Marcel Duchamp’s Unrealiable Narrator

When I think of unrealiable narrators, my mind sweeps from Holden Caulfield, The Dramatic; to James Frey, The Liar; to Marcel Duchamp, The Challenger.

Duchamp’s famous for his “readymades”—ordinary, “found” objects turned into gallery-ready art. Meant to question the content and form of what was culturally considered “art,” these pieces looked something like this:



Yes, that is a urinal turned on its side and signed with a false name. No, Marcel Duchamp does not frequently refer to himself as “R. Mutt.”

This piece, called Fountain (1917), is obviously provocative. It’s motives, as a part of the Dada movement, include prompting the viewer to reconsider the definition of art—a lofty objective.

But there’s a discussion of “truth” here, that I think often gets overshadowed by that more general, powerful goal. It is a toilet claiming to be art, after all.

Duchamp’s signing of “R. Mutt” on the piece is a blatant lie, if you take it as an artist’s signature (unless you want to argue that Duchamp is, here, admitting to an alter ego, or to the construction of a previously unreleased identity). It’s misleading at the very least—particularly to an uniformed audience.

If you take the signature as some sort of graffiti, you have to wonder two-ish things:

  1. Is the graffiti real? And if so, where did Duchamp acquire this urinal? Who is the real R. Mutt? Is R. Mutt a creation of some other unknown artist—who may be fictional him/herself?
  2. If the graffiti is a performance of graffiti—that is, produced as part of an artist’s statement by Duchamp, does that make the entire piece a performance? And is it a performance of art, or a performance of a performance of art?

We know that Duchamp did indeed paint the signature himself, so his inclusion of this signature is an inclusion of the false, of the representational, of the honest in its fabrication. Because Duchamp is not R. Mutt, R. Mutt’s signature-only existence (as far as we know), Fountain is a portrayal of what could have been, but isn’t.

Published at See Gauge Blog on March 11, 2013.


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