Is the infamous urinal signed “R. Mutt” (featured as the centerpiece on the cover of Who Says That’s Art?) really the brainchild of Marcel Duchamp, as the artworld has long claimed?
Or was it instead merely a copy by him of a piece originally created by a relatively obscure figure of the early twentieth-century avant-garde—a minor baroness named Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven?
And if the urinal is really traceable to the baroness, what are the implications for a contemporary art establishment that regards the piece as the “readymade” that instituted “conceptual art”—the innovation said by the Dictionary of Art to have “decisively altered our understanding of what constitutes an object of art”?
Those are the key questions raised by Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson in a recent series of articles, and soon to be posed more publicly by them in an exhibition entitled A Lady’s Not a Gent’s, mounted as part of the 2015 Edinburgh Festival.
Thompson is an art historian who has been exploring this matter for some time, posting his views on it in several papers on academia.edu. Spalding—formerly director of Art Galleries and Museums in Glasgow, Scotland—writes widely on art, often as an artworld gadfly (see “Artworld Maverick,” by Aristos co-editor Louis Torres). Together they’ve laid out the known facts of the case in exhaustive and frequently convoluted detail, documenting the many points at which the artworld’s generally accepted account of the piece’s origin is belied by the evidence. They summarize their case for the Edinburgh exhibition as follows:
The Urinal is the first great feminist work of art, created by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1917 as a protest against America’s declaration of war on Germany. Long after she died, Duchamp appropriated it and robbed it of its meaning. This fact, known since 1982 but ignored by the art world, changes the history of conceptual art.
Chief among the supporting evidence for that position is a letter written by Duchamp to his sister in Paris, just two days after the Society of Independent Artists had rejected the piece’s application for inclusion in their presumably unjuried 1917 exhibition. In his letter, Duchamp stated:
One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. . . . The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing. I have handed in my resignation and it will be a bit of gossip of some value in New York.
Yet Duchamp’s account of the incident decades later claimed that he had bought the urinal in question at the J. L. Mott Iron Works Company, signed it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to the exhibition. Further, he expounded on that name as follows:
Mutt comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer. But Mott was too close so I altered it to Mutt, after the daily cartoon strip “Mutt and Jeff” which appeared at the time, and with which everyone was familiar. Thus, from the start, there was an interplay of Mutt: a fat little funny man, and Jeff: a tall thin man . . . I wanted any old name. And I added Richard [French slang for money-bags].
Surviving records from the J. L. Mott Company fail to show the model used in the piece, however—another key fact cited to question Duchamp’s authorship.
Based on such information and on linguistic interpretation published by the baroness’s biographer (literary historian Irene Gammel), Spalding and Thompson have concluded that the baroness was the actual creator of the piece. Consequently, in a protracted correspondence published in the July-August issue of the British magazine The Jackdaw, they have insisted that Britain’s Tate Museum (which paid $500,000 for one of the piece’s numerous copies attributing the original to Duchamp) should revise its attribution and thereby acknowledge that the postmodernist artworld’s founding myth is an outright lie, perpetrated by Duchamp at the baroness’s expense.
So far, so good. No one could be happier than I to see Duchamp publicly exposed as the charlatan I always thought he was.
But in the process Spalding and Thompson make several astonishing claims that to my mind profoundly undermine the value of their project. “[S]ince Duchamp was not the author [of the original piece],” they maintain, “any replica of it . . . must seek its aesthetic legitimacy elsewhere.” To which I am moved to respond (inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s response to his friend George’s claim to “artistic integrity”) that the piece “is not aesthetic,” and “it has no legitimacy”—as art, that is.
Remarkably, however, Spalding and Thompson state that while Duchamp’s readymades “were not art, . . . Elsa’s urinal was”! In that connection, they note without objection that the piece was submitted “as a sculpture,” and they proceed to refer to it as such.
I protest that no matter who submitted the urinal, or why, it did not thereby become either a “sculpture” or a work of “conceptual art.” It remained an ordinary urinal, plain and simple—albeit one employed as a “statement” of some sort (whether political or art-related) or merely as a prank.
Significantly, Duchamp’s biographers Calvin Tomkins and Alice Goldfarb Marquis, both of whom accept Duchamp’s latter-day account, nonetheless regard the incident as a mere prank. As I note in Who Says That’s Art?, the irony is that the artworld elevated what was no more than a practical joke in Duchamp’s account to a momentous event altering the course of art history.
A still more fundamental point is at issue here, however—one evidently ignored by Spalding and Thompson. They argue that the matter of the urinal’s attribution “has immense implications for the whole history of conceptual art.” Yet they never question the very notion of “conceptual art.”
Even if Duchamp had submitted the urinal, in deadly earnest, as a work of art, it remained (as I’ve indicated above) a urinal. The mere fact of submitting it to an art exhibition did not alter the essential nature of art, much less create a new category. Moreover, as I’ve argued in Who Says That’s Art?, “conceptual art” is an absurdity. Variously defined as “Art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting or sculpture” or as “forms of art in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any,” it is, as I point out, the antithesis of art.
Would anyone say of Michelangelo’s Pietà, for example, that the idea is more important than the finished product? Of course not, because what matters in art is the unique way in which an idea is embodied. Even without proof of duplicity on Duchamp’s part, the “whole history of conceptual art” should be questioned. Sadly, that overarching truth is entirely missed by Spalding and Thompson.
In sum, whoever submitted the urinal signed “R. Mutt” to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, it was not a “work of art” of any kind. It was, at best, a gesture of trivial significance, worth little more than a minor footnote in the history of art.