I found an old blog post from 2004 when Duchamp’s Fountain was named the most influential piece of modern art. Here’s what I wrote:
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) was recently declared the most influential work of modern art according to a Gordon’s Gin survey. Uh… yeah. I can see that.
“Fountain” is influential because it helped start the anything-goes definition of art. Today’s art museums will display anything–a shapeless swirl of colors, a slab of uncut stone, random geometric shapes on canvas, or apparently–a urinal. A modern definition of art is, well, whatever the artist’s whim decides. What is most dangerous, though, is that the modernists who are taken the most seriously today are actually producing anti-art–or art that is destructive to art itself. Observe that Duchamp could have chosen any household item to exhibit his art-is-what-I-say-it-is movement–but he chose a urinal. If Duchamp’s intention was truly as benevolent as he claimed–to show that art can be found in everyday objects–why not display an everyday object that is beautiful? The choice of a urinal shows the true nature behind Duchamp’s statement. A urinal is disgusting, offensive. To choose a urinal was the equivalent of a middle finger saying, “F-you, art, display this.”
It is one thing to convey a dream-like quality like a surrealist, or to experiment with shapes like an abstract artist, but Duchamp not only blurred the essential artistic elements–he removed them with destructive intent… and thus we have Dada. Dada is defined by Webster as “a movement in art and literature based on deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values.” Sounds accurate to me, but the definition doesn’t capture the evil behind the movement.
Dadaism goes well beyond showing contempt for art–it shows contempt for the rational mind. Art is man’s way of bringing abstractions into reality. We can easily deal with the concept of “chair” because it can be shown. I can also show non-concrete concepts such as “tall” and “transparent” by pointing to a tree and a pane of glass. How would I show the abstract concepts of “beauty,” “resilience,” “pride,” or “happiness?” I would do it with art. I cannot point to “heroic,” but I can point to Michelangelo’s David. I can’t show you “tension” and “suspense,” but I can play you John Williams’ theme from Jaws. I may find it hard to cope with a sudden sadness, but watching Steel Magnolias might help.
What does Dadaism offer to the rational mind? If art offers man the ability to see a physical representation of previously invisible concept–what would anti-art offer? If art is essential for man’s understanding/coping/enjoyment of reality–what good can come from an “art” purposely devoid of the artistic elements? The answer is nothing (that’s what nihilism offers us… nothing).
Sure, “Fountain” served a purpose–and I say that we help it fully reach its potential. Let’s plumb the thing and use it for what it’s best suited to be. I’ll be first in line to use it.