If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

AP®︎/College Art History

Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Duchamp, Fountain

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964, porcelain urinal, paint, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Speakers:  Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    Marcel Duchamp is quoted as saying, "But the onlooker has the last word, and it is always posterity that makes the masterpiece." As an onlooker, what qualities do you see that make this and other 'readymades' true works of art?
    (14 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Dave Mac
    How can anybody class a urinal as some wonderful piece of art?
    (9 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
    Did Duchamp reject the name "alchemy" because it was simply too transcendent to equate his anti-art with turning iron to gold and seeking immortality; when infact, he was trying to (metaphorically) question the very value of gold in the first place?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    What were the reasons given by the committee to reject Fountain? Did Duchamp appeal the decision? Was Fountain eventually shown in the non-jury exhibition which rejected it?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops tree style avatar for user itsleeford
      The Society of Independent Artists did not outright reject the piece, but hid it during the exhibition because they did not consider it art. Duchamp was actually a member of the society and resigned due to their decision. The Fountain was not shown again and in fact the original has been lost to history, only replicas remain
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
    I think this urinal shouldn't be accepted as a work of art. One reason is that the effort put into this lacks too significantly. It would have been a disgrace for other artists to see a urinal put in the same line as their pieces. No wonder the exhibition rejected it. The other reason is that it does not have any uniqueness. Literally anyone could make the same piece. Just because Duchamp came up with this idea of submitting a urinal as a 'sculpture' does not mean a urinal is worthy of being called as 'a work of art'. (Edit: It is, and always will be, difficult for me to purely appreciate Ready-mades and works of Dada movement as 'works of art'. Fountain has indeed confused people, but I think just the confusion itself is too shallow to be titled 'inspiring', which is the reason why I can't consider it as a work of art. I want to point out that people might be overestimating the thoughts and intentions of the artist behind the confusion too much.)
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Jenae Sweet
      Duchamp also submitted that piece to an exhibition where the judges said that anything was going to be accepted. Peoples work wasn't being accepted in other exhibitions, were entered into that specific exhibition. He was proving a point that, since his work was rejected, he proved to them that they wouldn't take just anything. Also, it falls under the category of a "Ready-Made" They utilized something that was already made, and it was up to the artist to promote it in a certain way. It actually is freeing in a way. Also, Duchamp was apart of the Dada Movement. The majority of anything those artists created didn't make sense, at least until you actually learn why they are making what they are making and doing what they are doing. And since it still ruffles feathers and people still don't understand it, Duchamp did a good job.
      (4 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    In the last Duchamp video it was claimed that these sorts of works could fetch massive prices at Sotheby's or Christie's auctions...but what about during Duchamp's lifetime? Did he ever actually make money off of these "works"?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user LateSparrow
      The world of auctions and art trade is almost completely unrelated to artists. It works in very different circles than the artists themselves. Some say that their activity is governed by "the bigger fool theory". That means that a person is willing to pay a lot of money for a work of art if he believes that sometime in the future other people will be willing to pay even more. Artists motivations are usually not about making a ton of money. It's to make a statement, or self-expression.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
    On a second line of thought, Dr.s Harris & Zucker mentioned that it was absurd to consider the formal properties of a urinal; isn't questioning the formal properties of all human design simply a logical inevitability?
    The urinal /has/ formal properties, anything that has been designed posesses them, is the absurdity in regards to assigning the formal properties to Duchamp, rather than the item's inherent design?
    That it's absurd to only question the urinal's formal properties because Duchamp wrote "R. Mutt 1917" on it, suggesting that no other urinal posses any formal properties whatsoever until an artist scribbles on them?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Joseph Brandenburg
      I agree with you (I think, not actually sure I understand), everything has formal properties, even )and especially) undesigned images, like nature. It is absurd to talk about the formal qualities of the urinal because a) that's not what the "piece" about and b) it was designed by someone else entirely probably without regard for its formal design. The absurdity, I think, is taking Douchamp seriously in the first place, but your mileage may vary there.
      (1 vote)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    He made it as a work of art through the alchemy of the artist! Thank you so much. This puts it all into a nutshell.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Kelson
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Aaron Cox
    How was Fountain put into "the limelight" after that initial dismissal by Duchamp's art society thing? Who was it that eventually took it as art and displayed it? I am curious to know how Fountain went from being thrown away by an artists' group whose whole basis was open-mindedness to being accepted with seemingly worldwide acclaim. I feel like an explanation of this process is important and missing.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're at SFMOMA and we're looking at a Marcel Duchamp. This is Fountain, which he originally made in 1917, but which he remade in 1964. DR. BETH HARRIS: The original was gone. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Thrown away, or who knows what. DR. BETH HARRIS: So this is a small series that was made in 1964, after that original work of 1917. And he oversaw the making of this. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I think we need to be really careful with the word making. [LAUGHTER] What Duchamp did, of course, is he went to a plumbing supply house-- it was called Mott-- and purchased this and-- DR. BETH HARRIS: OK, so he didn't make it. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. So he made it as a work of art. Through the alchemy of the artist, transformed this. DR. BETH HARRIS: He turned the urinal on its side and signed it R. Mott and dated it. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And submitted it to an art exhibition for a new group that he was a founding member of, the American Society for Independent Artists. And their notion was that the juried exhibition that was prevalent in the United States in New York at this time-- remember, Duchamp had just come over from Paris-- was, in fact, a real problem, because the jury always selected the traditional work that they were associated with. And this new group wanted to bring in new possibilities. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. So they were supposed to accept every work that was submitted, but they rejected this one. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, I think he was really pushing the boundary there. DR. BETH HARRIS: He submitted it as sculpture, which, to me, is even more remarkable, because when you think about sculpture, it has an even more monumental-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And grand tradition-- DR. BETH HARRIS: --heroic tradition even than painting, to take this urinal and turn it on its side. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Some art historians have dealt with this in the most absurd way, talking about its formal qualities with its shiny-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Its curves-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: --porcelain surface. But it's a urinal, although it is transformed. And this is, of course, what Duchamp called a "readymade." DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, you used the word alchemy before. And I think that that's an interesting word, because one of the ways we can think about what art is, is a kind of transformation of ordinary materials into something really wonderful that transports us and that makes us see things in a new way. And though he didn't make anything, he is asking us to see the urinal in a new way. Not necessarily as an aesthetic object, but to make us ask the philosophical questions about what art it is and what the artist does. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But he separates craftsmanship and its relationship to aesthetic enjoyment and to the profundity of a work of art. Just absolutely throwing it out the window. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's the philosophical question he wants to open up-- does art have to be made by the hand of the artist. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course he's doing it in the most absurd way by putting a urinal forward, calling it Fountain. DR. BETH HARRIS: So what is art? Is it the idea? Is it the concept? Can an artist just have the idea and not make the object? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Can art be pure philosophy, pure theory? DR. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. [MUSIC PLAYING]