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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 This is Fountain, which he originally made in 1917, but which he remade in 1964.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]