Fountain is certainly an iconic and scandalous piece of 20th century art. It is attributed to French artist Marcel Duchamp who submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Indeed, it is simply a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt 1917″ and rotated 90 degrees and placed on a pedestal. For this exhibit, the rules stated that all works of art would be accepted as long as the artist paid the entrance fee. In submitting this urinal, Duchamp was testing the liberal “anything goes” ideal. Duchamp was actually a member of the board of the Society of Independent Artists and when they rejected the piece, not knowing it was Duchamp who had submitted it, he protested by resigning from the board. Instead of being in the exhibit, Fountain was displayed and photographed in Alfred Stieglitz’s studio. The photograph was published in The Blind Man, a art and Dada journal published in New York City by Dada artists in 1917.
Fountain forces viewers to think about it in terms of art. Duchamp transformed a bathroom fixture into high art. The irony in this piece is that Duchamp turned something useful, a urinal, into art, thereby making it no longer useful. Fountain is meant to appeal to the mind. It is a conceptual puzzle to play with the audience. Duchamp was involved with Dada, an avant-garde European art movement, also referred to as an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement. Fountain is certainly a result of Duchamp’s involvement with Dada.
Art historian Juan Antonio Ramirez offers a unique perspective as to why Fountain was so controversial by offering a highly sexual interpretation of the piece. A urinal is a male object with curves with a vaginal hole at the bottom. This role reversal of genders makes Fountain bisexual. This interpretation, if it was the intention of the artist, also makes Fountain a playful object and offers a perspective that art is a game played between the artist and the viewer.
Unfortunately, the original sculpture, as it is called, has been lost. Only Stieglitz’s photo of Duchamp’s entry to the exhibit remains, although many museums across the country display a replica of Fountain.