Published May 9, 2016
Museum press releases rarely boast about the purchase of a new toilet. The one recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, however, is no standard-issue Kohler. Subtly entitled America, the fully functional, 18-karat solid gold toilet will be placed in a one-person unisex bathroom, complete with a sink and mirror. Visitors will be encouraged to use it however they like, but its creator, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan—celebrated by the museum as a “provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our time,”—says that it “becomes an art work only with someone sitting on it or standing over it, answering nature’s call.” Molly Stuart, a Guggenheim publicist, told the Daily Mail that this is the first time a public toilet would be displayed as art in the museum: “You can lock the door and have your experience, whether that be just looking at the toilet or using it.”
The Guggenheim credits Nancy Spector, the museum’s former deputy director and chief curator, for the exhibit. Ms. Spector is now at the Brooklyn Museum, but presumably had a hand in the museum’s gem of a press release:
The new work makes available to the public an extravagant luxury product seemingly intended for the 1 percent. Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately, allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with an artwork. Cattelan’s toilet offers a wink to the excesses of the art market, but also evokes the American dream of opportunity for all, its utility ultimately reminding us of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity.
This isn’t a parody of pompous, self-congratulatory artspeak; the people who write this gibberish consider it enlightening, discerning cultural commentary. Why this “fixture” is “seemingly intended” for the 1 percent is not obvious. But, if anyone should recognize the 1 percent it’s Spector and the Guggenheim, an institution founded and supported by the fattest of the fat cats, a veritable parade of Daddy Warbucks.
Ms. Spector told the New York Times that the “occupy movement and growing concerns over the concentration of wealth” had led to her interest in hosting the toilet. “I think this is going to enter into that discourse,” she said, “and we have to be prepared for the reactions that people are going to have to it.” When presented with the idea by Spector, Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, said immediately, “Do it.”
It seems Armstrong had no worries a toilet entitled America might offend many Americans visiting the Guggenheim, even though his museum’s donors benefit from being able to deduct contributions to a not-for-profit organization from their taxable income. The Guggenheim also receives support from US taxpayers through federal grants, though America was purchased with private funds (the museum won’t reveal its cost).
Art patronage and investment relies on moguls—intelligent men and women justifiably confident about their judgments regarding other aspects of their lives—who will nonetheless fund twaddle like America enthusiastically when it receives the art establishment’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Perhaps they’re eager for the “participatory nature” of a golden toilet. Cattelan’s works—some of “the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art” according to the Guggenheim—include a sculpture of John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, a taxidermied horse suspended by ropes and pulleys, and a doll-like figure of Hitler praying in the Warsaw Ghetto, which just sold for $11 million.
Cattelan is just the latest fashionable artist to be attracted by human waste. America is preceded by Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, a urinal that has since become one of the 20th century’s most famous works of art. The Guggenheim says that America is “an art historical gesture” which references Duchamp’s Fountain and that “Cattelan’s installation may be understood as countering the artistic transgression of Fountain by restoring the utility of their shared subject.”
This “shared subject” features prominently in another work meant to shock, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, winner of the Turner Prize, Great Britain’s most famous award. Partially made of elephant dung, The Holy Virgin Mary was praised by critics and damned by the unenlightened who dared to consider it sacrilegious. Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine, elicited a similar reaction.
But the earliest example of the fetishization of human defecation belongs to Cattelan’s Italian predecessor, Piero Manzoni. In 1961, Manzoni “produced” 90 cans labeled “Artist’s Shit” which he claimed contained his own excrement. One critic explained that “Manzoni’s critical and metaphorical reification of the artist’s body, its processes and products, pointed the way towards an understanding of the persona of the artist and the product of the artist’s body as a consumable object.” It’s not exactly clear what “consumable” means here. Manzoni was clearer, “If collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist,” he said, “there’s the artist’s own shit, that’s really his.”
Regrettably, Cattelan, “the tragic poet of our time,” and the Guggenheim seem to agree.
Bruce Cole is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.