"In the last analysis, the artist may shout from the rooftops that he is a genius; he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Art History." - Marcel Duchamp

Extended Perimeter
"Extended Perimeter" by wilson hurst 2013

Richard Mutt: The Time was Ripe


Considered as a crucial and original artwork of the 20th century, is the definition of art as proposed by Duchamp’s “Fountain” supported in other concurrent theoretical thinking? And more broadly, what is the function of choice in art and the status of originality?


Although not accepted into the “Society of Independent Artists” purportedly democratic exhibition, Duchamp’s “Fountain” represents concepts about the definition of art articulated in concurrent theoretical literature published on art.


Duchamp’s work titled “Fountain” of 1917, arguably one of the most important artworks of the 20th century, was rejected by the “Society of Independent Artists” for exhibition. Ducamp paid his six dollar entry fee, and therefore should have been admitted under the allegedly democratic rules of the exhibit. This intertextual analysis will argue that Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a re-contextualized urinal, represented concepts of art supported by other theoretical thinking of the time. I will demonstrate this by identifying numerous examples of literary interpretation expressing similar ideas slightly before or around the same time as Duchamp’s entry. This investigation raises questions of originality, and the notion that artistic inventions occur based on a specific temporal cultural locus rather than functioning as creations of isolated genius. Possibly that which seems to break new-ground is actually derivative. And more broadly, this seminal artwork questions the function of choice in art.

Key words defined

Duchamp considered the “Fountain” to be a new art form, concerned not with crafting attractive objects, but rather demonstrating the exquisiteness of the mind. In this endeavor, the key component is that the artistic is defined by mental selection. As Duchamp says in The Richard Mutt Case, “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 a new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

The key words here are selection and mind. So art is considered as a function of selection based on mental conceptualization, forming a new thought.

  • art as selection – it is the choice that an artist makes in the specifics of presenting his concept that constitutes art.
  • art of the mind – it is the mental stimulation transmitted to the receiver that underpins the making of that choice.

I will now present evidence for art as selection

In “Thoughts on Painting,” Braque emphasizes choosing limited means to create a new art form. “New means, new subjects. The subject is not the object; it is the new unity, the lyricism which stems entirely from the means employed.”

In “Tradition and Cubism,” Rosenberg establishes choosing as essential to the art production process. “To make a picture, the artist begins by choosing and grouping certain elements from external reality.”

In “Purism,” Le Corbusier & Ozenfant are interested in a hierarchy of aesthetic sensation, claiming that mathematic order is the path to the highest level. In this effort, the work of art is an artificial construct that is used to control a spectator. But the means the creator has to achieve this control is through selection. “… the utilization of primary forms does not suffice to place the spectator in the sought-for state of mathematical order. For that one must bring to bear the associations of natural or artificial forms, and the criterion for their choice is the degree of selection…”

So we see direct evidence that three out of four texts under review support Duchamp’s claim relative to selection as an essential artistic criteria.

Next we will look at evidence for art residing in the mind

In “Thoughts on Painting,” Braque privileges the mind over sensation. “The senses deform, the mind forms. Work to perfect the mind. There is no certainty except in what the mind conceives.” Georges Braque

He also directly addresses a mental purpose for including specific elements in his collage constructions, which incidentally also implies choice. “The paper collage, the imitation wood ….. are simple facts, but created by the mind, and such that they are one of the justifications of a new figuration in space.” In “Tradition and Cubism,” Rosenberg explicitly states that objects transform into art subject as controlled by the mind. This is almost exactly what Duchamp said in reference to the “Fountain,” that a new point of view creates a new thought for that object. “The transition from object to subject constitutes his aesthetic, which is governed by the mind.”

In “Purism,” Le Corbusier & Ozenfant consider that both the sense and the mind are universal properties that can free art from the conventional. “Purism strives for an art free of conventions, which will utilize plastic constants and address itself above all to the universal properties of the senses and the mind.” Furthermore they contend that the purpose of sensation in art is to free the mind. “…in plastic art, the senses should be strongly moved in order to predispose the mind to the release into play of subjective reactions without which there is no work of art.”

Huelsenbeck & Hausmann in “What Is Dadaism” defines Dada as a mental condition. “Dada is a state of mind that can be revealed in any conversation whatever….” Thus we see that mental conceptualization in realizing recognizable art is supported across the spectrum of considered literary works.


This historical interpretation is limited to only four texts. A more compressive sample size would strengthen the case.

It is possible that some inventions occur outside of their current cultural confines, but we are not aware of their existence since they also do not become a visable part of culture. It is also plausible that the jump to the readymade, as exemplified by the “Fountain,” is of such magnitude that a claim to originality is justified. This seems a valid argument, which could be perhaps best refuted by further research, looking to find more closely aligned physical artwork examples. Nevertheless, ample examples seem to exist the supports the idea that art manifestations evolve as a function of cultural critical mass.


Within the four considered texts, specific references relative to art and its definition were identified and presented in terms of artistic choice and mental processing. Thus these two critical components which Duchamp considers as the essence of the “Fountain’s” claim to art are more broadly supported. This is ironic, in light of the rejection of the “Fountain” for exhibit in an open-to-all art exhibition.

Artistic inventions occur based on a specific temporal cultural locus rather than functioning as creations of isolated genius. In conclusion, that what seems to break new ground is actually derivative.