God is not an art lover. At least that’s what a lot of people have surmised over the centuries, citing as proof the second commandment that states “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . . or carve idols . . . for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” In addition to suggesting that God knows there are other gods, proscriptions like this appear throughout the Bible—in Deuteronomy, for example, God decrees that stone shall not be “hewn.” The Koran contains similar prohibitions. Basically, you may look upon the things of the world, but don’t reproduce them.
Over the millennia these injunctions have caused iconoclasts, or “image breakers,” to destroy countless works of art because it was believed that they housed demonic spirits. This destruction wasn’t only prevalent; it was pathological. First, the eyes of an image or statue would be scratched out; next, a line would be drawn though the neck to behead it; finally, the head or face would be removed and burned. Of course, the extent to which images can stir people to violence is on view across the globe these days. Theorist Thomas McEvilley and others have brilliantly surmised that underlying this religious fervor may be the latent Platonic idea that essentially states that ‘A’ can only equal ‘A’ and that nothing can represent anything else.
So, God may or may not be displeased with Pierre Pinoncelli, the 77-year-old French performance artist who on January 4 took a hammer to Duchamp’s famous urinal, Fountain, in the Dada show at the Pompidou Center. As with most bad artists, Mr. Pinoncelli was repeating himself. In 1993 he urinated into Fountain and then damaged it. Fountain, recently voted “The Most Influential Artwork of the 20th Century” by over 500 British art professionals, turned art on its head, set many of the innovations of the last 100 years in motion, and has rankled viewers ever since.
In the winter of 1917, Duchamp—then 29, in America less than two years, teaching French, but still a sensation for the scandal his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 caused at the Armory Show of 1913 (the year he created his first “readymade”)—along with collector Walter Arensberg and artist Joseph Stella, bought a Bedfordshire model urinal from the J.L. Mott Iron Works at 118 Fifth Avenue. Duchamp took the fixture to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, laid it on its back, and signed it “R. Mutt 1917.” The name is a play on its commercial origins and also on the famous comic strip of the time, Mutt and Jeff (making the urinal perhaps the first work of art based on a comic). In German, armut means poverty, although Duchamp said the R stood for Richard, French slang for “moneybags,” which makes Fountain, or “moneybags piss pot,” a kind of scatological golden calf.
The work was delivered to the Society of Independent Artists, which claimed it would exhibit every work submitted. But not Fountain. Duchamp’s work was immediately rejected; the public never saw it. The artist took it to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, which was about to unveil the work of unknown painter Georgia O’Keefe. There, Stieglitz photographed the urinal against the fabulously homoerotic backdrop of Marsden Hartley’s The Warriors. In the photo you can read “R. Mutt” written in a beautiful hand on the entry tag still attached to Fountain. The original sculpture was lost. Duchamp eventually authorized eight editions of it, none of which were exhibited in New York until 1950. The version Mr. Pinoncelli smacked is number five, and is valued at 3.4 million, according to a Pompidou official. It is listed in the catalog as “courtesy Larry Gagosian.”
Duchamp is invariably referred to as an “anti-artist” and an “iconoclast.” This is entirely false. Duchamp was a great art adviser to collectors. He wasn’t against art at all; he was against the hypocritical aura surrounding it. More importantly, Duchamp may be the first modern artist to take God’s prohibition against “hewn” objects to heart. Fountain is not hewn or made in any traditional sense. In effect, it is an unbegotten work, a kind of virgin birth, a cosmic coitus of imagination and intellect. Like a megalithic stone, Fountain is merely placed on view, pointed at as the locus of something intrinsic to art and as art itself. Duchamp’s work relies on a leap of faith: that new thought structures can be formed based on things already in the world. Fountain is the aesthetic equivalent of the Word made Flesh: It is an incarnation of the invisible essence of art, an object in which the distance between image and prototype is narrowed to a scintillating sliver. Just as Christians perceive Christ as the invisible made visible, Jesus said “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” so Fountain essentially says, “He that hath seen me hath also seen the idea of me.”
Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to “de-deify” the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what’s called an “acheropoietoi,” an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger. Its presence is grace.
Today’s self-styled image-breakers, or iconophobes, are as predictable and bellicose as ancient ones. A few weeks ago, not long after The New York Sun‘s Lance Esplund haughtily dismissed Robert Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking combines at the Met as “colorless, muddled, mute, faithless, boring,” etc., the even more conservative Mario Naves, of The New York Observer—who never actually describes works of art and who only pontificates—bragged that he hadn’t seen the Van Gogh drawing show at the Met, glibly sniffing that “a friend tells me I didn’t miss much.” Then he calls the drawings “a respectable, not spectacular, achievement.” Oy!
Next, Naves set his dull-eye on Rauschenberg, chiding the combines, currently gloriously ensconsed at the Met, with the exact same meaningless phrase, “far out,” that Clement Greenberg used in 1967 when he was essentially blind to contemporary art. Naves, who is also an artist, fabricates small generic abstract collages that could have been made any time in the last 50 years and that owe much to Abstract Expressionism, Schwitters, and Rauschenberg, allows that the combines “evince a sensitivity to the materials used in their crafting.” This boring nonsense sounds like a 1930s textbook. Finally, he concludes that had Rauschenberg “explored this tendency on the intimate scale it called for” (Mr. Naves’s scale) “he might have made an unassuming and welcome contribution to the history of 20th-century American art.” Ah, dogma.