Duchamp poses questions in this work, which I find infinitely more stirring than art with nothing but answers, such as a realist’s painting of a landscape, yes, there is skill, but art is much more than skill.
It is important to put Tracey Emin to the back of your mind for the moment, although easy to draw parallels between ‘My Bed’ and this piece, Emin’s work focuses on a voyeuristic look at herself as the subject. Whereas Duchamp explored the cultural implications of art. You must transport yourself back to 1917, so Titanic sunk 5 years ago, WWI is still being fought and the Machine Age¹ is in full swing.
Living through the Machine Age undoubtedly informed some of Duchamp’s decisions. As part of the Dada movement² I think he uses mass production as a theme in this piece to indicate contempt for the art world as a commercialised industry. Also, you have to make the connection between the title and the object, the object is missing one thing to live up to its title, a man urinating on it. This is supposed to shock people and display his contempt for what he feels the art world is becoming.
The original has long since been lost, but a replica commissioned by Duchamp is on display at the Barbican in London until the 9th of June.
¹The Machine Age refers to a period of time from around 1880 to 1945 in which the factory production line became increasingly mechanised, which not only brought down costs, but also created the factory conditions for mass production on a scale never seen before. The best example of these new processes would be Henry Ford’s Motor Company. Ford realised that soon everyone would want to own a car, and so his model for mass production relied upon mass consumerism.
²Dada, an art movement which rejects reason and logic. It also avoided conventional labels such as those found in the art world.