How Duchamp Revolutionized Art With a Urinal

Beatriz Freitas
4 min readAug 14, 2020

And quite literally pissed on everything.

The Fountain might be one of the most iconic pieces in history because of its bold and provoking statement, which has us question what Art is since 1917. Created by Duchamp, the father of Dadaism, this piece was initially submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in New York. It was rejected by the board members, who thought his project what an offensive joke to Art. A few years later, this ready-made work was highly praised socially, becoming a revolutionary masterpiece that established new grounds for modern art.

Even though this is an incredible piece of work, maybe the most impressive part is the thought process behind the creation. From the mere idea of buying a sanitarian utensil to transforming it into an upside-down fountain, every step gives us insight into Marcel Duchamp’s genius mindset.

Revolution: breaking with conventional standards

Personally, the definition of art is the creation of an impression, to evoke a sensation. If that is happiness, anger, calmness, or frustration, it depends on the spectator. However, this definition was not always accepted socially and artistically, once Art is predominantly held to a specif standard according to its historical period.

Maybe one of the most intriguing traits of Duchamp was his disregard for rules and social conventions, being a true counter-culture artist. He consistently denied anything with real value, whether it was material — like money — or sentimental — like marriage. This might be perhaps the reason why Duchamp usually created ready-made art from objects that had little to no esthetics, historical, or social value.

If not only to shock us, Duchamp also manages to express his point of view, which opened doors for the modern abstract artists to express themselves without having to follow classical techniques or predetermined themes for their work. He found the box we tried to fit Art in and blew it, stating once again that Art didn’t have to be this static and limited concept.

Deconstruction: changing a urinal into a fountain

However, in order to create a powerful statement, Duchamp couldn’t present a urinal on its own, at least not before it wasn’t a urinal anymore. This is the stage where matter and meaning are separated. He had in his hands a urinal made of glazed ceramic and this idea of what this mundane object could be. But to achieve what he envisioned, he needed to deconstruct not the shape or concrete composition of the urinal, but the subjective and abstract meaning we often attribute to it.

Duchamp goes through this process by stripping a utensil from its original meaning and transforming it into a piece that seems to mean very little on its own. He does this similarly to how other surrealists like Magritte resignify a smoking pipe in The Treachery of Images.

In this work, Marcel emphasized the deconstruction, by also changing the position in which is typically found so that it became clear to anyone who sees it that the Fountain was no longer a urinal.

Resignification: non-consumable art

So originally, a urinal would be conventionally used to piss at it. This once again proves why the Fountain isn’t any longer a urinal once the first can’t be used as a means to alleviate yourself when the second can.

“Fountain” by Duchamp, replica 1964 — glazed ceramic

In the case of his work, if you tried to consume this art in a conventional form and used it as a urinal, all the fluids disposed of there would flow back to your shoes and soak your socks, leaving you standing in your pool of piss. This interesting image leaves us with one conclusion: we can’t consume art, because art isn’t an acquisition or something we could use and then dispose of.

This message behind Duchamp’s creation is the most valuable one I’ve learned yet. In the world we live in, it’s hard to grasp that not everything around us has a utility and immediate purpose, simple as peeing. Art is something to be appreciated, perhaps not the means to an end, but the end itself.

This is, to say the very least, a massive slap on our faces and our conceptions of what Art itself and his creations were supposed to be. Once again, by “pissing at everything” and redefining artistic standards, he creates new values that he and so many others could live and create freely by.

The ready-made urinal was used to compose a simple, yet efficient artistic piece, that states powerful perception-changing ideals. He so brilliantly proves through the Fountain that Art doesn’t need to be liked to fulfill its purpose to create a reaction. This makes us question how much of the definition of Art we apply only to works we appreciate or that are conventionally accepted by predetermined standards.

Following the same counter-culture line of creation, he also states so boldly that Art doesn’t need to be made from scratch to be impactful, which confronts the unaccepted vision that ready-made pieces could be artistic. Although the urinal is an industrialized product, the Fountain is through an extensive process transformed into a work that acquires a different meaning than its original one.

Perhaps, this entire process of deconstructing a mundane object to resignify it into a piece of art was the most meaningful part of his creation and the visionary characteristic that set Duchamp’s mind apart from other artists.



Beatriz Freitas

Brazilian. Fourth-year medical student. Love arts and social science.