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Modern sculptors 2 – R. Mutt’s Fountain (1917) and the Readymade

How was R. Mutt responsible for one of the most important conceptual changes in the history of sculpture? Dr Maddie Boden uncovers the story.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's replica of Fountain by R. Mutt (Marcel Duchamp)
© Creative Commons

In 1917, the same year that Rodin died another French artist, living in New York City, decided to make a submission to an art exhibition organised by the newly-formed Society of Independent Artists.

That submission, made by a person only identified as ‘R. Mutt’, was rejected by the organisers as a grotesque and indecent joke. The piece was a sculpture and because of the controversy that R. Mutt inspired, consequently, the medium found itself at the centre of one of the most revolutionary art-historical debates of the twentieth century: what exactly counts as a work of ‘art’?

This moment is important to us because it shows how sculpture can be used in theoretical and conceptual debates.

R. Mutt was, in fact, the twenty-eight-year-old artist, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). A relatively unknown artist, he had moved to New York to escape the traditional art world of Paris; New York was on the rise as the new centre for avant-garde artists. His controversial submission was a commercially-made porcelain urinal which he ordered from a catalogue, sat upside down and titled Fountain. According to the organisers, who themselves were artists, a urinal could not be considered a piece of legitimate art. After Duchamp revealed himself as the instigator, he countered that, as an artist, he had the power to name anything as art. He used the term readymade to describe commercially manufactured objects that he selected as works of art.

The theory behind the readymade was explained in an anonymous editorial published in the May 1917 issue of avant-garde magazine The Blind Man run by Duchamp and two friends:

“Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
According to Tate’s art dictionary:
“There are three important points here: first, that the choice of object is itself a creative act. Secondly, that by cancelling the ‘useful’ function of an object it becomes art. Thirdly, that the presentation and addition of a title to the object have given it ‘a new thought’, a new meaning. Duchamp’s readymades also asserted the principle that what is art is defined by the artist. At the time, the readymade was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature.”

In 1965, Duchamp was interviewed about his readymade sculptures. According to him, what is the most important consideration for selecting a readymade? What do you think of his criteria?

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.


Tate Art Dictionary ‘Readymade’

© University of York
This article is from the free online

Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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