I've lost track of the number of times I've people have shared their gripes about modern art with me. You know the drill – they moan about how art has gone downhill and question why anyone would pay for a canvas covered in what looks like a toddler's finger-painting session.
It's certainly not that I disagree! But I'm definitely interested in what's down the rabbit hole. What makes art, art? And where are its boundaries? Where does the value of art come from – why on earth are people willing to fork over millions for a banana duct-taped to a wall?
Certainly, we won't be covering all that here, but I'll dip a toe or two into some of these topics through the lens of one of the most important historical works of art in the history of art philosophy: Duchamp's Fountain.
Duchamp's readymade revolution
Marcel Duchamp was my Philosophy of Art professor's darling. There was a counter-example from Duchamp for what felt like every theory of art we covered. Duchamp was nothing if not a provocateur. He profoundly rejected social norms like class, religion and "good" taste.
Like my professor, I have a particular fascination with Duchamp and his legacy. He was, by any account, a fascinating person. Duchamp spent his artistic life pioneering the avant-garde, desacralising the traditional and nurturing controversy.
In particular, he is famous – or infamous – for establishing the idea of readymade art.
He would select a pre-existing, ordinary object like a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel (both influential works of his in their own right), and simply designate it as a work of art. No brushes, no paint, just a decision.
In doing so, he turned the concept of art on its head, sparking countless philosophical debates and controversies. It forced people to question what really gives art value, or makes it art in the first place.
Duchamp's readymade art continues to confound, but it's his most notorious piece – the Fountain – that is at the heart of his artistic rebellion. It's his Fountain I want to celebrate today.
Making a splash: Duchamp's Fountain
"A piece of mischief at the expense of the art world"
– John Passmore, Professor of Philosophy
"His message was clear: art is something you p**s on"
– Stephen Hicks, Philosopher at Rockford University
"A kind of intellectual heckling that nudged artists to taunt and scoff more academically at their own field"
– Damon Young, Honorary Fellow in Philosophy and Graham Priest, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
Duchamp's Fountain was an audacious experiment, designed to test the limits of art.
The Fountain has a really interesting story in its own right, which you can read about here – Artsper explain this far better than I ever could.
Duchamp's Fountain itself is, to be irreverent (I am sure Duchamp would not have minded), little more than a urinal bought from a plumbing store. Duchamp bought it in 1917, scrawled the pseudonym "R. Mutt" on it and presented it to the Society of Independent Artists.
They claimed they would accept any work of art. Duchamp intended to test that. The Society of Independent Artists rejected Fountain, and the fallout reverberated around the art community.
It's the philosophical reverberations from Fountain that really draw me in.
As an artwork, it implicitly rejects all the traditional notions of what art is supposed to be.
It dares us to look again at the way we think about, and value, works of art.
So let's do just that.
The philosophical fallout
Before Duchamp's readymades, the prevailing ideas about what constituted art were very traditional. Art was defined largely in terms of its aesthetic properties: value was derived from technical proficiency of the artist, and, loosely, the way it conveyed emotion.
Duchamp's Fountain turned these traditional notions of art on their head.
By designating a mass-produced, practical object as a work of art, he challenged the idea that art had to be beautiful, technically proficient, or emotional.
Now, there were new levers to manipulate. The value of the concept became important. The context became important. The role of the artist became far more pronounced.
And there was a fierce new debate lighting up – where exactly were the limits of what could be considered art?
What gives art value?
Duchamp forced art theorists and philosophers to reconsider what confers value to art.
The advent of readymades like Fountain challenged our traditional notions by showing that art can be found in unlikely objects.
Duchamp's work brought to light is the importance of context in determining the value of a work of art.
There's an act of subversion in scrawling a signature on a urinal and presenting it on a pedestal as art. This is a highly intentional act which shapes it's context. The context of the object radically alters its meaning.
This opens a bit of a can of worms (though an interesting one). When art's value is so tied up in the reputation – or the identity – of the artist, you wonder where the intrinsic value of the art is. Maybe it doesn't even matter. We've seen this more recently in the work of Banksy, who stuck a firm finger up at the art world by installing a shredder in the frame of a work of art. When it sold for $1.4 million, the artwork made auction history and partially destroyed itself. In the perfect illustration of this point, the destroyed artwork was later resold for $25.4 million. The market itself is distorting the perception of the art.
It leaves us clear that it's not necessarily the art itself that is always truly valuable.
The traditional link between the artist's labour and the aesthetic merit of the artwork to value break down in the face of artworks like these – though it's never been quite this simple.
The concept of the art and the relationship between the artist, buyers of art and viewers of art then comes to the fore. There's not necessarily a correlation between the value of art and other traditional hallmarks of value, like aesthetic beauty or technical skill. Perhaps this shows that the identity of the artist really can have a crucial role in defining the way a work of art is perceived by a viewer. More on this soon.
What makes something art? Views after Duchamp
We've talked about how Fountain forces us to reconsider the factors that might contribute to the value of a piece.
We can go deeper.
Let's talk about some of the philosophical challenges Fountain raises around the very idea of what art is. This will cast a bit more light upon how we think about value, too.
By the mid-20th century, philosophers in the analytic tradition had a collective suspicion that something was very wrong with previous aesthetic theories, which focussed defining artworks by their intrinsic properties. Philosophers began endorsing extrinsic or relational theories of art – theories which define art in terms of its relationships to – and interactions with – other entities, such as the artist, the audience, the cultural context, and the historical background.
For example, Arthur Danto defined art in terms of artworks' relations to the "art world", formalised by George Dickie in his "institutional theory" of art. Jerrold Levinson argued that what makes something a work of art is its relation to previous works of art – only works that are intended to be regarded in the same way earlier art had been regarded are truly art.
Philosophers such as Morris Weitz doubted that there could even be a set of necessary and sufficient properties of art, branding it an "open concept".
If we thought there were a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art, what might they include?
Traditionally, art was judged based on its aesthetic properties – its beauty or balance for example.
Fountain threw these assumptions into disarray. It lacked the typical aesthetic qualities we associate with art, and yet it still sparked an intense debate about its artistic merits.
Duchamp himself said:
"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided."
Through his art and the context he gave it, he went to pains to show that art could transcend aesthetics and be a truly intellectual exercise.
Fountain represented a shift. Aesthetic properties were no longer central for defining something as art. Our criteria must be expanded and reweighted. Art can thrive beyond traditional aesthetic paradigms. However, it seems obvious to me that the aesthetic properties must form a sufficient condition for art in some sense, because our perception will always be impacted by what the object is. That's true even if those aesthetic properties are not the ones we traditionally think of, like beauty and balance.
Sir Grayson Perry is known for his commentary on the art world. He argues that beauty is rooted in familiarity, and that it is inward-looking. In 2014 he published a fantastic and thoroughly readable book aimed anyone interested in the art world where he asks questions like "What is good art?" and "How do we decide what is art?" In this book, he writes:
"To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty hierarchy, tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege"
Some have argued that resemblance to other art works might be sufficient for an artifact to be considered "art". That might have held, once – but it's indefensible in the light of Duchamp's Fountain. As Stephen Davies has it:
"Duchamp turned one urinal indistinguishable from others of its type into an artwork without thereby affecting the non-art status of those other urinals... how could the resemblance between artworks... explain how that urinal is an artwork without its showing the other urinal to be an artwork also?"
The artist's intent?
By declaring a mass-produced, mundane object as art, Duchamp forces us to confront the role of the artist's intention in defining what art is.
How much of a role can an artist's intent play in transforming an object into a work of art? Fountain showed that intention could play a much more important role than previously thought.
To think that intent alone suffices, though, would be too much. If an artist accidentally spills paint on the canvas, resulting in striking splatters, the splattered canvas may be taken for art. It's entirely possible appreciate an object for its aesthetic value regardless of intent. Nevertheless, we can say that intent can contribute towards how we regard an object, sometimes greatly, though it seems neither necessary nor sufficient for something to be considered art. Even in art forms like photography, there are compelling counterarguments.
There's more to the framework of art than this. Let's keep going.
By taking an everyday object and placing it within an artistic context, Duchamp transformed the urinal into a something of a symbol of artistic rebellion.
Duchamp's Fountain exemplifies how the context in which an object is placed, whether it's presented in a gallery or as part of a larger movement, can elevate it to the status of art.
A handful of years ago, I visited the Tate Modern in London. A particular artwork on display left an impression on me. It was a transparent acrylic cube with a little water inside. The water had condensed, leaving a pattern on the inside of the cube. Now, I'm no art connoisseur. In another setting, I thought, this could be little more than a exhibit for kids in a science museum explaining condensation. Years later as I was writing this, I was able to rediscover the art I had in mind: Hans Haacke's – Condensation Cube. Though I've forgotten what the gallery description said, I remember feeling that the description gave weight to the art. Perhaps the description is necessary context for the art – part of the art?
But because it was presented in pride of place on a pedestal at the Tate Modern, it was so much more.
A quick Google search reminds me it's a careful observation of the simple processes of life, and how surroundings affect life. The viewer, with this context, is able to reflect far more deeply on the message it is meant to convey.
On the matter of Duchamp's Fountain, Sir Grayson Perry said:
"If Duchamp had left the urinal attached to the wall in the lavatory I doubt it would have had the same impact."
The artistic context, then, makes a huge difference to how we think about an object, as well as its meaning and value. Perhaps we can argue that context is necessary to elevate something to the status of art. I contend that context is actually one of the most important determinants of artistic status.
Relation to the art world?
The art world is full of power dynamics. Not all of them, as you might imagine, are pleasant though that isn't a topic for here.
Since we're talking about Sir Grayson Perry, I'll borrow an anecdotal story from him. He asked his dealer for the names of the top 50 people and instutitions where he should hope his art ends up. He wrote them onto a pot, and – lo and behold – one of the people named called to purchase it.
Fountain is an early example of how the relation between a potential work of art and the art world itself – its institutions, critics, collectors and so on – impact art itself.
Prominent thinkers in the philosophy of art make some version of the argument that the relation of artwork to the institutions of the art world are not just necessary but sufficient for something to be art. I borrow an example from Arthur Danto, who used Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" to support his theory of art. Warhol's Brillo Boxes are visually indistinguishable from everyday Brillo soap pad boxes. Its status as "art" is determined entirely by a its relation to the art world, which includes artists, critics, collectors, institutions and more.
On a separate note, controversies around artworks like Fountain and Brillo Boxes are clear examples of how artistic gatekeeping can shape (or fail to shape) what expression is considered art.
Artists continue to challenge the status quo – I'm thinking of the likes of Banksy and Ai Weiwei here's an interesting story about one of his artworks. I think our definition of art needs to leave space for art that exists outside the confines of traditional institutions. Those institutions can prove toxic to those who would like to see debate in the art world, and prove a barrier to those who would hear diverse voices and perspectives be heard. The definition of art should be flexible and inclusive.
Public reception is able to shape both value and meaning.
At the time, the public reception to Fountain varied from "groundbreaking and provocative" to "vulgar and insulting". As time passed, however, it came to be seen as a pivotal piece of artistic rebellion. The public consensus plays a huge role in its categorisation as "art".
Sir Grayson Perry has argued that public engagement with art can and should have a bearing on how we think about art, which we should value as a means of self-expression. He writes:
"I firmly believe that anyone is eligible to enjoy art or become an artist – any oik, any prole, any citizen who has a vision they want to share"
We see the influence of public reception on art in the growing acceptance of street art in the mainstream art world.
Not that long ago, it was pretty universally considered vandalism. Now it's celebrated in galleries.
With the internet and social media, it's now easier than ever to engage with art and influence how people from all over the world think about it.
The public have more power than ever in defining its boundaries.
The issue of rights and appropriation
What I'm discussing here is the complex interplay between legal ownership, intellectual property (IP) rights, control of the materials used to create a work of art, and issues surrounding appropriation.
Things like originality, rights and legal ownership, intuitively, help us establish a clear connection between artist and art. They could be considered, if you like, a conferrer of legitimacy.
Duchamp didn't create the urinal itself. He purchased it from a plumbing store, signed it and submitting it to the Society of Independent Artists. It's even more complex when we consider works by the likes of Banksy, created on public or private property without the explicit permission of the property owner. The artist's proprietary rights over the materials used are not clear-cut, and the ownership of the artwork itself can be disputed. They're certainly considered art by consensus, though.
Years later, Sherrie Levine – who built a career of appropriating artworks – recast Duchamp's Fountain in bronze, further blurring the lines between originality and appropriation.
My aesthetics lecturer's favourite example was one from Duchamp himself: L.H.O.O.Q. Duchamp took a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, irreverently added a moustache and goatee, and added the title at the bottom. Pretty audacious, probably more so at the time, and firmly trespassing over the boundaries of appropriation. If we consider works like this and Levine's Fountain art, it turns out that the lines of appropriation are far more nuanced than we may intuitively think.
I find Duchamp's Fountain delightfully audacious.
The fallout from presenting a urinal as a work of art totally changed the way we think about art today. Since then, conceptual art has blossomed. Not all art is good art, of course, but I don't pretend to be anywhere near discerning enough to know the difference.
Most interestingly to me, Fountain was one of the earliest signals to philosophers of art that there is so much more to the ontology of art and the value of art than aesthetic qualities.
We can still ask plenty of interesting questions about art which were originally raised by Fountain today. Indeed, there's so much we haven't even touched on here. How much does the identity of the artist matter? Can a non-artist create art? What role does context play in determining artistic value? How much does the public's reception of a work of art impact its definition? And, perhaps most importantly, what other assumptions about art do we still need to challenge and rethink?
For me, at least, these questions lend a further layer of enjoyment to the art itself.
Playing to the Gallery – Sir Grayson Perry – The famous contemporary artist tackles elitism in art, making the case for people to interact with art on their own terms. Extremely readable.
Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – Edited by Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen – An anthology of seminal works in the analytic tradition of philosophy. Prescribed to me as part of my aesthetics module as a philosophy student. Some are very readable, some less so. Part I is about "Identifying Art", and contains papers relevant to this subject matter, including some written by philosophers named in this post – Weitz, Danto, Dickie, Levinson and Davies.