A Centennial Homage to Duchamps’s “Fountaine”

Urinal at Palmares Shopping Center, Mendoza, Argentina, 2017
Urinal at Palmares Shopping Center, Mendoza, Argentina, 2017


One hundred years ago, a urinal (and, later, a Stieglitz photograph of that same urinal) caused quite a…uh…well…”splash” on the New York art scene.

Here is a wiki commons image of that iconic piece of white porcelain signed, in jest, by one “R. Mutt”:

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountaine". Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountaine”. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917


Duchamp’s “Fountain” was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) for their 1917 open exhibition even though the artist had paid the required entry fee. Surprise, surprise, surprise!

What was Marcel Duchamp really up to with this stunt? Well, apparently, it was both a practical joke and a challenge to conventional notions about the nature of art. It certainly prompted a lot of discourse–and burst blood vessels–among the highfalutin museum and gallery elite of the time. (With noses in the air and eyes averted, the SIA board euphemistically referred to the porcelain piss pail as a “bathroom appliance” in order to keep the scandal to a minimum.)

For more background on this incident, see Martin Gayford’s 2008 article in The Telegraph, Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution.

These days, even if you made photographs of actual human turds floating about in toilets I doubt you would raise many eyebrows–at least in New York (in Iowa, maybe).

After all, it would be pretty hard to outdo Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano, no? (Dang, and that was 30 years ago now! Just looked it up.)

A good photograph?

Of Men and Women. Estes Park, Colorado, 2014
Of Men and Women. Estes Park, Colorado, 2014

The man…in front, macho, leading the way…Watch me pee, my genitals are here for everyone to see. See me!? Shoulders squared, chest bared, legs spread. I am proud of being male and macho…strong, dominating, proud and aggressive.

The women…behind, small, hidden, inhibited…she has to hide where she pees, where she shows her genitals…down a dark corridor into a hidden room…out of public view. Demure shoulders slightly shrugged and legs together like a virgin, all the better to hide and protect. Timid. Passive and out-of-sight.

The man and woman separated by a considerable distance, by walls, by dark angles. The man is the only figure upon which someone has tried to draw a human face. The woman has no face–just a blotch.

Did you see any of this message or symbolism in the photograph? Perhaps your personal life experiences and world view prevented you from seeing it this way. Maybe you saw something else in the image, then? What? Anything? Maybe simply a public restroom? (If the latter, you are probably a man!)

If I post the above image in Facebook, I will almost certainly get sort of a collective shrug and one or two “Likes”, or maybe even just the sound of crickets. If I post a beautiful sunrise from the top of a 14er, I’ll likely get a huge, loud pile-on of “Likes”. What’s with that? Don’t people understand the importance of layers of meaning in an image?

A sunrise or sunset is beautiful and can be enjoyed for that beauty, but are there other layers to such a picture? Or is it flat and one dimensional in terms of meaning? Is simple beauty enough? It must be for many. At least among the Facebook crowd and the masses in general.

On the other hand, what of a photograph that can be read, interpreted in different ways? Do people not have the energy or insight to think through these layers of meaning? It isn’t obviously “beautiful”, so they shrug and move on. It isn’t an “easy” photograph.

What IS a good photograph, anyway?

Superficiality is all the rage these days. (Or am I being too harsh?)