The Turner prize is announced tomorrow – and it owes it all to a humble urinal, explains Waldemar Januszczak
What is surprising is that it took the worthies so long to reach their conclusion. This announcement could have been made at any time in the past 50 years or so, and would have been just as true then as it is now.
I am not thinking here about self-evident stuff. Sure, without the urinal there would be no Tate Modern, Nick Serota, Charles Saatchi, Turner prize and conceptual art. Some of you will be cheering this news — and shouting for the return of a pre-urinal age. But chew on this, Philistine. Half the earlier isms of the 20th century were also given succour by the great pissoir, or appeared as a result of it. Surrealism could not have been what it was without the urinal. Nor Dada, minimalism and most certainly not pop art.
If that doesn’t impress you then let’s look beyond art, at life as we know it today. Had the urinal not introduced the concept of radical conversion and therefore found a way to make the useless priceless, I’m sure there would be no loft-living today.
Warehouses would have stayed warehouses. The less-is-more aesthetic would not have triumphed either, so there would be no Scandinavian shelving, Hugo Boss nor even Ikea. Anything fashionable that involves taking stuff away rather than adding can trace its family tree back to that pure outline from the gents’.
In the field of attitude, the urinal’s impact was nuclear. I seriously doubt that the 1960s could have turned out how they did — sassy, irreverent, youthful, up for it — if the urinal hadn’t shown the way.
And when you switch on the television and catch the ads, and someone tries to sell you something by talking about something else, where do you think the technique originated? Put in the crudest terms, before the urinal things looked backward. After it they looked forward. It’s that simple.
Lots of people don’t like any of this. Lots of people would rather the whole caboodle — Serota, the Tate, the pissoir, Tracey Emin — all of it would go away. But it won’t. If you cannot deal with the extraordinary legacy of Duchamp’s Fountain then I suggest you enter a monastery or move to Wales. Because you will never be able to hack it in the modern world.
The story about how Duchamp came to make Fountain and exhibit it, or rather not exhibit it, is worth repeating for the light it casts on the history of contemporary art.
Duchamp was a Frenchman born in 1887 who managed to skip the first world war by feigning invalidity and resettled himself in New York in 1915. He left behind what we might call the old art world: Matisse, Picasso, Braque.
Some people fondly imagine this rejected generation to represent the proper spirit of modern art. But while Braque was fighting in the trenches, Duchamp was amusing Americans at art openings and becoming the unelected leader of the Manhattan avant-garde. The war that was decimating his generation back in France might as well not have been happening for him. It was just another conceptual unreality.
We can frown at this unserious behaviour or we can recognise it as Duchamp’s exasperated protest at the sheer silliness of the old ways. While the Germans, the French and the English were slugging it out to the death in the mud — in order to achieve what? — Duchamp was learning how to bed the first generation of ladies who lunch and cocking a snook at the whole appalling mindset that had brought the great European cocks to war. Who was getting this right? Braque or him? What is clear is that Duchamp’s decampment to New York is the single most symbolic act in the transfer of cultural power from old world to new. America was the place to be. Everything going on there — the skyscrapers, cars, movies, lippiness and jazz — added up to nothing less than the invention of today.
As a Frenchman, Duchamp was looked up to for all the old reasons. Snobbery made him the toast of the Manhattan art world. But what is wonderful about him — what saves him, glorifies him and makes him special — is the imperishable cultural truth that you can take a Frenchman out of France but you cannot take France out of a Frenchman.
If you sent Jacques Chirac over to work as a waiter in Balthazar’s on Spring Street in New York, would he ever learn successfully to fawn and scrape before Americans? Of course not. If you imprisoned Gérard Depardieu in Alcatraz for a decade and schooled him relentlessly in the American way, would he ever lose his Burgundian accent or give up smoking? Not a chance.
The wonderful thing about Duchamp’s stay in Manhattan is his refusal to sit there quietly and be a good Froggy. The secret pleasure he took in mocking the pretensions and shallowness he found in Manhattan was one of the urinal’s chief conceptual components.
In 1917 he was elected to the board of a huge exhibition of progressive art that was being organised for and by all Manhattan’s independent artists. The massive show was intended to be a bigger and better American equivalent of the notorious impressionist shows in Paris that took on the system and won.
It was to be the largest exhibition of new art ever held in America.
A week before the show opened, Duchamp and a couple of his American art world buddies popped into a shop on 5th Avenue, called J L Mott Iron Works, which sold bathroom appliances. On a whim he bought the nifty little pissoir and took it home. He had been experimenting with ready-mades: ordinary objects found in the outside world that caught his eye such as a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel.
The urinal was signed ostentatiously R Mutt, a crude distortion of the shop-owner’s name. Duchamp wasn’t very good at American spellings but he knew the slang for a dog. Then, at the last minute, he entered it in the Independents exhibition, where the jury turned it down.
Since the show was intended to show the kind of art the Establishment would not tolerate, being turned down was proof of an astonishing hard-coreness. The most enormous fuss ensued with both camps arguing this way and that. The usual squabbles ensued about it being art, according to some, and most definitely not art, according to others.
Duchamp, who seemed never to take anything seriously, issued a serious-sounding defence insisting that what counted here was his decision to call the urinal an artwork. He had chosen the urinal and when he chose it he redirected its meaning.
His point was certainly not that the urinal was beautiful, a fine fusion of floating forms, aesthetically perfect or anything stupid like that. The point was it was a strange-looking thing with lots of natural surrealism to it. When you took it out of its usual context and signed it, it looked most peculiar. Hilariously, for many days after the scandal broke the press was searching hither and thither for the outrageous mystery artist, R Mutt.
Also, and this must not be underestimated, putting Fountain into the show was an act of deliberate cruelty on Duchamp’s part. It was a calculated gesture designed to taunt and annoy the American art world and puncture some of its pretension.
As a Frenchman he enjoyed micturating on the Yanks. Whenever the history of the great urinal is spouted the excellent fact that it was never shown in the Independents exhibition tends also to get overlooked. It’s the original example of the unmissable artwork that wasn’t there.
Where did it go? Some say it was smashed to pieces by the Independents’ organisers. Others insist Duchamp smuggled it away and included it covertly in other shows. Nobody is quite sure.
Duchamp went on to make various copies of it. But its most powerful impact was in a moody, tongue-in-cheek photograph of the pissoir, melodramatically lit, taken by the great Alfred Stieglitz, who was in on the joke.
Thus the urinal has only ever existed in our imagination. That’s why it’s the most influential artwork of the modern age. Perhaps even of all time.