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Below the Beltway

A Head of His Time

Exploring the commodious nature of art

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page W13

Hundreds of art experts decided in a recent poll that the single most influential work of the 20th century was . . . a urinal. Specifically it was the urinal that French artist Marcel Duchamp submitted to an art exhibition in 1917. It proved to be the pees de resistance.

Ha-ha. Actually, the curators of the show were so appalled they did not even exhibit Duchamp's entry. This touched off a furor in the art world. Like all furors in the art world -- art-world furors occur rougly twice a century, often coinciding with disappointing years for chablis -- this was about The Meaning of Art. You would think that after 600 years or so, the art world would have figured out The Meaning of Art. Imagine if, in the automotive world, the car companies hadn't yet figured out what a car was. One year, they would turn out blimps, another year, dogsleds, etc. The Indy 500 would be a hoot.

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However, the art world is different. It is forever reexamining itself, like a hypochondriac searching for moles. And, in 1917, Duchamp's urinal is said to have relieved (har) art of one of its biggest burdens: the need to produce art.

Essentially, Duchamp's urinal, which he titled "Fountain," signaled the birth of conceptual art. Art was no longer defined so much by the product but by the idea behind the product, even the mere audacity of declaring it to be art.

If not for Duchamp, we probably would not have had the opportunity to enjoy the art of that guy who sliced a pig in half, or the guy who canned his own poo, or the guy who had himself crucified onto a Volkswagen Beetle. Now, you may think that this has been a bad development, art-wise. I don't. The reason I don't is that it theoretically opens up the entire field of art to people without actual skills -- some guy like me, for example, who draws a horse like this (DRAWING OF A HORSE) but who fancies himself Creative.

I decided to pull a Duchamp -- create a portfolio of Intriguing Conceptual Art, and submit it to a genuine expert.

Here is my portfolio:

•Build an art museum in the shape of a urinal.

• Build a urinal in the shape of an art museum.

• Exhibit a Venus flytrap that was raised entirely on meat from a pig that had been raised on meat from a bear that was killed after eating a human.

•Turn on an ambulance siren in a small, glass-windowed room. Also in the room are a half-dozen deaf people, who play cards, read books, etc., oblivious to the 120-decibel noise.

•Place hundreds of smiley face buttons, Beanie Babies and My Little Pony products into a coffin.

•Create two locked boxes, each containing the other's key. Then throw them both into the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean.

•Obtain an enormous observatory telescope, capable of distinguishing 5-foot-wide craters on Mars. Then position it so it is permanently focused on the "woman" symbol on a bathroom door in the museum.


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