Back to Marcel Duchamp, specifically to an event related to the first public presentation of his ready-made creation entitled Fontaine. Was that event actually a missed opportunity to make a rupture in usual order, to cause—having Jacques Rancière’s idea in mind—“the scandal of democracy”?1 The case is all about the very meaningful process of excluding which the original work endured during its short life.
Duchamp prepared Fountain in 1917 during his living in New York, and intended to present it on the exhibition2 organized by local society of independent artists, which was inspired by the Paris association Salon des Indépendants established in 1884—the same Salon, based on the “no jury and no awards” principle, that rejected his meta-cubist canvas Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 (Nude Descending a Staircase, Nr. 2) in 1912.
The program of the New York show was conceived in a way that every applicant could exhibit his work under condition that he payed one dollar membership and five more for an annual contribution. Duchamp was in that time an established foreign artist who could easily, like other prominent American painters, involve himself in the exhibition. However, he felt a challenge to try to subvert the event. He had an opportunity to influence exhibition’s organization, so he proposed that the arrived works should be arranged alphabetically by their names. His proposal was accepted despite some objections saying that such “democratic” method can cause certain disturbance. That resulted in, on first sight, somehow absurd and colorful arrangement, the biggest in the USA up to that time, with traditionalist and amateur works hanged together with cubist ones. Such unusual setting, a mix, was a good basis for further realization of Duchamp’s plan. Instead of applying to the exhibition as himself, he applied as fictional author R. Mutt, payed these six dollars instead of him and stated his inexistent address in Philadelphia. He also put “his” signature on the urinal he bought before. By doing that he achieved the announced open acceptance of anybody as exhibitor.
In that way, an unpronounceable object for that time arrived at the exhibition. The press later called it “a bathroom appliance”. The organizers’ only dilemma was whether it was a work of art at all, and if not—why? George Bellows, a leading painter of realist persuasion and a board member of the Society of Independent Artists, was put in similar predicament. According to testimony of young artist and Duchamp’s fan Beatrice Wood, Bellows moralizingly complained that such obscene work did not belong in the exhibition. He suspected it was a prank, Mutt’s name seemed unusual to him. However, board’s member Walter Arensberg objected to the proposed rejection and pointed out that the author had already paid the requested fee. Bellows replied: “Do you want to say that we should accept horse manure pasted on canvas if someone would send it?!” Arensberg just agreed. The society’s board voted by a small majority against acceptance of the work. Then someone hid it behind some kind of canvas screen.
Probably satisfied with the situation’s development, Duchamp agreed with photographer Alfred Stieglitz to take photos of the work. The photography he took is the only documentation of the original object. Soon after it was published in vanguard magazine The Blind Man together with an anonymous manifesto entitled The Richard Mutt Case. That text contained a key requirement for all subsequent modern art: “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.” This publication made the Fountain famous as much as the exhibition itself.
Ready-made has thus won its place under the sun as a form beyond so far known artistic forms, as an “exhibited envelope of the pure thought on choice” or a “choice of a choice as a clipping from the common place”3 The work or, better, the object was self-sufficient, it co-relates with Alain Badiou’s appeal that we should have art without artist. Duchamp, as he claims, confirms impersonality of artistic action.
The photographer threw Fountain to trash soon after the exhibition. Although not negligible, this fact is not essential. It is essential that it was the precedent “scandal of democracy” in the field4 of art, as Duchamp pointed out (in performative way) the field’s limitness. His striving for initially announced unconditional (disregarding the conditioning of applications with contributions) acceptance of all exhibitors is a support to the absence of any governance (any managing).
The breakthrough character of the New York incident with Fountain stems from manipulation of democratic procedure, from breaking the rules by the very party (Society of Independent Artists) that established them. The popular intention of the show—to accept whoever—was challenged by apparently (or in-fact, depending on the viewpoint) democratic instrument of voting. And that voting should not have happen. When conservative option prevailed in the Society’s board, the board switched to a totalitarian collective body with one and only goal: to carry out an exclusionary procedure. To do so, the (once collectively agreed) normative procedure had to be abolished.
By moralizingly calling the work obscene some members of the board (and others by finally agreeing) caused an incident that could be—if we radicalize—compared with burning of Reichstag by Hitler&Co. (in sense: communist bad guys fictitiously set the German parliament on fire, so they should be lynched / Fountain is obscene as it cut into our morals, its author should therefore be rejected). The result of collective hysteria that followed the board’s decision was cancellation of the work. The goal justified the means. That little art field fascism successfully suppressed (the public) emerging and development of that kind of “unserious” artistic practices that never suited the growing (both “western” and “eastern”) commercial artistic production. Suppression was at the first place a symbolic warning to potential protagonists of similar gestures. Thus the supposedly most democratic art manifestation of the time acted suppressive to phenomenon of calls for democratization of the art field, at least to its possible massivity.
Yet the core problem is somewhat deeper. Although the procedure was violated, Duchamp was undoubtedly the winner in this (for Fountain lost) fight. Later on, two essential facts are important. The first is the before mentioned manifesto which meant a turning point in further understanding of art, or understanding of what art is and what it could be. Published together with the Fountain photo, it publicly opened up a new paradigm of artist autonomy, and above all it promoted empowerment of artist’s individuality in creativity. It took a long time before this paradigm was established to some extent (and before Duchamp was “truly” recognized).
The second important fact is that Duchamp, despite his victory (success of subversion), later decided to make replicas of the object, which allowed monetization of the subversion. The subversion was “modified” with this decision, and the symbolic value of performance-critique, too. The artist really picked up symbolic capital, which eventually manifested as respect and recognition by the bearers of the art system, as a fame that contributed to the replicas (re)sale. But they were not ready-mades, they were just copies, certainly not tied to any gesture like it was the initial one (a hacking of the selection system). Duchamp indeed won autonomy, but more for himself (for personal position of an artist) than for an artistic creation as potentially emancipatory acting in context of the common. That assumption probably corresponds to Duchamp’s extremely individualistic attitude.
The incident during the selection process of the exhibition, including its—for Duchamp (his career) happy—outcome, shows that the proclamation of the artist’s right to create without prescribed boundaries nevertheless remained caught in the art system network. Duchamp’s intervention was, so to say, emancipatory limited, as it only confirmed the reproductive logic of the culture industry (its field of art). By replication and distribution of the lost original author himself (re)produces neutralization of his own work. The neutralized work then creates symbolic and economic profits. Its original sense is blurred and erased.
If the author had decided differently, if he had persisted in the scandal of democracy that he once initiated (by exposing conservatism of selecting), he would not have made many replicas. The critical potential of subversion would be preserved. The Fountain’s creator would forever remain R. Mutt, the object would remain a non-work of art, it would therefore remain an ultimate paradox. Precisely that would mean a timeless autonomy,5 and Duchamp would preserve substance of his emancipatory gesture in the very point of departure—irrevocably insisting on disrupting the established system of social inequalities.
Or, his next step might be withdrawal into passivity (refusal to participate), an inevitable first step able to—as Étienne Balibar proposes—set the stage for real activity, for action that will actually change the coordinates of the constellation.6 Such passivity is a consequence and a tool of one’s awareness of actual irrelevance of a hierarchical (symbolically violent) structure.
Fountain’s multiplication practically deconceptualized7 its subversiveness, as the potential continuity8 of the undoubtedly radical statement was cut, and its message changed from the original striving for equality (of anyone with everyone!) to a striving for (own) autonomy. Unless I’m wrong in actually introducing into this writing the assumption that Duchamp was bothered by inequality (as such).
If he was not and if, as it seems, he did not have to penetrate the police order of the art system (he asserted his influence as one of the decision-makers on the form and course of the exhibition), then his subjectivation did not have the intention to question the aesthetic coordinates of society by introducing the “we are all equal” universal principle.9 Duchamp’s intervention therefore only stretched aesthetic coordinates of the art system, which (even a century after the Fountain) determine increasingly perverse mechanisms of neutralization, under the slogan “anything goes”. If to anything, then this slogan applies precisely to a urinal.
1 It is the scandal that resists the police logic of “proper” naming, arranging and classifying people and notions. The scandal of democracy is revealed in an impossible demand to count those who are not in-counted in the police order. By appropriating a share of the common, it reveals the “share of those without a share”, the scandalous fact that politics is based precisely on “incorrect counting”, which opens up the space for absence of any ἀρχή. The scandal of democracy is precisely in that it announces that it cannot be anything but absence of all rule. Its consequence/cause is the political power that manifests as the power of those who have no natural, self-evident justification to rule over those who have no natural, self-evident justification to be ruled. Therefore, the rule of the (supposedly) best and the wisest has no greater weight and it is no more equitable if it is not the rule of equals.
2 The source of that exhibition related data mentioned in this and the next four paragraphs is Martin Gayford’s article Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution (telegraph.co.uk, 2008).
3 Alain Badiou in Some Remarks Concerning Marcel Duchamp (The Symptom 9, 2008, lacan.com).
4 The “field” related to Pierre Bourdieu’s structured idea of fields.
5 Rancière notices that autonomy of an artwork can be perceived when that artwork is not a work of art!
6 Balibar in his book La crainte des masses (1997).
7 In sense of washing off the very idea and, with that, the vitality of the object and the gesture which it manifests.
8 In sense of permanent verification of public declaration and loyalty to own idea.
9 This principle is, as Rancière proposes, the assumptions of politics.