he’d come in not from Norway but from Alfred University, far upstate in New York, where he’s a recently tenured professor. (His connection to Norway comes from having taught the occasional course there, which bred contacts with the journal.) Shales is 42, slim and intense, dressed in a striped blue shirt and casual gray pants that look like standard young-professor garb. He dates his new take on “Fountain” to the moment when he discovered that, two full years before Duchamp’s gesture, three porcelain toilets had been included in an exhibition at the Newark Museum, not far from New York. “I remember it was too easy: ‘This is just like Duchamp.’ And then I realized, ‘No, this is nothing like Duchamp,’” says Shales. 

John Cotton Dana, the museum’s director, had exhibited the toilets in a genuine effort to elevate them, without any hint of Duchampian irony. “The genius and skill which have gone into the adornment and perfecting of familiar household objects,” wrote Dana in 1915, “should receive the same recognition as do now the genius and skill of painting in oils.” It’s not clear that Duchamp knew of the show, since he arrived in the U.S. a bit after it closed. (Though his colleague Alfred Stieglitz, who made the only photo of Duchamp’s urinal, had paid visits to the Newark Museum.) But Shales realized that Dana’s comments raised all-new issues about what bathroom fixtures meant at the moment that Duchamp appropriated his. “Fountain” wasn’t about charging up an aesthetically neutral object; the object Duchamp chose came buzzing with aesthetics already. 

Shales went digging for more facts, and came up with a pile of fascinating ones: that porcelain fixtures (they weren’t actually porcelain but were called that for prestige) were challenging to make at the time; that a giant bathtub that famously overcame those challenges, made for President Taft’s White House, was provided by the supplier J.L. Mott–a likely source for the “R. Mutt” signature that Duchamp scrawled on his “Fountain;” that porcelain fixtures were displayed for sale among Persian carpets and posh potted plants; that people would gather to gape at them in plumbers’ store windows; that the very first American-made, “all-porcelainous” bathroom had only been achieved in 1904, when it won a gold medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair; that, in 1914, the Trenton Potteries Company had branded a new line of urinals “Craftsman,” to emphasize their arts-and-crafts essence. “‘Made by hand’ was not a hollow or a minor boast,” writes Shales, “it was essential to the identity of producers of sanitary ware.”

Shales, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, credits his committed fact-finding to “my Jewish devotion to history.” But he also knows that his facts could cause trouble. Shales says that opinion on Duchamp is still split between an avant-garde that treats him with “a religious devotion” and a rear guard that continues to see him as “Al Capone, killing creativity and authenticity”–and Shales doesn’t want to be in either camp. He began his career as a conceptual artist (he once showed a glass of water as art) but now, as a ceramics historian, he says he’s more interested in how the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen came late to their plumbing than in “the transcendent genius of Duchamp.” 

Of course, that may be why Shales’s article is appearing in Norwegian, not quite the art world’s lingua franca. (I’ve been quoting from the English manuscript that Shales gave me.) He says he made a stab at getting it published in English but nothing came of it, so was content to have it appear in Kunst og Kultur. That means the insights it yields may not spread as widely as they could, but it could also give him some cover. ”I don’t want to turn into some Don Quixote, tilting my lance at the windmill of Duchamp. You’re not going to win doing that.