Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal dubbed Fountain isn’t a work of art, “conceptual” or otherwise.1 Neither is Maurizio Cattelan’s gold toilet dubbed America (offered on loan by the Guggenheim Museum to the White House last year, in lieu of a painting by Vincent van Gogh that had been requested). They are mere artworld stunts.
Isn’t it sad that Nancy Spector, chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum, can’t tell the difference between a work of art and a toilet? Here’s how she blogged about Cattelan’s America, “the 18-karat gold, fully functioning toilet that was installed at the Guggenheim for nearly a year in a long-term, sculptural performance of interactive art”:
Like all of Cattelan’s most complex works, this sculpture [Spector’s term, not mine] is laden with possible meanings. There is the art-historical trajectory, from Duchamp and Manzoni [of Artist’s Shit fame] to more contemporary artists [whose work] traffics in scatological iconography. The equation between excrement and art has long been mined by neo-Marxist thinkers who question the relationship between labor and value. Expanding upon this economic perspective, there is also the ever-increasing divide in our country between the wealthy and the poor that threatens the very stability of our culture. Cattelan explicitly comments on this fact by creating what he called “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.”
Entitled “Maurizio Cattelan’s Golden Toilet in the Time of Trump” (Guggenheim Blogs, August 17, 2017), Spector’s post did not fail to point out how “prescient” Cattelan was:
When the artist [her term, not mine] proposed the sculpture in mid-2015, Donald Trump had just announced his bid for the presidency. It was inconceivable at the time that this business mogul, he of the eponymous gilded tower, could actually win the White House. When the sculpture came off view on September 15, Trump had been in office for 238 days, a term marked by scandal and defined by the deliberate rollback of countless civil liberties, in addition to climate-change denial that puts our planet in peril.
Since then, of course, the Trump presidency has been marked by a few other things that a fair-minded critic might note—such as massive tax cuts, a growing GDP, the lowest Hispanic and black unemployment rates in years, expulsion of the Isis caliphate, the rollback of regulations that were crippling businesses, and so on.
But Spector is among those whose hatred of the president is so ingrained that they are constitutionally unable to see anything about him in a positive light. She is in the news now because an insulting email she sent to the White House in September, offering the toilet’s loan, has come to light. And who would expect The Washington Post to refrain from reporting such a brilliant gesture of political protest, stale though it might be at this late date?
Leaving politics aside, let’s return to Cattelan’s “sculptural performance of interactive art.” While it was on display in one of the Guggenheim’s unisex bathrooms, visitors were invited to use it “to commune with art and with nature,” as Spector so cleverly put it.
If the toilet is indeed of solid 18-karat gold, its monetary worth is anywhere between $1,474,592 and $2,527,872. A civic-minded museumgoer might therefore muse that the sum would have been better put toward reducing “the ever-increasing divide in our country between the wealthy and the poor that threatens the very stability of our culture”—a matter of such keen concern to curator Spector.
Be that as it may, whether of 18-karat gold or mere workaday porcelain, a toilet (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) is a toilet is a toilet—not a work of art.
- If indeed it was even his. See “Duchamp or the Baroness?—What Difference Does It Make?,” For Piero’s Sake, August 2, 2015. ↩