The Birth of the Readymade
In 1917, in a surreptitious gesture working under the nom-de-plume R.Mutt (a play on the manufacturer of the object), Duchamp shocked the art world (perhaps only posthumously however, as the piece was never actually displayed, but was only the progenitor of rumors) by introducing a pissoir (in the French) or urinal, oriented 90 degrees from intended mounting and placing it on a pedestal.
Was Duchamp just trying to personify the 'enfant terrible', make a private joke or was it something else? Many art historians contend that Duchamp was making a characteristically 'opaque' gesture by this act - and also attempting to irritate followers of the Beaux-Arts model. However - there is no small amount of evidence to suggest his great intrest in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, known as the father or grandfather of Semiotics - 'Fountain' can more easily be interpreted as an object lesson illustrating his ideas. Generally, the object suggests how the mind is deeply posessive of semantic concepts and is emotionally tied to them. The urinal, a not unpleasing object to the eye when not named this, and especially when never touched by the waste products it's very manufacture was intended for - would still evoke an equivalent reaction were it replaced with a 'fouled' version.
Like much of Duchamp's other works, it served a pedagogical function - though Duchamp never would have admitted it. This affectation is elucidating and requires further study.
at left: Marcel Duchamp's (R.Mutt) urinal named 'Fountain' from the Armory Show in 1917.