Listening to Art, by William Denton.
Volume twelve, number twelve: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp.
Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.
We finish volume twelve with a third work by Marcel Duchamp, the greatest artist of the twentieth century. This is Fountain, which we heard in volume six number one (the recording we will hear again now) and volume six number two. Fountain was selected in 2004 in a poll of 500 British art experts as the greatest art work of the twentieth century. That is in spite of the fact that it was never exhibited and the original was lost.
Fountain is one of Duchamp’s “readymades,” which surrealist André Breton defined as “manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of art through the choice of the artist.” Duchamp once described a readymade (I quote from the relevant entry in The Duchamp Dictionary, by Thomas Girst) as “a work of art without an artist to make it.”
In 1917 Duchamp was living in New York and was head of the hanging committee for the first exhibition of the newly formed Society of Independent Artists. The rule was that any member of the Society could exhibit two works. About a week before the show, Duchamp bought what he would call Fountain in the J.L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue. He submitted it pseudonymously under the name R. Mutt, along with the required membership and entry fees. It was rejected. There was an enormous controversy. Duchamp, without then admitting he was behind it, resigned his position. Alfred Stieglitz photographed Fountain, and that is the only record we have of it, because it was soon lost.
Soon after, Duchamp and his friends Henri-Pierre Roché (a writer) and Beatrice Wood (an artist) published two issues of a magazine named The Blind Man. Here is a quote from Wood’s autobiography I Shock Myself, taken from an extract in the 2013 collection 3 New York Dadas and The Blind Man. I quote from page 165:
The first issue of The Blind Man was something of a disappointment, but the second issue was another story. The rejection of R. Mutt’s Fountain had caused a small hurricane of controversy in art circles and thus unfurled the banner of freedom in art. This gave Marcel an inspiration. We went to see the noted photographer Alfred Stieglitz. At Marcel’s request, he agreed to photograph the Fountain for the frontispiece of the magazine. He was greatly amused, but also felt it was important to fight bigotry in America.
On page 5 of that May 1917 issue there is an unsigned editorial titled “The Richard Mutt Case.” It is reproduced in the same book on p. 135.
THE RICHARD MUTT CASE
They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.
Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited.
What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:—
- Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.
- Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.
Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows.
Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.
As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
In her autobiography Beatrice Wood (who, incidentally, lived to be 105) says she wrote this, though Calvin Tomkins, in Duchamp: A Biography, says (pp. 181–182):
Duchamp attributed it at one time to Louise Norton, who wrote, in the same issue, an essay … called ‘Buddha of the Bathroom,’ but in an earlier statement he said it had been done jointly by ‘the editors’ of The Blind Man—that is, Roché, Wood, and himself. The ideas expressed in the editorial are clearly Duchamp’s, however, and so is the succinct and not quite American-sounding syntax.
This is a sculpture, white earthenware with ceramic glaze and oil paint, fitting in a volume roughly 48 cm wide, 38 cm high and 63.5 cm deep.
Now let’s listen to Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, recorded at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, in Paris, on 15 July 2019.
That was Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.
For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.
Listening to Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All web sites accessed as of date of publication.
Denton, William. “Marcel Duchamp, Fountain.” Listening to Art 06, no. 01 (13 November 2019). https://listeningtoart.org/06.01/.
⸻. “Marcel Duchamp, Fountain.” Listening to Art 06, no. 02 (01 December 2019). https://listeningtoart.org/06.02/.
Duchamp, Marcel, Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood. 3 New York Dadas and The Blind Man. London: Atlas Press, 2013.
Girst, Thomas. The Duchamp Dictionary. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.
Jury, Louise. “‘Fountain’ Most Influential Piece of Modern Art.” The Independent, 02 December 2004. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/fountain-most-influential-piece-of-modern-art-673625.html.
Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Beatrice Wood,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Wood.
⸻, s.v. “Fountain (Duchamp),” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp).
⸻, s.v. “Henri-Pierre Roché,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri-Pierre_Roché.
⸻, s.v. “Marcel Duchamp,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Duchamp.