The Most Important Work Of Art Ever…
How a Urinal called “Fountain” Ushered in Post-Modernism
The beginning of the Dada Movement in Art coincided with the outbreak of World War 1 in Europe.
Dada was a Modernist counterpoint reaction to the ideologies of Victorian society it believed had just shepherded the world into a collective massacre.
Dada was a rejection of what it’s artists saw as failed logic, and an embracing of chaos and irrationality.
Works of Dada Art often feature a collage patchwork of images, words, heads and body parts that mirrored the exploded bodies and chaotic visuals seen on battlefields of World War 1.
Raoul Hausmann’s dismembered-head was considered representative of the spirit of modern man with his external forms of measurement, dead eyes and tin cup soul, aching to be filled.
Sounds familiar. That was 1919.
The most famous product of the Dada Movement is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Readymade piece, Fountain — voted in 2004 by 500 art experts, “The Most Influential Artwork of the 20th Century.”
Prior to World War 1 and prior to Dada, Victorian-era Art was judged on the Artist’s technical ability to create visual beauty.
Fountain is a urinal. A standard off-the-shelf urinal.
But the idea behind Fountain was revolutionary.
It was extremely controversial and challenging to the status-quo.
Fountain was the first piece of Art to effectively ask the meta-question, “What is Art?”
And with Fountain, Art was no longer about beautiful images — but beautiful ideas.
“Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to “de-deify” the artist. The Readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. The Readymades 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.”
The Kantian Sublime, A Copernican Shift
This “chase for the Kantian Sublime” set off by Fountain continues to this day.
This is why one can see traces of the Dada Movement in Surrealism, Post-Modernism, Concept Art, Installation Art, Pop Art and everything else you’ll see walking around the Modern Wing of any Art Museum.
The Dada movement, the spirit of the age, destroyed existing preconceptions in Art at a time when preconceptions were getting eviscerated left and right.
WW1 was an unfathomable shockwave that cut deeply into the psyche of the world. But there were aftershocks. In 1919, Spanish Flu killed more people than the war, Racial Tensions erupted during the Red Summer, The Communist Red Scare swept the country, Prohibition banned alcohol, even the infamous Black Sox scandal.
Then, immediately following the war, the world would get its first taste of what we consider the modern world. Radio would arrive in 1919, Television was about to be invented, the Movie Industry was about to skyrocket. The automobile, and assembly-line manufacturing was about to go mainstream.
In those same post war years, Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays would invent propaganda and modern marketing, seed the roots of consumerist society, and usher in what documentarian Adam Curtis coined, “The Century of the Self.”
Fountain destroyed the concept that good Art meant technical prowess and beautiful images — and introduced to the world to the powerful realm of ideas.
The term “Copernican Shift” refers to the paradigm shift that occurred in the 16th century when people stopped believing the Sun and stars revolved around the Earth, and began believing the Earth revolved around the Sun as part of a greater Universe.
Which is ironic, because Fountain also marked the beginning of the paradigm shift to what I call, “The Century of the Selfie.”
“The Century of the Selfie” is defined as an evolutionary next step from Curtis’ “The Century of the Self” to the post-modern, social media-inspired and smartphone-facilitated, subjective reality that we all now live in.