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May 4, 2020

On Art and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

OVER THE COURSE OF SEVERAL RECENT MONTHS, a fiery debate raged in the pages of UK art publications The Burlington Magazine and The Art Newspaper, and inevitably migrated online as well. It revolved around a simple question: Who was the true author of the radical 1917 work Fountain, the porcelain urinal submitted to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York under the pseudonym R. Mutt? On one side are those who accept the long-held and near-universal identification of Marcel Duchamp as the work’s creator; on the other are those who argue fiercely that authorship should be assigned to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet who has, in recent years, been revisited as a protofeminist figure and an early practitioner of found-object art. As with so many such scholarly debates, tiny fragments of historical evidence were mustered by each side as proof of their respective positions. Given that focus on the evidentiary record, I was surprised that one name didn’t come up more frequently in the discussion: that of Morton Schamberg, who is now taken to have been Loringhoven’s collaborator on a sculptural assemblage entitled God, another bathroom-fixture-as-artwork (a plumbing trap affixed to a miter box) dating to the very same year as Fountain—and which, one assumes, would help bolster the Loringhoven-as-creator argument.

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