Sunday, December 07, 2014

Celebrating Bedford Ceramic

Bedford Ceramic Urinal (Artist Unknown)
The BBC new magazine has published this month an article titled: A Point of View: Has modern art exhausted its power to shock?

It is a question that is not unlike one I heard from a semiotician who in 2011,  inquired in an online forum we both inhabited, “Why is modern art so boring?"(Decoding the Now)

 The BBC article is well worth the read, however, one fact I find slightly irritable is the continued reference of a certain Bedford Ceramic Urinal as "Marcel Duchamp's artwork "Fountain".

If you're not familiar with the story, Duchamp signed a urinal with a nom d'art ("R.Mutt") and then submitted it for a group show as his own work.  Newly titled 'Fountain', the work was rejected by the committee, but today it lives on as 'a major landmark in 20th-century art'.

Some of you are no doubt thinking, 'bullsh*t', while some of you are thinking, 'well, of course it is'. My own opinion accommodates both perceptions as valid.

No doubt, it is someone’s urinal, as it was certainly commissioned, designed and manufactured by one or several real human beings some hundred hears ago. Let this fact resonate a moment, because once you do, it becomes plainly evident that the fact that Duchamp signed the object does not make it his object, except, perhaps, to those who regard creation and appropriation or re-contexualization with an intellectually weighted form of equivalency.

And yet that's exactly what countless art critics and historians have done for the last century -allowed a man who signed his name to another artist's work take full credit for that work.

If Duchamp may be called a genius, he is a genius akin to P.T. Barnum, another famous huckster who often created nothing and became celebrated for it.

Others may disagree but I can never believe that the man who draws a moustache on the Mona Lisa is as fully a talent as the man who painted the Mona Lisa, no matter how amusing or provoking the result.

Nevertheless,  Duchamp turns out to be a man ahead of his time, and in this regard a predecessor to Warhol. But Andy was also actually was an artist, albeit one acutely aware of and obsessed with both industrial design and popular culture.

And Andy, of course, pulled the same stunt with 'his' Brillo Boxes as Duchamp did with 'Fountain' –identified another person's design as art, and then signed his own name to the thing.

If nothing else, we can say that Duchamp was pre-Kardashian, if we may suggest such a thing is a valid concept. But of course we can, because with 'Fountain', Duchamp showed us that all one needed to call ownership out of absence was simply to indicate a relational concept between one's self and another object.

But here is the thing: if the urinal is indeed the work of art that Duchamp says it is, –and I think it is–, then the fact that Duchamp tagged it does not make him the artist, or even an artist. If we are generous, we might identify him as a curator with a puckish sense of humor, and not a vandal who defaced and possibly stolen a urinal.

To believe and argue otherwise is to suggest that bridges, tunnels, trains and walls might be identified by any graffiti artist who scrawls his or her handle on it, rather than, you know, the actual architect.

Do we really believe that artistry is all in the concept, and that original execution is so meaningless that it has no contemporary value?

Okay, well, so, as it happens, I will be in London this spring, kindly note that upon my departure the London Bridge shall thereafter be known as 'The Terry O’Gara Bridge', as I shall be painting my name upon the thing before leaving. 

Hey, acrylic makes it real!

All joking aside, isn't there anyone who will stand up for the real artist who created 'Fountain’?

No, not Duchamp, he was just a prankster and a tagger with a magic marker.

Perhaps, a hundred long years later, we should stop laughing, –no, I mean really stop laughing– and instead, we might inquire who is the actual designer of the object?

To date, his or her or their name appears to be lost to history, but I suspect that a determined journalist might consult the historical archives belonging to one Bedford Ceramic Urinal Manufacturer and thereby rectify a now century-old wrong.

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