Artist pranks the original prankster, and makes us reevaluate what art isn’t.
Art history tells us Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 was the greatest artistic achievement of the last century, creating the avant-garde and setting art on a bold new trajectory. The comically named “Fountain” was signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and submitted as a prank. The exhibit was open to all entries as long as the fee was paid, and Duchamp thought it would be riotous to force the committee to display a urinal beside other artists’ labors of love. The committee was appalled, and painter of gritty realism, George Bellows complained to the other board members, “You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvas that we would have to accept it!’ The answer was “yes”.
History has vindicated Duchamp, and largely forgotten Bellows. One critic dismissed Bellows as being, “as American as doughnuts, and about as interesting”. There was a shift away from the “retinal” art, which Duchamp despised, to avant-garde art that challenged people’s assumptions of what art was, and shocked, surprised, and puzzled them. If you didn’t have to ask if it was art, it wasn’t any good. This new direction left the likes of Bellows plodding his way down an art cul-de-sac. And yet, when one looks at the painting above, which is as true a reflection of the MMA fights of today as of the illegal and deadly underground matches Bellows painted, it’s not hard to see why he wouldn’t want a toilet juxtaposed as its implicit equal.
German artist, Eric Küns rejects this version of art history, and his installation “Urinal”, which showed in a pub restroom, is the incarnation and irrefutable evidence of his case. Küns believed in the importance of Duchamp for most of his adult life, but after leaving the art world and living in China for years, he returned to it with fresh eyes and saw “Fountain” as if for the first time. “I realized it was ridiculous, and that was the point,” said Küns “because to fault art for being visual was the same as to fault music for being aural or literature for being grammatical. Art is or was a visual language. The ‘Fountain’ was intended as a joke, and a bit of a cruel one, but it turned out to be one that the business side of art could capitalize on, and over time art audiences came to think getting jokes was the crux and pinnacle of understanding art. Add to that that artists began to think of art as making jokes. If art speaks with the visual language that was built up over centuries it is dismissed as lowbrow or kitsch, while at the same time copies of undeniable kitsch are elevated to high art.”
Küns has a valid point. Art had always been a visual language that centered around imagery: thought, in its visual form. Duchamp’s readymades deliberately and vehemently had nothing to do with that history or language – nothing to do with the image – were something outside of it altogether. Avant-garde art became about anything other than that language, and anyone who used it was considered hopelessly passé. Ordinary people did not initially value Duchamp’s urinal over the likes of Bellow’s boxers however: this shift required time and the ingenuity of the art market.
What Duchamp really achieved was not so much to free art from the boundaries of painting and sculpture, but to rob the artist of authenticity and give it to the gallery or museum. It is no longer the inherent quality of the art, which would be recognizable in the image and its felicity with visual language, that gives it its meaning and substance – it is its placement in the gallery space. The gallery is now an integral or even inseparable part of the art, and gallery owners have more power to decide what is put within the quotation marks of its walls than do artists. More importantly, if anything that is shown in the gallery is art, anything that is shown in the gallery can be sold. What better art to sell than the readymade, that required no investment in time or material. Further, that which is not shown in the context of the gallery is not art. Henceforward, all art which wishes to be taken seriously should be made of and for the gallery, and in so being, in cahoots with the quest for profit of the gallery owner.
That which is the most salable not surprisingly becomes the most important and sought after. Avant-garde art turned out to be much easier to produce, on a much larger (and therefore more expensive) scale than visual-language art. Commerce decided what was important art, and the populace fell prey to its marketing campaign. Worse still, so did artists. “We were all programmed to worship people like Warhol, who mass-produced cheap art that sold for precious sums,” says Küns, “and when we secretly were bored to tears by it, we blamed ourselves and assumed we weren’t able to fathom it. But in reality it’s junk, and he didn’t even paint it himself.”
Duchamp was no dummy to the connection between readymades and easy money. He signed copies of his “Fountain” which sold for astronomical prices, while also himself becoming a savvy art buyer and seller.
Küns took the “Fountain” out of the the museum and put it back in the restroom. There it was not recognized as “art” at all, but taken for granted as an inferior replacement urinal that had been graffitied on. Küns’ copy of the urinal was slightly altered so that it could be functional, but is otherwise identical to any of the over 600 copies modeled after the urinal in Stieglitz’ photo that sell for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. When taken out of the gallery, “Fountain” ceased to be art, and was literally pissed on. On the other hand, if you take a painting by Bellows out of the museum and put it in the pub restroom, it is still art.
The aim of Küns was to “rescue art from the gallery and allow artists to use visual language, and more specifically IMAGERY, again”. Asked if he thought his project of “taking the museum out of art” would garner him the kind of recognition Duchamp earned, he assured me it would not in the slightest. His work has no commercial viability, and thus the art market has no interest in promoting it. To the contrary, they have every interest in sidelining it, and keeping art where the most money can be made from it – in the galleries. Currently, the wealthiest collectors define what art matters, and they often choose vacuous status symbols like Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs. Eric Küns wants us to look at the art with our own eyes and not through the veneer of the art market, which is merely to believe in the value of something because others believe in it.
You will not find any mention of Küns’ installation in any of the major art outlets. It is to be quietly ignored.
After complaints from the pub customers, “Urinal” was removed and replaced with a more modern model, and the only record of it are postcards produced by the artist. If you wish to support the artist you can purchase postcards here.
~ Ivor Unsk