When Marcel Duchamp submitted his work, Fountain, a urinal signed “R. Mutt,” in the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) exhibit in 1917, he simultaneously obfuscated the longstanding role of the artist as high priest in the religion of art and removed the distinction between the “sacred,” or precious object and the common object. Although its true impact wouldn’t be understood until much later in the 20th century, it would prove to be almost as earth-shattering as Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus lighting the tinder box that would become the Protestant Reformation. Well, to us artists anyway; to the rest of the world it was just another urinal.
The role of the Church in European life would be battled over for over a century following Luther’s challenge and culminate in the revolutionary humanist ideals of The Enlightenment, shattering at last the liturgical chains that bound mankind – at least in Europe. Freed from the iron grip of a corrupt church, modern man was thrust into the world, kicking, screaming, and beheading; and began to make his own, individualistic way in the quest for meaning. Eventually science would attempt to fill that void; an attempt which for many would prove to be less than successful, being limited to the merely materialistic side of things.
But back to Duchamp. The SIA committee running the exhibit made the same mistake the Church did several centuries earlier, and decided that Fountain was not, actually, art, and rejected it from the show, causing an uproar first amongst the Dadaists (Marcel was a charter member). He promptly resigned from the board of the Independent Artists, and, wittingly or unwittingly (he was a master chess player), threw the art world into chaos, eventually leading to the intellectual atomization of PostModernism and all that followed – that is, to an unsettling situation wherein to attempt to define art would be akin to grasping a handful of water.
As you can see from these two key events in man’s recent history, neither art nor religion was ever the same once these ideas took wing. In fact, they both have all the elements of the Butterfly Effect in Chaos theory: that is, the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could conceivably create tiny changes in the atmosphere that could, possibly, lead to the conditions within which a hurricane could be born. Hurricanes were certainly born of these two butterflies.
It is a wondrous thing to contemplate the notion that pivotal moments in history can hinge on the ideas and actions of a single person. It is also worth noting, though perhaps not quite as wondrous to contemplate, the fact that to this day I can’t stand in front of a urinal without thinking of Marcel Duchamp. It is conceivable, I suppose, that I would similarly be reminded of Voltaire if I ever found myself standing in front of a guillotine.
Photo, top: Marcel Duchamp playing chess by Kay Bell Reynal, 1952; below, Duchamp’s Fountain.