In 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was named the most influential art modern art work of all time by a poll of 500 art experts. Following the announcement, an article on the BBC News website asked readers, “Do you think the Fountain is an influential work of modern art? Do you agree with the experts? Which piece would you have voted for?” The varied responses to this show that the questions Duchamp raised about the nature of art are still very much alive today. Although the work was intended to shock viewers, its value lies not in the cheap shock value of seeing a urinal in a museum, but rather in the ways it challenges accepted notions of what art can and should be. Much has changed in the art world since 1917 and today works by conceptual artists such as Tracy Emins and Damien Hirst are regularly exhibited in museums and galleries. The value of Fountain, and the reason it deserved to win the poll, lies in the fact that the questions it raises are still relevant to the art world and the debates it provokes about the nature of art are just as passionate as the ones it triggered when it was first displayed.
The majority of people who commented on the article believed Fountain should not be considered art. Many readers felt that Fountain and other conceptual art was elitist and pretentious because it appeals only to a select group of intellectuals who “get” it. As one person commented, “these people [who voted for Fountain in the poll] go their own elitist distaining way, society goes another”. Just as the original reaction to Fountain reflected society’s views of art in 1917, the reaction to it today reflects our own society’s views of art. In 1917, the work was not admitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition because it was a commonplace, everyday object. By submitting his work to the exhibition, Duchamp was attacking the tradition of fine art and the institutions that mandated what art should be. Today, such institutions have accepted Duchamp’s work, as evidenced by the poll. Instead of being viewed as an attack on the elitist art establishment as it was in its own time, Fountain is now seen as a part of that very establishment. However, this new view of the work allows for just as many questions as it originally did. Another reader who felt the experts who voted in the poll were “pretentious idiots” commented sarcastically, “How can I register as an artist? I just dropped a sandwich on the floor next to my desk and it perfectly demonstrates the futility of the rat race and juxtaposed the reality and the imagined. Truly challenges what art ‘can and cannot be’.” Yet it is precisely because it raises these kinds of questions that Fountain is influential. The viewer is forced to rethink their ideas about what gives art its value. Is it the object itself or the ideas surrounding it? Does simply being agreed upon by experts make something a work of art?