Duchamp's "Fountain"

Marcel Duchamp's 20th century Readymades upended art history with the same mental earthquake with which Charles Darwin illuminated biological history. Duchamp's objects moved slowly into the mainstream as they appeared to be some sort of institutional blunder, why was a urinal slotted into the history of art instead of the history of plumbing? Why was the snow shovel inside the museum instead of outside tidying the driveway? Therein lies the essence of his Readymade: an object in the wrong place that questions the aura of objects in the right place. Had the urinal been hung fifty feet away in the restroom we would never have heard of it, but misplaced it was juried, crated, photographed, cataloged, critiqued, insured, donated, dissertated, collected, positioned, lighted, cleaned, and paid for. Had his bottle rack, chocolate grinder, pharmacy bottles or other common objects been stashed away in their proper space they would have passed no mention. But by "creating" an artwork from something made for another purpose he exposed the valuation system that produced an appearance of transcendentalism. In one end went butcher scraps and out came fine sausage. 

Duchamp was from a family of artists and mastered painterly cubism prior to breaking with art tradition by designating common objects as art objects. In doing so he exchanged visual space for mental space, a swap of form and color for context and stratified meaning, making him the father of both Pop Art and Conceptual Art, the dominant forms of art today. His Readymades are technically a nominalism, a stock prop of skepticism imported or deported from letters back and forth since the 11th century. Nominalists believe in no eternal verities or universals, just names that imagine there are and no special objects, just ones gathered by words and privileged according to the metaphysics of the time. Hence the demystifying brilliance of the Readymades.

Duchamp pushed the envelope as far as possible with the urinal prank, also known as "Fountain"—what possibly would be less likely to be regarded as art than a piss receptacle? He signed the urinal "R. Mutt," a pun on "I'm a dog," and submitted it anonymously to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists, a New York show that employed Duchamp as a juror. The bylaws required inclusion of anyone who could pony up the six buck admission, however the jury pronounced "R. Mutt's" urinal not-art, declined to include it in the catalog and hid it behind a partition. Over the next nine decades this piss-pot was the most debated event in art theory: an artist-juror rejects the fake art of his nom de plume. In a 2004 survey art professionals voted the urinal-Fountain the world's most influential piece of modern art, ahead of works by Picasso or Matisse. Copies of the urinal-Fountain are now in eleven major collections including the Centre Pompidou and the Tate Modern. 

Duchamp did not leave behind many writings instead communicating his thought through visual mischief. When he did write it was usually another spoof such as his essay "Texticles" or his bulletin "Rongwrong" that predicted the high-minded goofiness known as deconstruction decades later. His thought became popularized as "everything is art," somewhat of a misnomer as he never spoke those exact words, documents indicate it would be more accurately "everything can be regarded as art." Duchamp fell in and out of favor over his eighty-one years, but he continued the ruse ever announcing more and more preposterous things as art: "Every breath is an artwork" he explained to an interviewer a year before he passed, "I am a breather, I enjoy it tremendously."