‘Fountain’ matters now more than ever

A hundred years ago, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the original punk artist, and also a Baroness, created a work of art that caused a sensation.

Her friend (put that in air quotes, please) Marcel Duchamp came to her rescue when the work was originally rejected by the art show she submitted it to. He got it photographed and the world of visual art changed forever.

Over the ensuing years, Duchamp took ever more credit for the piece. It’s generally considered one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century, but until recently, the Baroness has been uncredited.

When Fountain first caused a stir, it represented a shift in art, from handmade to machine-made, from pre-photography to post. In some ways, it was the end of fine art as a craft.

I’ve been talking about Fountain in speeches for years. The combination of commonplace with daring made it a perfect example of what it means to leap. The statement was clear: The first person to install a urinal in a museum was an artist. The second was a plumber.

Fountain represents something more than that now. It also speaks to us about access, about credit and about status.

Who’s entitled to create? When someone contributes, are we open to hearing from them?

And Duchamp? Wrestling with his long hiatus from art (he played chess for decades instead), we can imagine that he was struggling to claim something that mattered, but of course, he wasn’t simply claiming, he was taking. Stealing the magic from someone else.

He lost his nerve, not his talent. Expectations cut both ways.

[If you’re interested, here’s where the original urinal came from. And here’s a picture of Travis with it, taken in July, 2018].