100 Years Ago, the Future of Art was Cast.

But is it ART?

One hundred years ago, on April 9, 1917, Marcel Duchamp forever changed the nature of art. That was the day he submitted Fountain — a porcelain urinal, signed R. Mutt — to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York.

The exhibition was an open call to artists in which all submissions would be shown. Duchamp tested the limits of the organization’s guidelines by anonymously submitting what would become his most famous “readymade” — an ordinary manufactured object that he labelled a work of art. The rejection of Duchamp’s Fountain by the exhibition’s organizers sparked a controversy that continues to this day about the definition of art. If I say it’s art, does that make it art?

It’s easy to despise the cynicism of Dadaism … which put forth “anti-art” as a rejection of the prevailing “bourgeois” artistic standards. But when seen in the context of the dulcet mildness of impressionism, against the horrors of World War I, Dadaism may be easier to understand.

In 2006, a self-proclaimed performance artist took a hammer to Duchamp’s factory-made Fountain, the urinal that is considered the cornerstone of conceptual art.

The vandalism — which took place during a Dada exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris and resulted in minor damage — was a statement that the work had “lost its provocative value”. The artist — who had urinated into the same urinal at an art show in 1993 — claimed that his action was itself a work of art, a tribute to Duchamp and other Dada artists who had made their name by challenging the very definition of art.

MARCEL DUCHAMP, the father of conceptual art

Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) was a French-born, naturalized-American painter, sculptor and writer, and younger brother of Jacques Villon. He learned academic drawing from a teacher who (obviously unsuccessfully) attempted to “protect” his students from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and other avant-garde influences. As a young man, Duchamp drew and sold cartoons, often playing with words and symbols — unsuspecting, then, that he was to become “the father of conceptual art.”

But Duchamp soon rejected the work of many of his fellow artists as “retinal” art: intended only to please the eye. Instead, he thought art should serve the mind. He proposed his readymades as an antidote to “retinal art”… claiming that, by simply selecting and modifying an ordinary manufactured object, and repositioning, titling and signing it, the object became art.

The question remains … is it art?

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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