Toilets: The Sacred and the Profane

Jason Micheli —  April 3, 2014 — 4 Comments

JanetThe overlap between art and faith coincides at a number of points.

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?’

Janet Laisch, an art historian and church member, picks it up from here.
Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968il_340x270.545836925_2ejm

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:

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“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.”

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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?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

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.

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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.

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It is a loaded image because it reminds me of really vile behavior and oppression when different standards were not recognized as evil.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

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.

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Jason Micheli

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4 responses to Toilets: The Sacred and the Profane

  1. The word toilet is not offensive to me. The picture of you, my pastor and spiritual mentor, sitting on a toilet, pants down is offensive. Please understand the difference. The toilet project is a great thing and I fully support it in my prayers and financially as I am able.

  2. Whatever language is used, in whatever context it is used, the end definitely JUSTIFIES the means of delivery. Everyone deserves clean drinking water and your efforts are making a difference in Guatemala and enabling others to do so as well. How much more simply an it be stated? We will continue to donate to the project, however it is presented. Thank you for allowing us the privilege.

  3. It’s just a word and in this case used as a noun, I’m at a loss for how anyone can see it as profane, no matter where it’s used. I’m thankful our church has toilets, lots of them – that connect to a sanitation system that we don’t give a second thought. We have potable water and have no concern that our backyards will sink into the holes of many previous pit toilets. To whomever thinks the word toilet is profane when used in church…..try digging a pit toilet in your backyard and using it for a week, then I’d be willing to listen to the complaint.

  4. Washing feet and healing the outcast. John Wesley giving mass to Welsh miners in the field. Jesus on the mount. Tradition seems to weigh heavy on the side of toilets over gold, silver and fine linings as selected instruments of faith.

    The Christian experience is full of Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, chief priests, and elders whom seem to be the penicials of moral authority, in their gold, silver and fine fabrics.

    Human waste is a central part of God’s creation. It is part of nature. LIfe is generated from this waste. All are resurrected in form through the holy process of life cycle. Living in a world that is detached from God and the creation is not living a holy life. It is not embracing God’s creation. Sacredness is in the action and meaning. It is priest, kings and elites who hold up valuable things as being signs of worth. I’m quite certain that Jesus would rather you present him with a toilet (and all that it represents) then a gold crown (with all that it represents)

    Jesus proclaimed his mission to bring the word of love, to set captives free and heal.
    He was tempted by the devil with the power to buy gold, silver and fine cloth. He turned it down.

    He did not say that my mission is to bring the good news of exclusion to the masses, to use chemicals that make you sick so that I can have gold, the enslave your generations so that I may have wealth.

    To see what Jesus sees as sacred has one negative outcome…you tend to get nailed to a cross.

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