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.
You missed my statement that the ad hoc committee of New York’s avant-garde at the Grand Palace in nyc on April 8 for the occassion of the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition did rule that in no way was the urinal titled Fountain by R. Mutt a work of art. So, in that sense you are kicking a dead horse. However, the only thing Thompson gets right is that Duchamp remarkets the urinal in 1936, minus the Hartley ptg., minus the entrance card and string, and minus what a urinal meant in nyc then including the queered aspect Paul Franklin raises. You I think are basing your populist ontology on the Warhol citation of the urinal as a Pop prototype, like the Campbell’s soup can. Remember, the 1917 urinal was never exhibited as a work of art formally, it was only taken to 291 to be photographed. So, there is two distinct animals here, and you can’t slur them. The first is a photojournalist media event, the second is an object. Now, you say “properly” qualifies as a work of art, only in your solipsistic framework I’m guessing. Why can’t it count as the first mass manufactured work of art, the first work without an artist, the first conceptual work, etc. Seems your “properly” means nothing more than L’ecole Des Beaux-Artes conservative academia that censors Cubism with all its found materials, n’est-ce pas? Please, let me hear about “properly” guidelines. Moral purpose? Christian? Capitalist fetish?
No, Tim, the horse is unfortunately very much alive. Despite the sensible judgment by the Society of Independent Artists’ ad hoc committee that the urinal was definitely NOT art, today’s art establishment regards it as the twentieth-century’s most consequential work of art.
As for my view of what art is, it is clearly spelled out in two books. If you’re not inclined to explore in depth a serious viewpoint that challenges your own, you can get a sense of it from the article “Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde” at http://www.aristos.org/aris-03/art&cog.htm —an updated version of which will appear in ‘After the Avant-Gardes,’ forthcoming from Open Court.
I assumed this discussion centered on Thompson’s claim that Loringhoven submitted the urinal. His claim borders on the specious since nothing shows her shipping or depositing a 65 lb piece of sanitary pottery. Anyway, again if you know the history, the ad hoc board of the Independent’s Exhibition on April 8 did decide in a press release that ‘in no way was Fountain a work of art.’ So, the irony is a not work of art, declared so by NYC’s avant-garde by a narrow vote, is the most written about piece in the art world. At any rate, you have your definition of art. Now let’s get on with the history part. You are focused on Duchamp’s second phase of Fountain, the Warhol soup can prototype bs. But that has nothing to do with the urinal in 1917, which was NYC’s weapon against the assault of diseases blamed on immigrants who were swelling the wards of the LES and Brooklyn. Again, the photo first appeared in a magazine The Blindman, No. 2. Deal with that, instead of Duchamp’s attempt to erase history.
You argue above that the debate regarding the urinal as art is “long over.” Within the art establishment indeed it is. But not in the eyes of many art lovers beyond that narrow world. Nor would this be the first time that a long-established idea has ultimately been disproven by the weight of evidence and common sense. (On that phenomenon, read a brief biography of Ignaz Semmelweis.)
I can’t assess your claim that “the urinal in 1917 . . .was NYC’s weapon against the assault of diseases blamed on immigrants who were swelling the wards of the LES and Brooklyn.” But I would say that it relates to sociology and public health—not art history—and is therefore irrelevant here.
So, then, David’s Death of Marat has nothing to do with the French revolution since that would be political history, and ‘irrelevent’. Michel Angelo’s David would have nothing to do with the political history of Milan and Florence, or the recovery of antiquity (re-naissance), since that would be archaeology and therefore ‘irrelevant’. Why couldn’t Duchamp have chosen the urinal on the basis of its taboo relation to diseases? Do you honestly think works are created in a vacuum? Like Picasso’s Guernica has nothing to do with the Spanish civil war, or bourgeosie values have no import to Manet’s work? That WWI had no effect on Dada? I can say I don’t know any art historian who doesn’t think painting issues from its society. BTW, Francis Naumann, Duchamp scholar, told me that Irene Gemmel has no evidence of contact of the Baroness with Duchamp prior to 1918. I know, devil is in the details, or history.
No, you completely misconstrue my point. I was not saying that history has nothing to do with art. My point was that historical considerations regarding the urinal don’t change the fact that (unlike David’s ‘Death of Marat’ and Michelangelo’s ‘David’) it does not properly qualify as a work of art. You’ve accepted the prevailing artworld view that it does. I’ve offered a book-length argument on why it doesn’t.
Beatrice Wood’s account places the urinal on its back. Whoever delivered the urinal—possibly the advent of Rose Sélavy—is not as important as Duchamp and Stieglitz by themselves constructing the photograph. All of you miss the photograph; and there is no evidence that Freytag-Loringhoven worked on the photograph, which is a combination print, not a straight photograph. Nor was the urinal signed “R. Mutt” at the exhibition attempt, or at 291. Notice that Dreier says “name attached,” referring to the entrance card. Somebody needs to tell Thompson that the lettering in “R. Mutt” is not Freytag’s as he claims, and part of the title Fountain is on the entrance card.
Thanks for your comment, Tim, but I’m not sure how it relates to the “art” status of the piece, which is the point at issue here. Both Spalding and I do cite the Stieglitz photo (in which the signature clearly appears). As I indicate, it is far less significant in my view than Spalding argues. The value of the piece should be judged apart from the photograph.
Briefly, you have no proof the signature was actually on the urinal. All of Duchamp’s photos from this period are heavily doctored. Thompson in his attempt to attribute the work to Loring-Hoven maintains the letters in R.Mutt match her writing. Clearly they do not and if he attempted to say this at a CAA conference he would be laughed out of the bldg. Her R has a goose stepping foot, while the urinal’s R matches the R in Duchamp’s Escalier. I am an art historian writing on the conditions of the media event of Fountain published in The Blindman, no.2, where the works original meaning transpired. Why are there so many Futurists in that publication? Why was Stieglitz’s photo cropped? Why is it out of focus? You are talking more about the later use of a urinal by Duchamp, where it gets its art appreciation, pop culture context. I don’t care much about that since that is more of a pedestrian public debate done by people not well informed.
Are you saying that the question of whether the urinal qualifies as a work of “art” is a pedestrian public debate? If so, that would be an astonishing point of view for an “art” historian.
Because the debate is long over. No one in the field of serious Duchamp scholarship concerns themselves with that general questions. It’s as if you told me that you don’t consider Apple stock to be valid stock. That’s fine, but no stock broker would care. I guess I find it astonishing you still think there is an ongoing debate. When an object is in every major museum, or written about extensively by major critical scholarship as Stieglitz/Duchamp’s Fountain or Picasso’s guitar construct has, then, the mass of critical scholarship speaks for itself. Again, I’m like the wall street broker enmeshed in market gyrations, if a person off the street comes into the exchange and says ‘ this is not stock brokering.’, no one would care. What I can’t believe is I tell you the original photo of Fountain is a collage of various photo’s, and you are still stuck on art appreciation generalities. Do you realize how many scholars work is jeapordized since they always assumed Fountain was a straight photo?
First of all, did you see the actual photograph by Stieglitz, or the book reproductions? The signature was not on the urinal, but added to the photograph. Your assumptions are false.
Be that as it may, the urinal is still a urinal, not a work of art.
I agree with you entirely that art has to be created—something has to be transformed for it to become art. (All my books are about that).
But in this case all I can ask you to do is to look at Elsa’s Urinal again—in the Stieglitz photo. It has been transformed—by being laid on its back (with the male female associations of that) so it doesn’t look like a urinal but assumes the form of a veiled madonna (with the white shadow of her within) and with addition of the signature—punning in German with reference to poverty and Motherland.
Transformed in this way, it becomes an inspired condensation of the whole battle of her life—the fight that her mother left her as ‘her inheritance’—to pay her father back for infecting her mother with syphilis. Of course her gesture was also an attack on the art world, which she regarded as a gentleman’s club (like America itself, which had just declared war on Germany)—symbolised by a ‘gents’—and in particular on the Independents. They were mutts if they exhibited it, because it attacked their abdication of any selection of art, and they were mutts if they didn’t exhibit it, because they broke their own rules if they rejected it.
But what it was NOT was an attack on art itself. It stands, you are right, on the very edge of what is art—but it is on the art side, not the conceptual side. Elsa, like Picasso, Dali, etc., was saying that you can make art out of anything—even a Urinal—but art has to be made. What she was NOT saying—very specifically—is that anything can be art. That’s the disease that Duchamp started. He did it by not only stealing Elsa’s work but by robbing it of its meaning. It’s all his fault! He was right when he wrote to his sister that a female friend had submitted a urinal as a sculpture. It was (is) a sculpture—the first concrete poem, or perhaps the first ceramic poem—but definitely, in my view, the first great “mistresspiece” of Feminist art. Elsa was a major genius (look at her poems!), not a marginal figure at all.
I hope I have convinced you to begin to look again.
Otherwise we agree—and certainly about Michelangelo!
For Elsa’s urinal to be properly regarded as a sculpture, it would need to be viewed directly, in isolation—not seen through Stieglitz’s dramatically lit photograph (which still looks like a urinal to me!). We can therefore best judge the original piece’s impact by the impression of contemporaries who (unlike Stieglitz) were not participants in the charade surrounding the work.
In a letter written to Duchamp on April 13, 1917, soon after the urinal’s rejection, his friend Katherine Dreier tellingly referred to the piece as “a piece of plumbing” and a “readymade object” with a person’s “name attached to it”—not as a “sculpture.” Similarly, an account in the New York Herald on April 14 reported that the Society’s rejection of the piece was prompted by the judgment that “it is, by no definition, a work of art.” There was no mention of a “veiled madonna.”
Whatever Elsa’s merits as a poet were, they do not justify this piece as a work of “sculpture.” To begin with, the art of sculpture does not consist of merely transforming a readymade object, but of completely shaping material such as stone or clay to create an image of something. (See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sculpture.) Further, unlike genuine sculpture, Elsa’s urinal does not communicate its meaning through its form alone but is heavily dependent on the verbal puns associated with it.
For those reasons, I stand by my contention that if the piece is indeed by Elsa it is neither “sculpture” nor a “work of art” but merely a “statement” of some sort, however clever or poignant it may be in its personal and political implications. In that sense, it is very much like today’s works of “conceptual art.”
A manufactured urinal is a urinal is a urinal. A is A.
With all the questions raised by Spalding and Thompson, and your spot-on article above, it’s amazing that it still has its defenders. They do so Want it to be something it’s palpably not.
Stand firm, lady — I will be waving your flag in the audience.
It’s a “blue moon” weekend, so you will have all your critics howling. Nothing would surprise me about the urinal since it was a joke to begin with. Just sorry a woman doesn’t get the credit.