Friday, February 11, 2011

The Authority of the Museum

Marcel Duchamp
(Photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
"The traffic of the readymade is one-way; a urinal that becomes art [...] can't escape to be a urinal again. The authority of the museums forbids it."

-Peter Schjeldahl, "Between the Lines," The New Yorker, November 29, 2010
Schjeldahl's observation is insightful. I'll take it one step further.

By submitting itself to "the authority of the museum," the urinal becomes something lesser than any of those in a public toilet. Presented as art, it is form without function; as Schjeldahl contends, it ceases to be a urinal.

But even though the urinal-cum-artwork can't escape this new identity, it might inspire museum visitors to reconsider the aesthetic merit of mundane, functional objects. If the visitor carries that perspective out of the museum doors, the readymade's meme has "escaped" the institution. In other words, the urinal trapped in the museum aggrandizes free and functional urinals the world over precisely because it has been stripped of its utility!

Why does the art world understand aesthetics and utility to be mutually exclusive?

Image credit: courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

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