Julian Santiago is an emerging writer from Miami, Florida and holds an MA in Creative Process from NUI Uversity. His poetry has appeared in the monthly chapbook Stanzas, Limerick, and has been a guest at West Cork Literary Festival and on Irish Radio International. He is currently in Florida finishing his novel.
The urinal was called Fountain, which I like. Only a photograph remains. It was placed in a gallery in New York in 1917 and signed under a pseudonym, but it was covered from view when the exhibition opened to the public.
Controversy ensued. It was photographed in a studio and printed in a Dada journal. Some ladies with feathers sticking out of their foreheads said it was art and art and art, but the four-piece men on whose arms they rested declared it a travesty. Marcel saw it as “concept.” It was the newest member in his family of the “readymade,” which also included a bottle rack and a bicycle wheel.
I head into the restroom.
Years before, he had grown tired of pretty art, which he called “retinal,” and headed in a darker, more abstract direction. The urinal was his volley against the kitschy avant-gardisms of newspaper clippings in collages, against cubist nudes—of which he himself was an adept painter—against fathomless surrealisms, and all its aesthetic baggage. He elevated the best friend of the bloated bladder from the restroom to the gallery, and the question What is beautiful? ceded way to the question What is art?
The urinal is in front of me.
Now, because the work of art was no longer a work of art, the viewer was forced to search its surroundings for meaning. Is the influence of the artist part of the art work? What about the gallery? The event? Is pissing beautiful? What’s next, a toilet? A dildo? Had they no shame? What presentation?
Conversations began about art dealers and capitalism and the tyrannies of money. New exponents and apprentices of the readymade arose, and critics laughed at blind admirers (I was one of them), who were sublimating the urinal, admiring, for example, the angles at which the concavity of the bowl would better gleam in a blue light. But, of course, the question remained unanswered.
Unzip and strain.
Marcel, whom I did not know myself but imagined as a caustic, mischievous imp, must have sat for the better part of forty years admiring this unsolved puzzle, like a crossword master delighting in the difficulty of his masterpiece, twirling his thumbs into little interlocking windmills, thinking up new moustaches for his Mona Lisa, watching the old narratives of art slowly decay under the weight of television and the new cult of the baby-boomer generation: shopping.
Enter Andy Warhol, the Pope of Pop Art, like a silver-haired messiah, celebrating (or criticizing) the new madness. His was an ekstatic art. An art standing in rapture outside itself. He exposed the exteriority (if one can conceive such a thing) of the new post-war American condition. For example, the Campbell’s Soup can was, by all means, Betsy’s lunch and dinner, but it was slowly becoming an archetypal image.
Every time the boy or girl of the house ran by the kitchen, perhaps on the way to the yard to play with Spot or to the backyard where aproned Pops sipped on his Bud while flipping burgers, it was there to be seen by the tiny corner of their eyes: the ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup can, red and white, silently shelfing itself into the back-burners of the American consciousness. As with the Coca-Cola bottle. Or Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. Or Mao and the threat of communist revolution.
Warhol, in a neon way, made us aware of the fact that the Western world was either reducing or sublimating itself to image—which is not to say it was losing profundity, for there were important and deep conversations occurring in the meantime, like civil rights—but it was a culture, a zeitgeist, as it were, manifesting itself in a world of sheer phenomenon, of appearance. Image here, image there. Brands, looks, ticker tapes. It was a photograph that ended the Vietnam War.
Put the old boy back.
And Marcel approved. He liked these Pop Art Popes crawling out of the woodwork and taking up the mantle of parody while believing in it. He thought Warhol’s cans of soup were making people ask why someone would paint fifty cans of soup (I myself wonder why anyone would paint the coy Giaconda), which meant, for him, that his project of ontological art remained intact.
So he passed the baton to a generation of artists he thought were concerned with the abstract concepts behind aesthetic theory, as if unaware of the possibility that the laughter and the cynicism inspired by the Fountain would serve less to deepen the cognitive import of art—though it did fish out that perennial question again—than to welcome Mickey Mouse into halls of Botticelli, a possibility which is not bad per se, but which irked the artistic community. The result, quite logically, was “un-expression,” the humilities and apocalypses of minimalism. The artist sought to disarm himself.
So I come out of the restroom
and notice a shadow on the white wall. It draws my birdy attention. It is a canvas painted (or not) in the same color as the wall. It is nearly invisible. At once, my mind rolls through images. The Venus of Willendorf. A detail in Raphael’s Disputa. The mania in Picasso’s Guernica. The wrinkliness of Warhol’s photographed anuses.
But in front of me is this. An empty square fading into the wall. A white Nothing. The name? Art. By? Unknown.