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Tuesday 02.27.07

« Some picks from the Armory Show 2007 | Main | Marching Curatorial Madness »

The Fountainhead

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain a.k.a the "great white whale"

A recent case involving art vandalism raises some interesting questions about art, monetary value, and audience alienation, all of which were among the issues discussed in a February 18th lecture at the Portland Art Museum by New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman.

On February 9th, 2007, the Associated Press reported that, "A French appeals court ruled...that a 78-year-old Frenchman who attacked Marcel Duchamp's famed porcelain urinal with a hammer last year does not have to pay $260,000 in damages." Pierre Pinocelli chipped Fountain, and also wrote the word "dada" on the seminal readymade during the January 2006 Dada exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

The latest court decision upheld an $18,600 fine covering repairs, but threw out a lower court's ruling that Pinocelli pay $260,000 to offset the artwork's depreciation in value, citing the fact that the Pompidou does not own the artwork in question. The French state owns this version of Fountain, one of eight copies Duchamp commissioned, then signed "R. Mutt, 1917" in 1964. The original Fountain, of 1917 Armory Show fame, had been long lost by '64.

This is not the first time that Pinocelli has attacked Duchamp's readymade. In 1993 he urinated in Fountain and struck it with a hammer while it was on display at a different location in France. He's also not the only person ever to attempt to urinate in/on Fountain. Two artists tried the same act at a 2000 exhibition at the Tate Modern; a transparent shield surrounding the urinal thwarted their efforts somewhat. The same two artists had previously caused headaches for the thus-far non-litigious Tate Modern by jumping in Tracy Emin's My Bed, a work partially inspired by Fountain and Duchamp's notion of the readymade.

The estimated monetary value of the French Fountain before it was attacked by Pinocelli? $3.6 million.

What then, is the value of a damaged but repaired Fountain--one of eight copies of a lost original--whose very lack of originality combined with its challenge to the accepted values of established art institutions is the very reason it has developed the iconic status that has led to the high demand for its appearance in established art institutions, when the work in question, minus its signature, can be purchased for a modest sum at a hardware store, particularly if the signature isn't actually the artist's real name and the very act of signing the work was more or less a joke about the way an artist's signature affects the monetary value of an object?


A February 12th article from Infoshop News probes the mind of Pinocelli: "So, why his obsession with the Duchamp urinal: a work which he describes as 'a great white whale ... a golden calf, a holy grail'? Pironcelli says he attacked it last month, not to damage it but to rescue it from 'the institution'. By the 'institution', he says he means, first of all, 'the world of money-obsession and official violence in which we live'.....Most of all, he says, he means the 'museum bureaucracy and art establishment, with its snobbery and its cliquishness and its shiny invitations and champagne receptions and art-denying money values.'

The last bit is such a common feeling that Michael Kimmelman chose that general sentiment, and his response to it, as a frame for his PAM lecture, entitled "Eyes Wide Open."

Michael Kimmelman's infectious grin

Kimmelman's lecture, the first in PAM's "Critical Voices: The Intersection of Words and Experience" series, was drawn largely from his most recent book The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. He offered entertaining, affecting accounts of various intersections between everyday life and art, and of artists--such as Ray Johnson and Michael Heizer--who've found ways to realize some artistic goals independently of the gallery/museum system.

Peter Doig, White Canoe, 1990-1

Kimmelman mentioned works that have been sold at inflated prices, using Peter Doig's painting,White Canoe, which recently sold for more than 10 million at Sotheby's auction house, as a prime example. Kimmelman told the crowd that he guessed not all of us were familiar with Doig. I'd guess that he chose Doig's painting for two reasons: 1. Its timeliness--the painting had been sold a few days previous and 2. The audience's relative lack of familiarity with Doig might underscore the strangeness of the painting's incredible price in relation to its artistic merit. The conflation of market and artistic value becomes even thornier if the painting in question is an iconic work by a deceased artist, such as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) by Gustav Klimt, which broke records in June 2006, when it sold for $135 million.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,1907

Kimmelman discussed how the often inscrutable manner in which artworks are priced adds to the sense of disconnection that many people feel from the world of visual art. This alienation is compounded by the frequently abstruse critical theory that some posit as a prerequisite for understanding contemporary art.

From whence did this confused state of affairs spring? Kimmelman projected a slide of Fountain with a wry smile.

No Tom Wolfe-style gadfly, Kimmelman acknowledged the the value of Duchamp's gesture and the conceptually driven art it inspired. He also suggested that the prank Duchamp played on the organizers of the 1917 Armory Show opened up the possibility of an art market that exists in its own stratosphere, following its own strange logic.

How to make sense of it all, as spectator or participant? To thine own self be true says Kimmelman.

During the Q and A, several audience members vehemently agreed with his suggestion that the commercial/academic art world is absurd and alienating, and asked Kimmelman for suggestions on how to fix things. Kimmelman, rather than further stoking the passions he had agitated, simply suggested that we largely disregard the "official" art world and focus on the primacy of our own individual experiences with art, striving to never confuse an artwork's price tag with its value to us.


Posted by Jessica Bromer on February 27, 2007 at 22:33 | Comments (4)


I may be the only artist in Portland that somewhat likes these ridiculously high art values. It keeps art a dream. An untouchable object.

However, I recognize that this aspect and practice of the art world then excludes much of the general public, and even the artists that create work. Most artists are not able to pay their own gallery prices for their work, let alone another artist's work.

But I think is is not always a negative. I think purposely excluding people can sometimes lead to a small, richer community. It's a marketing thing. Say you are in a band, and you hate Metallica (as any good person should). Let the public know that you hate Metallica and you exclude some people, but the people that share your opinion begin to relate closer to the music that you create.

In other news, I love it that so many people have tried pissing in "Fountain." I think Duchamp might appreciate the act's absurdity.

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 28, 2007 07:23 AM

I'm troubled that I found Kimmelman's talk more problematic than the attack on the urinal.

The urinal is an object of intended deflections that has been both undermined and supported by its own successes and failures in "the deflection department." (Including deflecting blows from hammers or streams of urine.) I found Kimmelman entertaining to the point of mild irritation.

The irritation comes from the fact that I'm definitely not his audience. He's writing for people who dont have a lot of experience, which is fine, but I also felt he was courting the less experienced or less critical audience with some really standard arguments.... I wanted more rhetorical teeth... I can tell he has something to offer intellectually but I feel he holds back. Is he saving it for a book?

I expect more from the NYT's and it's why the last major thing Ive read and liked by him was the Michael Heizer piece. I read his Erwitt review days before the lecture and felt I got more from reading a press release or looking at an internet photo. The Erwitt show at PAM itself was obviously the most rewarding and I like that part of Kimmelman's message. Too obvious.

Kimmelman can certainly write and is full of (necessary) paradoxes but in the end he doesnt seem to challenge his audience as much as play to their insecurities. Is Kimmelman a gifted flatterist?... most good writers are but does he go much beyond that?

Duchamp's secret is he was a master at playing off of intellectual insecurities and a few brilliant intellectual conceits. I liken it to a game of chess where he sought to reach a stalemate, not win. The secret to his success is his intellectual/aesthetic stalemate was one where he often had more pieces than his opponent on the chessboard. Well played.

The value on the Doig was too easy a shot... of course it isn't worth more than 500,000 but by selling for 11 big ones it perceptually made 500,000 acceptable... if the hedge funder who bought it owns 50 other Doigs which he bought for 20,000 a piece he just made a mint by overpaying and raising the overall value of his other Doig holdings 5 fold. It's a pretty obvious market manipulation.

The Klimt is worth the 135 million, it's historically significant in ways few Americans understand. The Bloch-Bauer portrait is of a woman whose cultural importance was vast... like Gertrude Stein (kimmelman neglected to mention that). Now that Klimt has accumulated all of that positive historical baggage... something the Doig hasn't even made pretensions of having (and it cant, Doig isn't amongst a bunch of relevant intellectuals). I like Doig though; he's a good painter and 50 years from now that painting might be worth 2 million... wheras the best Hirsts might be worth 40 million plus (that it including inflation).

Why? Hirst owns his own market and issues of the day in a way that Duchamp also did (making later versions of the urinal, just as Hirt is making new sharks while refurbishing the original). Only Murakami could claim equal if not superior importance in contemporary art (the constant comparisons are good for both of them).

Yes the market is crazy... but Im over it, I think it's a nice way to show how rich the rich have become and to help everyone understand the scale of that situation. I just wish there was more great art being produced. So Rachel Harrison clones beware, the original is what survives history.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 28, 2007 10:16 AM

I was the first person to franticly raise my hand after Kimmelman finished his talk and invited question. To paraphrase is ask "Considering how media obsession with the money in art alienates so much of the public, how can you as a critic, us as institutions, businesses, and communities in volved with the arts make the case that art is relivant to the average person?"

His initial response was "I don't want to give the impession that the money in art is bad, it is what it is." Then he danced around the topic for a few minutes until he simply suggested we disregard the hype and find our own personal connections to art.

From my perspective he acknowledges that the world of high art has degenerated into a small group that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yes, it is about the money, or more accurately it's about the people buying and selling the art instead of the work. All this was documented quite elequently, with scathing honesty by Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her book "The Art Biz". The book is out of print now probably because the people invovled with the maket making side of the art business fear that amount of transparency into the world they control.

Ironicly, the transparency Marquis offers in her book is an important part of the answer to my question. The media hype the stories about the high prices select pieces of art command at auction without making any attempt to explain why the price is so high.

The average person reads about a 19th century landscape that sells for 35 million dollars to the Walmart heir and they tell themselves "I'll never be able to buy a great piece of art." Galleries regularly receive calls from people asking about the admission price for the current show. The reality is that fine art is really only marketed to the top 10% of the population in this country. Most of the people are left out of the conversation.

I'm not saying that the Visual Arts pages in newspapers and the glossy "ArtNews" type magazines don't have there place; but these are trade rags and not meant for the general public. Sadly, there is virtually nothing written for the majority of people who never got that fine arts degree, weren't born into a privilaged family and are stuck on the lower rungs of understanding about art and aesthetics. Think about how much of the arts have been cut from our public school over the last 30 years.

The media and the arts community do a great job of advocating for the artist, but there is no attemp to advocate for the audience, i.e. the prospective new buyer.

I don't believe you can SELL a piece of art, art sells itself. Once the artist has put a work up for sale to the public it is now longer about the artist or the venue in which it is sold, it's about the person who looks at the piece and the connection that transpires.

The thing that you can and must sell to the perspective buyer is the idea of buying art for the personal connection the viewer makes with a piece and how this process helps the viewer connect more meaningfully with the world they live in. There in lies the true value of art as Kimmelman inplied in his talk.

I agree with Kimmelmen in the way he approaches laying out what the problem of created by the obsession we have with the money in art, but I insist that we can do more than simply ignore the hype. We can start building a conversation that invites a larger audience into the world of art.

I have always believed that the best way to advocate for artists is to create more buyers.

Posted by: Duane [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2007 01:16 AM


I think he was avoiding a question that he himself cant answer very well. I dont think the art mags have much influence either and they generally do an allright job of disseminating why some art is worth millions. Most mags actually avoid the issue, that's a job for daily investigative news sources.

My issue with Kimmelman is he could do a lot more but he opts out to have a bunch of art travelogues... which has its place but I sense he's giving the art industry a hall pass so he can make easy critiques of it. It would be more valuable if he gave it a bit more work justifying itself.

The general media, especially TV and newspapers seem to be the ones most focused on the dollar signs and it's one of my biggest critiscisms of the O (the focus on money while being so one dimensional it turns off potential patrons to the discussion somewhat). By simply following the money it misses the point... for example Ken Eunkles was not on the recent "most influential" list. The man's contribution to the scene as a major art studio space provider is incalculable (more than anyone on that list he makes Portland "Portland" and nobody on the list would argue it)... Just think, Matt McCormick, Joe Thurston, Jacqueline Ehlis and hundreds of others all pay him rent... yes that's money but not in a big lump sum way the general media finds sexy enough for such a list. Years ago they focused on him but now, when hes even more important it isn't big ticket enough. Now David might agree with me about Ken even but by making an article a poll the O was washing its hands of making a judgement. Everyone who really cares about art wants highly considered coverage not justifications for sensationalized sentiment. The general audience just wants to point at fools parting ith their money.

The truth is money is fine... it takes all levels and the art world is full of strata... it isnt bad either... some is affordable some isnt... big deal. What really matters is what survis 50 years from now and that takes thughtful consideration.

I even think Hirst exploit the dollar blindness of the general media and I think thats why a small group of very rich collectors support him... the most famous of which, Saatchi is an Ad man who understood that by making the media look and act like jackasses his artists would become their antipode.... and important.

Still, until the generalist media in the USA stops being the mouthpiece of anti-intellectual sentiments and a purveyor of cheap shock tactics (92% of the time) we will be forced to go to specialty media for info. Yes, the newspapers are feeling threatened by blogs but it's their own fault... and probably due to the ownership models of big media. Most journalists have a tough time doing what they really would like to do.

PORT itself is blog in format only... it's more of a critical journal and a coffeehouse discussion than a personal outlet. We do this because it's important.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2007 09:33 AM

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