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Recently, William Camfield published an exhaustive analysis of The Fountain and a survey of its critical reception up to the present. It is interesting that, although Camfield includes an elaborate discussion of plumbing and eroticism, he fails to mention the use of public urinals as the site of homosexual encounters. Did Duchamp know that public urinals were used by homosexuals for clandestine sex? A member of Duchamp's circle, Robert McAlmon, wrote a story called Distinguished Air, in which the character Foster confesses that he "was too married to the pissoir," adding, "One must have a tea engagement now and then." McAlmon's Distinguished Air was written eight years after The Fountain controversy, yet the fact that McAlmon never explains what is meant by the phrase "tea engagement" suggests a widespread knowledge among his avant-garde friends of the homosexual practices that go on in "tearooms," ie., public toilets.
I introduce homosexuality not to fix the meaning of the sculpture, not to say that the urinal really is about the site of homosexual pickups, but to help The Fountain speak disruption again. It is "dirty." R. Mutt's signature works like graffiti on the porcelain. Placed by Duchamp upside down, it is literally inverted (to use what was then a term for homosexuality). Camfield sees Duchamp widening the field of art, longing for a tolerant audience that is sympathetic to aesthetic expression wherever it can find it. But I think The Fountain is better understood as questioning the mechanism of tolerance itself.
Tolerance is a power relation. It is something that those in control bestow on those who are not in control. As the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote, tolerance is really nothing more than "a more refined form of condemnation." Such a power relation was at the center of The Fountain controversy. The Fountain was selected to test the supposed freedom of the first exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists. According to the bylaws of the Society, "There are no requirements for admission to the Society save the acceptance of its principles and the payment of the initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars." There was supposedly no jury, and no prizes, yet The Fountain, submitted by "R. Mutt," was refused. When Duchamp's sculpture was rejected, it was not by a conservative or hostile jury. Several of Duchamp's closest New York allies were key players in the Society. The initial audience for Duchamp's sculpture, then, was not the average middle-class viewer (that vague construct of avant-garde scandals) but members of the avant-garde itself. They were the only ones who saw the original urinal, and it was they, after considerable argument, who decided it should not be shown. Duchamp's Fountain gave the lie to the jury's refusal to judge. It revealed that claiming to tolerate difference is not the same as welcoming difference.
It is interesting to juxtapose Duchamp's Fountain with one of Charles Demuth's images of sailors peeing. Charles Demuth and Duchamp were good friends, and Demuth was one of the most public defenders of Duchamp's Fountain. There is no question that Duchamp's practice had a great effect on Demuth. In Demuth's Three Sailors Urinating , urine is aimed in the general direction of the viewer, and in his Two Men Urinating the beholder actually stands where the urinal should be. Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into a work of art; Demuth converted his audience into a urinal.
The homosexual content of Demuth's sailor watercolors has not been missed by art historians--how could it be? However no one has commented on the specificity of the sexual content; no one has said anything about urination. Demuth does not just focus on the act of men peeing; in Three Men Urinating he shows it as an aspect of their affection: two of the men are holding hands as they relieve themselves. Three Men Urinating combines homosexuality with "urolagnia" or erotic fascination with urine.
Unlike Duchamp's Fountain, Demuth's erotic watercolors were not made for public viewing. And so when we speak of the viewer in reference to these works, we are speaking of a peculiar construct, made up of the artist, intimate friends, and those who were meant to find the work after Demuth's death. In this sense the late pictures of sailors urinating have the quality of intimate confessions or a memoir discovered long after its author has passed away. They could almost be illustrations for the kind of sexual tales told in strictest confidence to the sexologists, the "experts'' who since the end of the nineteenth century have gathered statistics about "deviancy."
The characters of Three Sailors Urinating present us with a scene which parallels a fantasy recorded in Havelock Ellis' Sexual Inversion. The hero of one of Ellis's case histories claimed that when he was a child he became subject to curious half-waking dreams. In these he imagined himself the servant of several adult naked sailors; he crouched between their thighs and called himself their dirty pig, and by their orders performed services for their genitals and buttocks, which he contemplated and handled with relish.
There is a comic quality to Demuth's imagery. We are far removed from the exaggerated sense of "evil" in Mapplethorpe's Jim and Tom, Saualito. Mapplethorpe's photograph, with all its attempt to shock, has built into it a very traditional sense of morality. The proceedings go on in a mysterious place, illuminated by a raking light that produces ominous film noir shadows. We are clearly meant to view these men in black leather in their secret world with a sense that what they are doing is somehow "criminal". In contrast, Demuth's brightly colored sailors seem sweet, even "innocent," as if they have been exempted from the unhappiness of Freud's "civilization." Yet in the end all the images I have discussed refuse the cause of civilization (particularly if it involves giving up homosexuality). These bad boys of modern art--metaphorical bed wetters all--Duchamp, Demuth, Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Serrano, and perhaps even Pollock--follow Ellis instead of Freud. Their works void the civilized boundaries placed on our concept of the body's beauty, on what is clean and dirty, and finally on what is sexually permissible.
Jonathan Weinberg is a painter and Assistant Professor in the History of Art Department at Yale University. His book, Speaking for Vice, is available through QAR's on-line bookshop. His essay, "Urination and Its Discontents" is included in Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History, also available in our bookshop.
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