Both rely upon tradition and discipline to think about the things which matter.
Both use symbolics to make a prophetic point about the world as it is beneath our pretensions.
In both art and faith, the debate between what is sacred (or just appropriate) and profane is continuous.
In fact, I would argue the ongoing power and relevance of both art and faith is due to their ability to blur the line of convention and provoke just such a conversation.
Recently, some have raised the question of the appropriateness of the word ‘toilet’ in a sacred setting.
Is the word itself profane?
Or does context- how and to what end it’s used, say raising money for an indigenous community- determine it’s propriety?
Can an ordinarily ‘profane’ word become ‘sacred?’
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1964 above is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) as a replacement for his original from 1917. After his brother’s death during WWI, Duchamp moved from Paris to NYC and helped form the Society of Independent Artists as a way for emerging artists to exhibit their work without censor. In preparation for the first show, Duchamp purchased a mass produced plumbing object from the Mott Hardware store, signed it using his alter ego R. Mutt short for Richard Mutt and dated it 1917. Duchamp categorized this entry as sculpture and paid the required $6 fee only to have it rejected and “lost” or destroyed. The controversy that ensued became part of the object’s meaning and eventually the impetus for Duchamp to recreate it and have it displayed permanently at the SF MOMA.
The following is a direct quote from a 1917 periodical: “The Richard Mutt Case,” from The Blind Man, May 1917:
“They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.” Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain.
Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited. What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:
1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.
2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.
Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”
Creating art during WWI when most objects were mass produced and easily replaceable, Duchamp asked: should art still be hand-made, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, unique?
Should art be visually pleasing?
Must art require impressive technical skill?
What is art?
Through the use of only minimally manipulated mundane ready-made objects, Duchamp sought to move away from the established definition that art should showcase the visual and technical skill of the artist and instead made art about a concept. The idea the object conveys is the more permanent nature of the art(ifact) as long as it has a vehicle for communicating its message. The object itself will eventually disappear much like Duchamp felt after his own brother’s death during WWI.
The idea once created remains a part of history as long as it is remembered either by creating a replacement or by communicating about it. For this work, Duchamp chose the plumbing object, displayed it at 90 degrees and signed it in black and called it sculpture. Applying a title not associated with its original use may change it very drastically.
The very title—Fountain—transforms the way I view this ready-made object.
Duchamp wanted people to reconsider it– that is why he provided it with a new name. He wants us to free associate using the plumbing object and title to form new ideas and think about society in a new way.
For example, we find it absurd to drink water from Duchamp’s Fountain or vile and revolting.
Hopefully we are angry enough that we don’t want anyone to drink non potable water.
It is a loaded image because it reminds me of really vile behavior and oppression when different standards were not recognized as evil.
We don’t have to agree that this object is art or that Duchamp is brilliant.
I hope we can agree that these people are beautiful, one-of-a kind, unique, and irreplaceable.
When it comes to ‘toilets’ and getting toilets and clean water to children like these, the question is not between the sacred and profane.
It’s a question of what is holy.
To give to the Guatemala Toilet Project, click here.