What Made Marcel Duchamp’s Famous Urinal Art–and an Inventive Prank

To our way of think­ing, the ques­tion is not whether Mar­cel Duchamp con­ceived of Foun­tain, history’s most famous uri­nal, as art or prank.

Nor is it the ongo­ing con­tro­ver­sy as to whether the piece should be attrib­uted to Duchamp or his friend, avant-garde poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven.

The ques­tion is why more civil­ians don’t head for the men’s room armed with black paint pens (or alter­na­tive­ly, die-cut stick­ers) to enhance every uri­nal they encounter with the sig­na­ture of the non-exis­tent “R. Mutt.”

The art world bias that was being test­ed in 1917, when the signed uri­nal was unsuc­cess­ful­ly sub­mit­ted to an unjuried exhi­bi­tion at the Soci­ety of Inde­pen­dent Artists, has not van­ished entire­ly, but as cura­tor Sarah Urist Green explains in the above episode of The Art Assign­ment, the past hun­dred years has wit­nessed a lot of con­cep­tu­al art afford­ed space in even the most staid insti­tu­tions.

Foun­tain was a pre­med­i­tat­ed piece, but some­times, these art­works, or pranks, if you pre­fer — Green favors let­ting each view­er reach their own con­clu­sions — are more spon­ta­neous in nature.

She ref­er­ences the case of two teenaged boys who, under­whelmed by a Mike Kel­ley stuffed ani­mal instal­la­tion at the San Fran­cis­co Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, posi­tioned a pair of eye­glass­es in such a way that oth­er vis­i­tors assumed they, too, were part of an exhib­it.

One of the boys told The New York Times that “when art is more abstract, it is more dif­fi­cult to inter­pret,” caus­ing him to lose inter­est.

“We had a good laugh about it,” the oth­er added.

And that, for us, gets to the heart of Foun­tain’s endur­ing pow­er.

Plen­ty of art world stunts, whether their inten­tion was to shock, cri­tique, or screw with the gate­keep­ers have been lost to the ages.

Foun­tain, at heart, is a par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable kind of fun­ny…

Fun­ny in the same way poet Rus­sell Edson’s “With Sin­cer­est Regrets” is fun­ny:


for Charles Sim­ic

Like a white snail the toi­let slides into the liv­ing room, demand­ing to be loved. It is impos­si­ble, and we ten­der our sin­cer­est regrets.In the book of the heart there is no men­tion made of plumb­ing.

And though we have spent our inti­ma­cy many times with you, you belong to a rather unfor­tu­nate ref­er­ence, which we would rather not embrace…

The toi­let slides out of the liv­ing room like a white snail, flush­ing with grief…

More recent art world con­tro­ver­sies — Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Vir­gin Mary” and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ — arose from the jux­ta­po­si­tion of seri­ous reli­gious sub­ject mat­ter with bod­i­ly flu­ids.

By con­trast, Foun­tain took the piss out of a sec­u­lar high church — the estab­lished art world.

And it did so with a fac­to­ry-fresh uri­nal, no more gross than a porce­lain din­ner plate.

No won­der peo­ple could­n’t stop talk­ing about it!

We still are.

Green recounts how per­for­mance artists Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi attempt­ed to “cel­e­brate the spir­it of mod­ern art” by uri­nat­ing on the Tate Modern’s Foun­tain repli­ca in 2000.

That per­for­mance, titled “Two artists piss on Ducham­p’s Uri­nal” was “intend­ed to make peo­ple re-eval­u­ate what con­sti­tut­ed art itself and how an act could be art.”

Their action might have made a more ele­gant — and fun­nier — state­ment had the Foun­tain repli­ca not been dis­played inside a vit­rine.

Still, draw­ing atten­tion to their inabil­i­ty to hit the tar­get might, as Green sug­gests, high­light how muse­um cul­ture “fetishizes and pro­tects the objects” it, or his­to­ry, deems wor­thy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Bri­an Eno & Oth­er Artists Peed in Mar­cel Duchamp’s Famous Uri­nal

The Icon­ic Uri­nal & Work of Art, “Foun­tain,” Wasn’t Cre­at­ed by Mar­cel Duchamp But by the Pio­neer­ing Dada Artist Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven

Watch Mar­cel Duchamp’s Hyp­not­ic Rotore­liefs: Spin­ning Discs Cre­at­ing Opti­cal Illu­sions on a Turntable (1935)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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