“This urinal… changed the world.”
My balding teacher gestured wildly at a projection of The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, an upturned and autographed urinal from the 1920s. The skeptics in my California Summer School for the Arts class raised their brows as the teacher gushed,
“ Without Duchamp’s revolutionary urinal, modern art would not exist the way it does today. Nothing would be the same. You would not be sitting here. Art as we know it would have been completely different.”
It is conversations like that that cause my STEM focused friends to look upon my interest in art quizzically. “See,” they say, “things like lauded urinals are why I don’t understand art.”
Before my art classes, I had the same thoughts as everyone else who didn’t “get” the art world. “I mean I can respect a realistically rendered painting because I can see the effort put into it, but I just don’t get modern art. It’s just weird,” they would say. Why were Piet Mondrian’s paintings of squares and lines worth millions? They were just squares and lines after all. Why were Rothko’s red canvases so applauded? All Pollock did was whip paint around on a canvas. How was that impressive? My 5-year old cousin could do that.
But I realized that the beauty of Duchamp’s urinal lay in the fact that someone decided to call it a thing of beauty. The artistic value was Duchamp’s decision to call attention to something that had not been called art before, to show that even the most mundane things can be seen from radically different perspectives. Mondrian’s squares and lines are interesting because no one else had thought to call simple colors and shapes artistic. Rothko’s reds are provocative because it takes your attention away from technicalities of art and almost becomes an experiment on your visceral reaction to color. Pollock is revolutionary because for the first time, the material itself can be considered a thing of beauty, not whatever paint is used to depict. I won’t lie, I’m into Art History. But, even I think there are only so many realistic Mary Magdalenes from the Renaissance you can look at before getting kinda bored.
The urinal changed me. Everything was different. I started to understand the beauty of the urinal in things that weren’t even considered art, especially in objects related to the STEM fields. Our community tends to overlook the legitimacy of art as a profession or subject of study, but finding innovation in STEM is somewhat similar to modern art. Silicon Valley is known as a cradle of innovation, a place of mind-boggling, game-changing discoveries. But before they became game changers, inventions that opened up dimensions were also not appreciated.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” said Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corp in 1977.
Personalize a computer? Hogwash. Create a digital marketplace for users to download music onto portable audio devices which you also brand and manufacture? I mean, who comes up with this stuff?
Maybe paralleling the creation of the PC or iPod to a latrine is pretty radical, but then again I’m no Ken Olsen.