In 1917, the Society of Independent Artists in New York was organising an exhibition at the Grand Central Palace.
For this, they were looking for compositions. They promised to accept any type of work, as long as the applicant paid the entrance fee.
That’s when they received an upside down porcelain urinal. The artist’s signature, R Mutt, was on it along with the year, 1917, and the title: Fountain.
It was Marcel Duchamp, a painter and sculptor and a member of the Society, who sent it under a pseudonym.
He had already been producing ‘readymades’. That is, he would use normal objects to make art by exhibiting them as is or slightly modifying them.
The Society though, rejected the Fountain. They said it wasn’t art.
Duchamp argued that art wasn’t about the object, but about the idea. As a protest he resigned from the Society.
The whole thing brought in quite the controversy in the art world. People started questioning what was art, and who decided on it.
To add fuel to the fire an anonymous editorial appeared in The Blind Man, an art journal. Titled ‘The Richard Mutt Case’, they defended the Fountain. It read:
‘Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.’
A symbol of rebellion…
In the end, the Society never included the piece in the exhibition.
But Fountain went on to become one of the most polarising pieces in art, and also one of Duchamp’s most famous works.
It became a symbol of rebellion. It challenged our society’s notion of art.
Duchamp wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last artist to challenge the status quo.
In 1964, author Jean-Paul Sartre sent ripples through society when he rejected the Nobel Prize in Literature…and the substantial prize money.
In an article he published in NY Books, he explained the reasons for his decision. As he wrote:
‘A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.
‘The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. […]
‘The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.’
Artists have traditionally been the ones to defy the status quo. They have taken on the task to challenge traditional views and push society to consider new ideas. And they do this through art. Art is a way to express yourself, a conduit for ideas.
On this I listened to a great chat from Colombian author Carlos Granes this week. The talk was pre-pandemic, recorded almost a year ago, but still relevant.
What he said was that our society is changing. For one, transgression is harder to achieve, with more challengers.
For another we were used to seeing artists being the ones who scandalised, who pushed society’s limits. But now artists are becoming less rebellious.
Instead, it’s the politicians who are using transgression to become popular in a short time. They are the ones using the same disruptive strategies that artists used in the 1920s to get attention and capture headlines.
It’s an interesting idea.
I mean; we’ve seen ‘memetic warfare’ already. That is, using memes through social media to influence someone’s opinion.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And in our technology-based world, memes are a way to express personal feelings and to challenge.
It may explain in part why people are becoming increasingly more polarised on political issues and it’s harder to find common dialogue. Why some of the ideas that were considered fringe before are becoming more mainstream during the pandemic.
With the US election coming up, it will be interesting to see what happens, and how all this then affects not only our culture or politics, but also our economies.
For The Rum Rebellion