1917: A Shattering Discovery From The Year Art Went Into The Toilet

fountain

What happened to R. Mutt’s “Fountain”?

For the last few days, inside the cocoons, there is much shock. As out-of-touch elitists in the would-be ruling class are processing an historic rejection of their presumptions, it’s worth revisiting a defining and divisive moment in elitist art history.

Recently, in some random reading I was doing, I came across a surprising story that may actually solve a genuine art world mystery.

I’m very critical of the nihilistic stylings of the contemporary establishment art market. I’ve written at length on its dynamic as both an elaborate con game and as an insidious effort at social programming and control.  Conceptual Art is the official art of the New World Order. Talentless cynics like Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin are promoted as pinnacles of achievement, and showered with elitist money and accolades. These conceptual artists claim that just having an idea is good enough to be considered art, as long as the right people agree.

The conceit of conceptual art, like most of the abuses of this decadent Post Modern era, comes from a thirst for power. Anything can be art if the gatekeepers say it is, and you better submit to their superior opinions. Contemporary art has become a wedge, a means for primitive tribal virtue signalling. You can divide the population up based on savvy insiders who prattle on about a dirty, unmade bed in a museum as a fascinating comment on normative functionalism, versus those mundane types who recognize a feeble failure when they see it.

A certain segment of the glitterati like to flaunt their ability to see shit as sophisticated art as a badge of honor, for some reason.

We are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the totem these poseurs use as credibility for their if-it’s-in-a-gallery-it-must-be-art attitudes. In April 1917, New York City’s Society of Independent Artists had an egalitarian idea for an art show: anyone who paid the fee could show their art, which would be hung in alphabetical order. But the organizers were shocked when they received an anonymous submission, called “Fountain.” It was a sideways urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917.”

duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, sporting a reverse mohawk

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One of the organizers was French artist Marcel Duchamp. When the committee balked at showing the urinal he resigned in a huff. Years later he spread it around that it was actually his piece.”Fountain” was a Dada assault on taste, a rejection of artistic skill, an undermining of the noble purposes of art. Duchamp and his advocates like to say it poses philosophical questions about what art is. Regardless, the piece can be seen as the harbinger of the whole empty, alienating, transgressive mess the contemporary art world has become. “Fountain” has been used as the justification for turning art into an ironic elitist assertion, rather than an uplifting communal experience. It’s a truly nasty legacy.

But did Duchamp even make the piece? Evidence suggests he stole credit for the piece from a female artist, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an wildly eccentric friend of his. She was part artist and part public nuisance, an exhibitionist, kleptomaniac and poet, who often dressed herself in food and utensils. The urinal would have been just her style.

Dada Baroness

The real R. Mutt? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

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On April 11, 1917, Duchamp wrote in a letter to his sister: “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.” So it seems while he may have submitted it to the show, Duchamp was not the one who came up with this iconic gesture. By the time Duchamp started to claim “Fountain” as his own, the mentally ill Baroness was long dead and forgotten.

It would match Duchamp’s character to perform such a swindle; he lived his adult life sponging off of, using, and abusing a series of women. He really was a cad.

It is so fitting the impetus of our contemporary establishment art world is most likely based on lies, theft, corruption and exploitation. But the originator of the piece is not the mystery I’m writing about.

What happened to the original “Fountain”?

Avant-garde gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz snapped a picture of it, but we are told the original was lost. The versions of “Fountain” now on display in museums around the world are “replicas” Duchamp commissioned in the 1960s to cash in on the notorious reputation of the piece.

I just found a surprising clue to what happened to “Fountain” in an unexpected place, while I was reading about a very different type of artist.

William Glackens (March 13, 1870 – May 22, 1938) was a significant painter in the early decades of the 2oth century. He got his start as an artist journalist. Before there were photographs in newspapers, illustrators had to create the imagery. They had to work fast, and since they were covering the news, they were used to depicting the common people as opposed to esoteric artistic subject matter. Glackens’s most notable journalistic work occurred in 1898, when he accompanied Theodore Roosevelt’s troops to Cuba during the Spanish American War.

glackens-cuba

William Glackens artwork from the field of battle

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After he left journalism, Glackens continued to make an art of the people, as compared to an art of the Academy. He was a key figure of the early American art movements The Eight and The Ashcan School, realist painters that rebelled against the stuffy elitist attitudes of the art establishment of their era. Glackens and his colleagues were considered controversial and gauche at the time for their depictions of everyday life.

william-glackens-235555

William Glackens “The Shoppers”

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I love reading artist biographies. So when I was recently at the library and saw on the shelf William Glackens and the Eight: The Artists Who Freed American Art, I was very excited. I knew about him and the Ashcan School, and I see the art movement Remodernism as fulfilling a similar role for artistic renewal now.

The book is by his son Ira Glackens, written in 1957. It is full of amusing and affectionate anecdotes about both of his parents; William was married to socialite and artist Edith Dimock. She is the central figure depicted in the painting of the shoppers above.

As William Glackens was one of the most important artists of his day, he was involved in many major events. I was thrilled when Ira Glackens wrote about when he was a little boy, during the legendary 1913 Armory Show that introduced Modern Art to America. He met visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder there, one of my favorite artists. But I was stunned when he recounted a story about 1917.

William Glackens was the president of the Society of Independent Artists committee that received “Fountain.” Another artist on the committee along with Duchamp was Charles Prendergast. Here are Ira’s words about how the  “Fountain”  situation was resolved:

It would be difficult to visualize W.G. [William Glackens] in an executive capacity, but nevertheless he proved a very valuable man, especially when an impasse was reached. The story of how he solved a great dilemma that confronted the executive committee was later told by Charles Prendergast, and he laughed so hard telling it that the tears ran down his cheeks… Everybody perhaps knows the story of the “Fountain” signed R. Mutt, a nom de guerre of Marcel Duchamp which the creator of the “Nude Descending a Staircase” submitted as his entry. This object was a urinal, a heavy porcelain affair meant to be a fixture, and it caused a great deal of dismay in the executive committee…The executive committee stood around discussing the thorny problem. Presumably the best art brains in the country were stumped.

Nobody noticed W.G. leave the group and quietly make his way to a corner where the disputed object d’ art sat on the floor beside a screen. He picked it up, held it over the screen, and dropped it. There was a crash. Everyone looked around startled.

“It broke!” he exclaimed.

By the 1950s when this book was written Duchamp had appropriated credit for “Fountain,” but it had not yet become the cultural touchstone it is now considered. I see no reason why Ira Glackens would just invent a story like that, or why their family friend and fellow artist Charles Prendergrast would say such a thing about the mild mannered and low key William Glackens for no reason.

We now have some hearsay evidence about what happened to the original “Fountain,” which has been overlooked for decades. There’s no way to prove it, but it’s a compelling conclusion to a sordid tale. As far as I’m concerned, William Glackens was on the right track and did the world a favor. If only it had ended there.

The pissy head games of elitist art need smashing, now more than ever.

11/22: Welcome Instapundit readers! Check out some of my other posts to see more about the state of the arts from a Remodernist perspective. -RB

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38 thoughts on “1917: A Shattering Discovery From The Year Art Went Into The Toilet

  1. Excellent article! While I find the early dada movement hilarious because it flouted the accepted norms, and I like conceptual art to a certain extent (especially if it’s playful), I agree that it doesn’t necessarily take actual talent – unless you count self-promotion to be talent, which it arguably is. While I hone my skills as an artist daily, it’s taking considerably more practice learning how to sell the art I make. I have switched from a very expressionist style to a photorealist style over the last 2 years, and I find myself occasionally having to defend the realist work against the critique “intellectual” art elites because they don’t consider it full of “meaning.” To those people I explain that I am elevating the everyday object to the status of art, much like the “Fountain” did. That usually shuts them up. That being said, it sells better than my expressionist work does to the ordinary art buyer who just wants a pleasing image on their wall. https://emilypageart.net/2016/11/09/the-photo-vs-the-painting/

  2. Very good piece. I really liked the shoppers.

    Something from someone almost contemporary to the time:

    ART, n. This word has no definition. Its origin is related as follows by the ingenious Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.One day a wag — what would the wretch be at? —
    Shifted a letter of the cipher RAT,
    And said it was a god’s name! Straight arose
    Fantastic priests and postulants (with shows,
    And mysteries, and mummeries, and hymns,
    And disputations dire that lamed their limbs)
    To serve his temple and maintain the fires,
    Expound the law, manipulate the wires.
    Amazed, the populace the rites attend,
    Believe whate’er they cannot comprehend,
    And, inly edified to learn that two
    Half-hairs joined so and so (as Art can do)
    Have sweeter values and a grace more fit
    Than Nature’s hairs that never have been split,
    Bring cates and wines for sacrificial feasts,
    And sell their garments to support the priests.

    Ambrose Bierce

  3. It’s great to evolve as an artist, and take on challenges, congratulations! Those paintings are very impressive. Coming from my viewpoint, I would not put a talent for self promotion in the same league as the mysterious processes of creating a new world, which is what art does.

  4. I agree that it’s not the same thing, but they both require creativity and I sure wish that they had taught me the business side of things in art school! Sadly, too often the artists/writers/musicians who can hype themselves the best are the most successful, even when they have no real talent. My dad was a jazz musician and there was a piano player who all the musicians in town referred to as “lobster claws” because of his lack of finesse, but he got most of the gigs because he was so good at talking himself up. Frustrating, to say the least!

  5. It is true that the business is an aspect of this, and there is an art to everything, even business. The model as presented though is out of balance, and there is too much confusion between hype and actual accomplishment. The former is easier to achieve than the latter.So keep up your good work, there’s energy there, it will break through.

  6. emilypageart,
    Years ago PBS had a reality survival show (yes I know, but they did). About twelve different couples went out on a “prairie” with a wagon load of things you could only find in circa 1850’s. There they were given cabins in various states of completion. The goal was to survive and settle 1850’s style for 6 months I think with what they had. Some brought certain tools, others seed, etc. But the one I remember the most was the guy who brought a liquor still. I remember thinking that’s the guy, who not only would survive, but would have ended up being the banker or lawyer and owned the town. Of course they ended up celebrating a faux wedding of a different couple (it was PBS).
    One funny thing I did see was of one couple, the guy was a high tech exec out of Calif. and as the show went on he started losing weight and being tired at night they just couldn’t understand what was wrong with him. They got so worried they finally had a doctor (an old marine) look at him. After the exam the old doc said “quit worrying you’re just getting into shape”.

  7. I have a problem. Not with your article, no, it’s excellently conceived and written and the points are fair, very fairly made. In my humble opinion, a lot of the current art, bandied around as Conceptual is not conceptual in any way other than it’s largely shit.

    The problem I have is that Conceptual Art, proper, honest to goodness, intellectually articulated Conceptual Art is the only art worth a damn thus far in the 21st Century. Most, all, nearly all the rest are exercises in technical competency. Just one genre, the bug up the bear’s arse is Hyper-realism . . . really? What the hell does it mean? Do we really want to see the actualities of this crappy world in hyper detail or do we want an artist’s (a Conceptual Artist) reaction to it that can rip out your soul then re-stitch it into your psyche in a way that changes you forever ? . . . I could go on but I need a quiet corner and a Curly Wurly.

  8. I’ve yet to see any celebrated conceptual art art that has inspired anything more for me than eye rolling annoyance. You’d have to give me an example of the kind of achievement you are describing.

  9. Now that is a powerful piece to be sure. But I would not say it is conceptual, in the contemporary art sense. Picasso didn’t just have an idea, and assemble a bunch of readymade objects, or hire skilled craftsman to execute the idea. That’s how our inferior conceptual artists of today generate their products-I wouldn’t even call the results art. Rather, Guernica is a very Modern artwork in the sense it was the work of a single visionary individual, made with his own hands and talent. It’s from the 20th Century, not the 21st Century. It packs more ideas and invention into a single canvas that a whole museum of Conceptual artists could generate. So it’s a great piece to reference as a powerful work of art, but it does not participate in the shallow dynamic of our contemporary art world.

  10. “Wow, that is very nice! ” Thanks, but it is my ex who deserves the accolades, after all she did it, not me. This is probably the poorest of the group

  11. When I was in college in the ’70s, I had an Art History teacher who said, in large part, Art was doing something for tbe first time; this was why Andy Warhol could do a rendering of a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and it was accepted as Art, but no one else could. It seems to have been an older concept than I was aware…

  12. I submit that William Glackens’ “contribution” – if true – _completed_ the piece as Conceptual Art. One could say that his “reply” to the work became the last part of it.

    And maybe so, even if the story’s not true. After all, all we really need is the concept, no? 😉

  13. Hint to artists:

    Did Michaelangelo post explanatory notes for the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel? Is there a plaque at the bottom of “David” telling you what it meant? Did Leonardo daVinci explain the meaning of her smile? Did Beethoven explain how to interpret his Ninth Symphony?

    No.

    If you create a piece of art and you need to tell people what it means for them to get any value out of it, you have failed. It’s not art.

  14. Wonderful! Thank you. I also recommend a book, long out of print, by T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings titled “Mona Lisa’s Mustache” [A Dissection of Modern Art]. I think you can still get a used copy on Amazon, or possibly in a library.

  15. It’s pretend art. It’s part of the sorry legacy of cultural Marxism in the arts. Clement Greenberg, the art critic who championed abstraction in the early decades of the 20th Century, was a big fan of the Frankfurt School.

  16. “Like the book says, there is nothing new under the sun. I would say art isn’t about doing something first, it is about doing something significant well.”
    I disagree a little.There are new things under the sun, they are just very hard to find. If there wasn’t, we’d still be in caves afraid to go outside for there are saber toothed tigers out there. Not realizing of course that the tigers have long since disappeared and have been replace by something much more terrifying…………………………fine arts programs at major universities.

  17. I’ll try again. ” there is nothing new under the sun.”. I disagree a little. If there was nothing new we’d still be cowering in our caves fearful of the saber toothed tigers lurking outside. Of course not realizing they had long since disappeared and been replaced by something much more terrifying………………………………………………….fine arts programs at major universities.

  18. Dear Richard Bledsoe. You make the mistake of not checking your sources, When you write that Duchamp told his sister “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it” you are repeating a mistake in translation made by Irene Gammel in her biography of Elsa von Freytag- Loringhoven. Duchamp did not write ‘ell m’a envoye,’ [ acute accent over the ‘e,] ‘but ‘elle avait envoye,’ [acute accent over the ‘e’ again,] meaning “she has sent (to the Independents,) not “she sent to me.” As you can see, he did not use the indirect object pronoun. It was Elsa who had been responsible for submitting Mutt’s urinal, not Duchamp. If you don’t believe me, read the letter. Few do.
    If you want to know the facts you need to read ‘Duchamp’s Urinal? The Facts Behind the Facade.'(Wild Pansy Press. 2015) I think you’ll like it.

    Regards

    Glyn Thompason

  19. Good information, thanks for the feedback. I don’t know French, so I had to go with the translation presented. However, the major point remains Duchamp stole credit for the piece from a mentally unstable woman artist, and set in motion the travesty of an art world we have today.

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