Art or Toilet Humor?

Anyone may use this fully functional work of art

Form and function, art and humor collide in Maurizio Cattelan’s (mohr-REET-see-oh CAT-teh-lahn)  most recent work. Installed in New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, the sculpture is a fully functioning toilet cast in precious metal.

The 18-karat-gold object, called America, sits in a pre-existing restroom on the museum’s fifth floor. A guard stands outside, letting visitors in one by one. Curators even developed new cleaning techniques to maintain the toilet’s luster. 

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Fountain, 1950 (replica of 1917 original). Porcelain urinal, 12x15x18in. (30.5x38.1x45.7cm). The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift (by exchange) of Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1998. Image: The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. ©Succession Marcel Duchamp ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2016.

Some view America as a continuation of a debate that began 100 years ago. Artist Marcel Duchamp (mar-SEL doo-SHAHN) questioned the artistic value of ordinary objects when he signed a urinal and submitted it to an art show in 1917. The work, Fountain, was one of Duchamp’s most iconic readymades—ordinary objects presented as works of art. Fountain caused an uproar, and the show’s directors ultimately rejected it, deeming the work indecent. In a nod to Duchamp’s legacy, plumbers installed Cattelan’s toilet at the Guggenheim just before the centennial of Fountain.

Because Cattelan cast America in gold,  it is inherently valuable. Some suggest the artist is making a statement about the excessive wealth in the contemporary art world. But others, including Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Spector, call the artwork an equalizer. “It’s a very valuable object that anyone can use,” she says.

©Chesnot/Getty Images.

A statement from the Guggenheim  notes that America provides viewers with “unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” But for Cattelan, the work is about the idea. “What I cared about most was that it . . . engages a big audience in a variety of ideas,” the artist explains.

People are definitely engaging with it. Since the work opened to the public, viewers have been lining up to try it. But the goofy restroom selfies they’re posting on social media hint that the public sees the work as a joke.

What do you think? Is America a work of art or simply toilet humor?

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