I know I’ve said many times before that, of all artistic movements, there’s very little love in my heart for Dadaism. Loading the Canon #4’s Marcel Dzama made me hopeful, I’ll admit. I was hopeful, really. I was actually kinda happy! That was short-lived, though, as I looked once more over Hannah Höch’s photomontages, Duchamp’s readymades, and basically everything by Man Ray.
Most of all, though, I’m a very restless human being. My big issue is that I find most Dadaist works to be static. Frantic, yes, but static. I can spend a while in the same place, but when I’m not moving, I’d like to think that something else ought to be. Maybe it’s my 90’s upbringing coming out, but if I’m standing still in front of a piece of art, I want it to move in some way. I use the word “move” here in more than one sense of the word. If the subject depicted is not in motion, give me something emotionally moving. Failing that, give me something colorful and geometrically interesting that will move my eye from plane to plane.
Or, you know, drop some plumbing on the floor and call it a day. I guess if nothing else works for you…
Let me explain my weird way of looking at things using two pieces of sculpture: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Umberto Boccioni,
and (yes) Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917).
Let’s start with the movement factor. The obvious: Marcel’s piece is a urinal. It is. You’re not going to change this fact. Here’s a place where it loses the most for me. It just sits there. This would have been mounted on a wall in a bathroom and not going to move (we hope). I don’t get emotionally worked up over the sanitary apparatus in my bathroom, unless the design of the room as a whole contributes. The room did not contribute, so this piece continues to be a urinal with the name R. Mutt signed in black and dated 1917. Just sitting there.
Boccioni’s sculpture, however, is a different story. This rather closely resembles a figure on the move. While looking over this, I begin to imagine ice skating. Skateboarding. Surfing. I’m moving with it, and all the while, I am physically still. Looking at this piece, the wind is blowing past me at 80 miles an hour. Look at the urgency with which it relentlessly seems to press forward! This work has somewhere it needs to be, and it needed to be there 5 minutes ago, but in a more graceful way than, “Crap, I’m gonna be late for work!” It’s not frantic. Instead, it’s calm, swift momentum.
Next, there’s line. There are no sharp points on this urinal. It’s probably pleasing to touch (granted this thing hasn’t been put to use). It’s all curve and polish. It feels oddly regulated when compared to the chaos inherent in most Dada art. It’s familiar and maybe even relaxing in an odd sort of way.
Over in Boccioni’s corner of the world, the same movement that hits you in the face cannot be possible without its line composition. From the forward position of the leg to the shapes that compose this figure, there’s line everywhere. This piece is angular. There’s plenty of smooth shine, but there are also lots of sharp shapes. It’s literally edgy.
I like my art with a side of interpretation. Duchamp has given me a urinal. Given that it could mean anything from a comment on society at large to a re-evaluation of the beauty of things around us, it’s not much. If you love plumbing fixtures, this is the piece for you. I could imagine water flowing through it, or plants growing in the fixture. Other than that, though, there’s not a lot of room to expound on this.
The shapes that make Continuity’s figure up allow for a lot of imagination. This figure could be wearing armor and rushing into battle. Though borrowing from antiquity is NOT something the Futurists would appreciate, the lines flowing off the legs remind me of the fleet-footed messenger Mercury’s winged sandals. Mercury, as an element, is also known as quicksilver. Come on, guys. Even the name is fast!
After years of resisting it, I’ve finally accepted that Duchamp’s works are art. They’re just not my kind of art. nothing about a shovel hanging on a wall enthuses me. I’ve grown up in my opinion, so now I’m actually telling you why I don’t like it, instead of telling you that I. Just. Don’t. I’m looking at the figures differently now. By actually taking the time to examine things, I’m making little lists of points about them. I’ve gone through only three of the criteria art historians consider when formally analyzing works, but now I have a more viable argument as to why I prefer one thing over another.
I spent a lot of time here bashing a urinal. I’m not a fan of Fountain as art, but I’m sure I don’t have to explain why I’d love it as a bathroom fixture (though not one I’d use).
Thank God for modern plumbing!
Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Central Florida.