Friday, March 25, 2005

P.T. Barnum Slept Here

Those curious enough to venture off the sports and op-ed pages might recall that last December the piece "Fountain," pictured above, won the Turner prize for "most influential modern art work of all time". This should really come as no surprise. After all, putting a urinal on a pedestal in 1917 was pretty much an act of unparalleled chutzpah for it's day. The artist found the urinal in a plumbing shop, signed it "R. Mutt" and presented it at an exhibition in, of all places, New York. At first, the display was considered "vulgar" and "unoriginal" and the organizers of the exhibition voted to remove the display. But then it was discovered that the artist behind the piece was not the unknown "R. Mutt" but none other than the famous French master Marcel Duchamp. Suddenly, the art world was shocked by the piece's simplicity, brilliance, and force. It didn't politely knock at the door of one's sense of art, it kicked it down. It was the jagged edge that cut customary expectations to ribbons. It was ART writ large and such a harbinger of things to come that even today it remains the subject of heady discussion amongst artful academians.

Or it was a joke.

Yesterday's Wall Steet Journal carried a letter from one Alice Goldfarb Marquis of La Jolla, California. As the author of two biographies of the artist, Ms. Marquis claims that Mr. Duchamp "never intended "Fountain" to become a model for art of the future or to serve as the centerpiece for a history of art since 1900." She goes on to recount how another of Mr. Duchamp's masterpieces, "Nude Descending a Staircase," was nothing more than a joke that the artist played to annoy his siblings. Both are now enshrined as artworks for the ages.

I am reminded of the words of another breakthrough artist, Johhny Rotten of the Sex Pistols: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Yes, by golly, I have.