As featured in @themodernist magazine issue #40 KUDOS
In 1915 Marcel Duchamp fled to New York as artist émigré. He took with him an anti-art movement called Dada.
Dada was a response to the carnage of the First World War, rejecting Old Europe’s ‘civilised’ values and traditions; its authority, violence, nationalism and capitalist society in favour of left-wing politics, nonsense, satire, gobbledegook-poetry words, collage, funny outfits and rollocking good times at Dada performances and happenings around the world.
Whilst in New York, heading up its New York chapter, Duchamp became a board member of the Society of Independent Artists and in 1917 submitted a humble piece of porcelain sanitary ware for their exhibition. The board wasn’t that convinced by his ‘sculpture’ but was obliged to exhibit it anyway, albeit hidden from public view.
Duchamp called his Dada piece ‘Fountain’ and signed it R. Mutt 1917.
Most importantly, it was one of his readymades.
His central readymade idea was that art could primarily be about concept expressed through a democratised aesthetic in which everything could be art and everyone an artist.
His urinal readymade shrugged in the face of traditional art saying “pfft, so what” to art history and probably, “that’s something you piss on.”
As such, Fountain became the fountainhead for a new pop attitude and an important hinge in history: it was the beginning of a modernist philosophy and aesthetic; the avant-garde, the underground, the artist as theorist, DIY-culture, anarchy in art and art in anarchy.
Dada’s anti-art concept found another home in the 1940s with the avant-garde movement: Letterist International. Like the Dadaists before them they had a thing for visual and spoken words.
The Letterist International joined forces with the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and the London Psychogeographical Association, and (thank god) opted for the snappier appellation: the Situationists International for their anti-art supergroup, active 1957-72.
The Situationists were a kind of social manifesto based on political and social theories – as explained by Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle (1967) and expressed visually via Dada’s anti-art concept. The Situationists however, pushed Dada’s concepts to the extreme, rejecting art entirely.
Duchamp presenting a urinal as art mocked the bourgeoisie and their obsession with objects within the context of capitalism. Duchamp may have mocked consumer capitalism, but the Situationists were furious with it.
Furious in the sort of way that only those closely associated with revolutionary Marxist ideology could be – the Situationists believed that to express oneself through commodities was done at the expense of authentically lived ‘situations’ and experiences.
The Situationists took their grumbles, shoved them firmly into a Molotov cocktail, lit the fuse and hurled it, full throttle, alongside the civil unrest and global uprisings of 1968. Many of the Situationists slogans, motifs and quotes were adopted as the visuals for protest banners, posters and graffiti (still are.)
By the 1970s the Situationists and the concept of the readymade were still relatively obscure, held dear by small, active groups. One such group was Jamie Reid and his family of ‘die-hard socialists.’ As such, Jamie Reid tasked himself with the creative implementation of the Situationist thinking within his work at Croydon College of Art.
Social agitation and the aesthetics of anarchy played a key role. He used collage and cut-ups over ‘found’ imagery, combining The Letterist International with the concept of the readymade and the philosophy of the Situationists he was so deeply committed to.
But it was Malcolm McLaren who later popularised the style – he and Jamie had met at Croydon College in 1968 and together they’d held sympathy sit-ins with the uprisings. McLaren made Jamie Reid his provocateur-in-chief and his work the signature graphic look used to promote the Sex Pistols.
5-years on and Duchamp’s legacy is still going strong. In 1982 Factory Records commissioned Ben Kelly to design The Haçienda nightclub. It was Tony Wilson that named the club, lifting it from Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formularly for a New Urbanism which was inspired by, sympathetic to, and adopted by the Letterist International in 1953.
Ben Kelly – a Duchamp devotee – added Sandra Douglas to the project and together they designed much of the club with the readymade in mind.
They left building materials in their original ‘found’ state, steel uprights, wood panels and raw concrete. They also took artefacts from their intended context, diverting them for their own purpose: a ‘motorway aesthetic’, expressed via readymades such as cat’s eyes and bollards to guide people around the huge, complicated space.
Adding to the intrigue and mythology that is the cult of The Haçienda, a urinal readymade may have influenced Ben Kelly during The Haçienda’s conception but also played a role during its demise. On the night of the club’s permanent closure, devoted Haçienda fans ripped out anything they could physically remove from the interior, including the toilet plumbing.
Someone was seen running out the door with a urinal tucked up their jumper.
A surreal and symbolic spectacle that’s as Dada as Dada could ever hope to be.
Marcel Duchamp would have been thrilled and, no doubt, laughing his socks off.
In the eyes of graffiti and street artists (disclaimer: not a fan) and indeed skateboarders, the whole city and all its architecture is one huge, up-for-grabs-readymade onto which skills can be performed and territory and associated achievements claimed – much in the same way as Duchamp did when he ‘tagged’ his urinal piece with his own pseudonym R. Mutt.
Like a graffiti artist, a signature anonymously authored onto a found object but collectively understood by those ‘in the know’ – it’s this status that links most of the anti-art participants whilst they were active within their associated movements.
If you knew, you knew.
But these days, over 100 years on, Duchamp and his disciples are now validated rebels; the readymade concept legitimate and commonplace as is his legacy: ‘What is art?’
Who gets to decide, can art be the idea alone, can it be expressed via anything at all and does it have to be visually ‘pleasing’ and made only by a skilled creator?
As conclusion to this piece, there is currently a low level rumble of doubt that Fountain can authentically be attributed to Duchamp at all. That it is actually the work of Bauhaus baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who gifted it to him, complete with the R. Mutt 1917 signature.
Does possibly appropriating the item for his own purpose undermine Duchamp’s credibility?
Of course not. After-all, Fountain was a self-confessed readymade and no doubt Duchamp’s schoolboy mischief would have very much enjoyed the fact that Fountain was possibly even more of a readymade than he let on…