“Art went to the toilet: crisis or solution?” – read the critical text by Luiz Camillo Osorio

Every month, PIPA Institute Curator Luiz Camillo Osorio writes an exclusive text for our website. In June, Camillo talks about “America”, a solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan that can be seen – and used – by the visitor of the Guggenheim New York museum. By analyzing “America”, which mixes luxury and trash, the text discusses the function of art and its political power in a scenario in which art is, on one hand, appropriated by the market, and on the other, institutionalized, losing some of the impact and criticalness it’s supposed to have.

Art went to the toilet: crisis or solution?

Luiz Camillo Osorio

America (2017), by Maurizio Cattelan, can be considered a site-specific work. The piece was recently presented at the Guggenheim Museum, in New York, after being acquired by the institution. It is an individual-use 18-karat solid gold toilet placed in one of the bathrooms of the Museum, located on the famous Frank Lloyd Wright ramp gallery. If you want to see it, and use it – yes, the gold toilet can be used by anyone – just get in line and wait for your turn. It should be noted that this is the first piece produced by the Italian artist after his “sabbatical” period, during which he produced no work since his spectacular retrospective, five years before, in the same Museum.

Cattelan is, beyond any doubt, one of the most critical artists of the contemporary landscape. And the word critical here carries all the ambiguity inherent to the moment we are living, to the current meaning of the word and to how art was captured by the market and by its immediate institutionality. It is within the spirit of this capture that one can expect some critical positioning, some noise, some insertion that might be unsettling to the established discourse. Paradoxically, such inadequacy brings with it the inevitable capture. Even the explicit political engagement is fully inserted (and settled) – although this does not take away from engagement its raison d’etre, but no doubt significantly reduces the intensity of its inadequacy, i.e., its critical power.

Is there a way to escape from it? What is the role of art as a critical power if one considers its institutional insertion? What is the meaning of a work such as America to this discussion? Since the 1962 Adorno essay – appropriately named ‘Engagement’ – the issue of how art resists exploitation and consumption has been examined from the perspective of its articulation with its own autonomy. By autonomy I mean here not isolation or aestheticism, but rather indeterminacy of meaning, the defense of some degree of communicative opacity.

One should displace the forms of identification and circulation of art. In other words, there’s a logic inherent to art, a work of construction of meaning that occurs within its language game its historicity and its institutionality that traverses art’s possible forms of resistance. Using a more current terminology – to displace and confront political art to the politics of art. As we know, one can make politics leaving art behind; however, the question we want to pose here is about how political can art be. Issue raised, it is always important to preserve space in order to allow the making of art with no specific political concern, so that we can keep the solitary dimension of an artist such as Morandi, isolated between 1930 and 1960 in Bologna in his family home, surrounded by his sisters and bottle vases. Contrary to what we’re trying to discuss here, this possibility – why not? – is also political in its own way.

Our interest in emphasizing the politics of art is to say that making art should also be a form of intervention in the real, a way to denaturalize reality, to make it a field of conflict and disagreement. And of enchantment as well. This means that such intervention should produce a heterogeneous sensitive experience, making us think from within a block of sensations and affections that are always indefinite and undetermined. If, for Da Vinci, art was cosa mentale, an activity of the spirit, we should now underline, or better, remember, that there is no spirit without a body, that we, ourselves, make and experience art in a unique and immanent world.

But what does the gold toilet have to do with all this? Well, it combines trash and luxury, art and non-art, the body and the work, the glamorous 18-karat fetish and the communism of a taking a good pee (or whatever else it may be). Exactly 100 years ago, Marcel Duchamp created his Fountain. A urinal, bought in a houseware store, turned upside down, put on a pedestal and signed with the pseudonym Richard Mutt. The impossible condition of a mere object, not made by the virtuous artist’s hand, but by a gesture of brilliant irony, becoming art.

For that to happen, this “mere object” had to start out as non-art. Let me explain myself: when submitting the piece to the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, and after its refusal by the Organizing Committee (of which Duchamp was part), the urinal was turned into non- art. The defense of the Richard Mutt’s “work” in a letter signed and published by Duchamp adopted the poetic sense of this gesture and opened the possibility of art to the “ready-made”. None of this happens out of nowhere. Duchamp’s urinal-fountain made its way into the History of art just because it had behind it a “tradition” dating back to the Impressionist’s works that had been recused at the exhibitions, pushing the possibilities of art out of the conventional poetics determinations. A history of refusals was enabling Duchamp’s extreme gesture and the understanding of making art that incorporates its own production and circulation conditions. That’s the artist taking to the limit the awareness of devices that go beyond the ways we make and see the work of art. Between Duchamp’s Fountain and an identical urinal is the artistic gesture that enables the emergence of irony – an irony that is not present when the object is used for its original purpose. Perceiving such an irony is seeing something that does not manifest itself materially, but rather reveals itself in specific circumstances.

For the Romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel, “irony is the form of the paradox”, i.e., irony is what allows us to equate reflexivity with humor, conscious with unconscious. Cattelan, in his strategic buffoonery, embodies the paradox of making art when everything else seems to be reduced to price and sameness. One hundred years after Duchamp, returning art to the bathroom is to assume the paradox of being, at the same time, an activity of supreme freedom and maximum capture. Among the 18-karat solid gold toilet and the urine or feces that are dumped into it, the “toilet artwork” seeks desperately an escape line in order to regain power. The market and the Museum, with their sarcastic voracity, take care of flushing it all down and keeping everything clean and sleek. I didn’t discuss the title America. There was no need. After all, Duchamp had already written in his letter in Richard Mutt’s defense that toilets and bridges were the best works of art America had ever produced.


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015. To read more exclusive texts written by Camillo, click here.

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