We Know It When We See It

by John Link

Stieglitz FOUNTAIN

Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

The title of this comment "defines" art well enough, especially when the folly of trying to define it formally raises its perplexing head. When Marcel Duchamp is given credit, as he so often is, for making the definition of art an important issue, I roll my eyes. How is it we recognize the animal images adorning the walls of Lascaux as art when they were quite possibly created before there was any word like "art"? Duchamp's "question" does not have anything to do with them or how they came to be. Questions about the "definition of art" were just as irrelevant to making art then as they are today.

Somehow "Is it art?" has become a big deal, one that, in designated circumstances, serves to make certain objects, such as Duchamp's Fountain, more valuable than they otherwise might be. Curiously, this wasn't the case in 1917, when the original object was proposed for exhibition. The Society of Independent Artists did not show it for at least two reasons, both rather reasonable and conventional, not controversial. They included: 1), the work was not submitted by any member in good standing of the Society because Duchamp had hidden his identity during the submission process; and 2), it was not submitted by the deadline. The "subversive" title associated with it today appears nowhere on the submission label but rather was coined later by a journalist who wrote about the situation after it was disallowed. While real art must be experienced in the present to be felt as art, the fan-boys and girls of Fountain compulsively tie the "experience" of its artistic merit to the "facts" associated with its non-inclusion in this one show and its consequent "influence" on art forever after. Glyn Thompson wrote a telling article for the March/April 2017 issue of The Jackdaw that takes apart these many myths. Read it if you can.

Fountain was stored out of sight for the show and picked up afterward. It was never seen again in public and no one today knows what became of it.

When a semi-similar replica was "found" or otherwise procured in 1950 and exhibited by Sidney Janis, the art world had become increasingly more interested in intellectualizing about art as opposed to simply looking at it. Harold Rosenberg, in his 1952 "American Action Painters", expressed this tendency well when he said "Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction-psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked." What could this possibly mean? Other than it's a virtue to ramble on in a quasi-rational discourse detached from any reality in the art you are considering, I don't know. But Rosenberg set the future course of art criticism, not his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, who had no tolerance for this viewpoint. Fountain proved to be a worthy stimulus for speaking in tongues.

In the early 60's, art world interest in the discarded Fountain rose to the degree that Duchamp had two editions of the object made. The first, in 1963, was not entirely consistent with Stieglitz's photograph, but the members of the edition were still inscribed by the artist. The 1964 edition was clearly created under Duchamp's supervision and follows the Stieglitz photograph closely. The 1964 versions bear a copper plate of authenticity stating "Marcel Duchamp 1964 1/8-8/8", "FOUNTAIN / 1917 / EDITION GALERIE SCHWARZ, MILAN" (depending on the place in the edition occupied by a specific copy) and signed by Duchamp himself on the back of the left flange. There was also an artist and a publisher "proof", as is typical in the tradition of editioned multiples that are original, and two more copies for the exhibition. Fountain had finally become the "real deal", almost 50 years after it had been annihilated by the forces of happenstance and disregard.

Thus, the "evolution" of Fountain went from Duchamp hanging the 1917 rejected object over a doorway in his studio for a year, then discarding it before he went to Buenos Aires, to Andre Breton's mention in his essay "Phare de la mariee" (1935), to Sidney Janis exhibiting something similar in 1950, to the commercially correct 1964 edition. This reflects quite a change in attitude regarding the importance of the original 1917 work. Art opinion, including Duchamp's, went from ignoring the thing, as if it were worthless refuse, to meriting making a respectable, commercially correct "art" edition, complete with authenticated provenance. It also reflects the capacity of the American art system to monetize just about anything. In 1999 Sotheby's sold a copy from the "commerce conforming" 1964 edition for $1.7 million.

Intellectuals have lionized the work with equal fervor. It was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 enlightened British art world dignitaries, ahead of anything Picasso made, for one significant example. It is apparent that, by "influential" they meant written about, intellectualized over, understood and misunderstood, footnoted, and taught as part of art history. Indeed, they are probably correct. "Duchamp Fountain" gets more than 400,000 hits when googled. "Picasso Les Demoiselle" gets just 344,000, (though doing "Guernica" gets over a half million - likely a reflection of its political content). But the fact is, Picasso made pictures that were and are to be looked at, not theorized over, because of their narrow, "traditional" focus. Fountain, on the other hand, is so loosely constrained visually and vacant of any artistic discipline, that it can generate just about any kind of discussion, to the delight of art writers with all sorts of agendas. Its intellectual fertility has recently spawned numerous treatises "exploring" its relevance to gender identity, sexism, male privilege, and so on, to go with its long history of ontological speculation about the definition of art and the joy of offending vulgarians. Clearly, Fountain has triggered meandering word-smithing relevant to the ever present contemporaneous issue-of-the-day, just like bells triggered Pavlov's dogs.

My late partner, Darby Bannard, dealt with the question of whether something is art or not in a couple of ways. The most plainspoken was:

"A work of art in the dumpster is trash. A work of art in a museum at night is an inert object made with canvas or bronze or whatever. A work of art in an auction is an item of commerce. A work of art that I look at and get thrilled by is a work of art. In fact it is at that moment a good work of art. If I hate it it is a bad work of art. If you love it and I hate it we accept it as a work of art and we disagree whether is a good or bad work of art. Identifications are not reality, they are convenience." (Notes On Art And Culture #8)

John Griefen gave us his take on the same question when he said: "When people try to 'understand' or 'have art explained' there is room for a kind of fraud that undermines what art really is there for and what it has for us. If people believe that art can be explained to them they can be talked into anything." (Art, Intuition, and Understanding) Indeed, people CAN be talked into anything, including parting with $1.7 million for an object that is essentially a conversation starter.

But to be fair, I've noticed one hiccup in the history of Fountain labelled as "bad-art-mistaken-for-good" and how it came to be so important to the intellectuals who provide the rules that control most of what goes on. Alfred Stieglitz's photograph of the original object has the look of art about it, just as Deep Throat has the look of porn. There is no need to spin words about either of them and what they might be besides what they are.

And there is no question Stieglitz made a good photograph. The argument has been over whether its subject is any good as art. Way back when I was a young guy, I looked at that photo and said to myself, "Wait a minute, there is something going on here." Clearly, my clicker had been clicked. It still clicks when I look at that photograph; it's quite compelling. Centered, but not quite. Grainy black and white, abstracted from everyday reality, but clear and formidable, thanks to the contrast of the muscular curves with the background. Was it the subject of the photograph or the photograph itself that turned me on?

The odd, sort of top down point of view created by the location of the signature was a contribution Duchamp could claim for himself, to be sure, but hardly sufficient to close the deal, art-wise. The official picture of the Tate's copy from the 1964 edition is also on its back, viewed from the top, signature right side up. It is centered (perfectly this time), but the object simply looks like a male urinal on its back, competently lit and well-presented but not something to get one's clicker clicked by. The signing by Mr. Mutt reminds me it is associated with the historical Fountain, but little else - a matter of my brain's art history database, not what I long for when I seek art.

I am pretty sure it was Stieglitz's talent for making a good picture that leveraged the essential mediocrity of Fountain into my consciousness - and perhaps the world's. The haphazard object Duchamp acquired from a plumbing store was presented through the pictorial genius specific to Stieglitz. Was that enough kick to launch its potential as the conversation piece that dominated the last half of 20th century art writing? What if the only photograph taken before Fountain was discarded had looked like the blood-starved image distributed by the Tate? The answer is "there", needing only to be seen.


Official photograph, Tate copy of Fountain

May 10, 2017

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