Lessons from Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’: I write, therefore I am

Catherine Yang | Daily Trojan

Art museums are my happy place. Growing up a 40-minute Metro ride away from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I spent my childhood frequenting the hallowed hallways of Renwick Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum.

Everytime I visit a new city, I make it a priority to explore its most famed art museums. Since moving to Los Angeles, I have worked my way through Museum of Contemporary Art, Hauser & Wirth and The Broad. Unsurprisingly, when I studied abroad in Paris, I shamelessly abused my European student discount: I made monthly trips to The Louvre and the Centre Pompidou and designated weekends for expeditions to the Espace Dalí and other niche exhibitions scattered throughout Montmartre. For the love of Magritte, I even booked a solo day trip to Brussels and spent hours exploring all three levels of his museum.

Even before I started writing, I was making art. I took art classes throughout my childhood and wished for art supplies (along with books, of course) for every birthday and Christmas. In fact, in middle school, I was slated to win art competitions under the tutelage of a certifiably unhinged and racist art teacher before I severed ties with her for obvious reasons — but that’s a story for another column. Now, the bulk of my art-making comprises absent-minded scribbles in my notebooks while sinking into deep stupors during lectures where technology is banned, painting landscapes for the house commissioned by my mother and recreating my boyfriend’s favorite album covers as gifts for him.

Although I don’t consider myself a fine artist, art has always played a crucial role in my life — it dictates how I choose to spend my free time, influenced my decision to minor in visual culture and governs the perceptions of others and myself.

But what I love most about the art world is that it is a host of culture and a microcosm of society at large. In studying art, we examine history, philosophy and humanity itself by extension. In all its cliched glory, here’s a truth I hold to be self-evident: Art, in all its forms, is the purest possible contour of human expression.

Most importantly, my passion for visual culture has taught me to see everything around me as art. Now, if you’ll bear with my self-aggrandizing pretension, I’ll exemplify my point through the lens of a rather famous urinal. Yes, you read that right.

Art by Effren Villanueva | Daily Trojan

In 1917, Parisian painter Marcel Duchamp famously pioneered the conceptual artistic movement of the “readymade” by displaying a piece named Fountain — a porcelain urinal signed with the moniker “R. Mutt” and re-oriented on its side. His intent was to introduce the notion that everyday objects hold endless manifestations of meaning and that they can be considered art through the simple gesture of declaring that they are. In other words, the very act of authoring and titling the urinal as something other than its original function rendered it an authentic work by Duchamp.

According to Duchamp and his followers, art is a feat of both ownership and readership. He’s not saying that every object can be worth millions, but that if, as an artist, you decide that your desk lamp is art and an artistic institution agrees to showcase it, your desk lamp would effectively become art. In the same vein, as a writer at the Daily Trojan as a publication, my column becomes legitimized as journalism.

Duchamp also meant to humanize the artist and the art world by demoting the idea of art into something that is readily available to the public — in a literal sense, art is something the masses piss on daily. Naturally, he received backlash from culture critics who argued he was neither exciting nor ennobling. But the statement Duchamp made with Fountain was still revolutionary. The piece shifted the focus of art from physical form to intellectual interpretation and created original thought from an ordinary object. In essence, it made us all artists.

Even more broadly, the lesson I take from the concept of the readymade is that I have the power to be anything I want and the agency to see the world around me however I want. Duchamp also taught me to challenge the status quo; he defied all existing definitions of art and dawned a postmodern era in which the very idea of something can be art.

Now, when I wander through a contemporary art gallery and see little more than a chair or a spray-painted cot or a fort of cardboard boxes, I know that it is art because someone chose to believe it. Now, there’s no one to tell me how or how not to think critically. I don’t worry that my writing is subpar; I know it is not because the thought and attention that I pour into it already holds immeasurable power.

And, at the very least, if my projected career path doesn’t work out, I can always loot a public restroom and sell the porcelain portions to art museums.

Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.