Fountain by Marcel Duchamp is a landmark creation of the 20th century.
It was produced in 1917, at a time when Duchamp was already renowned for his work. Seen as one of the pioneering artists of the last century, his art is spoken of in the same breath as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. It perhaps explains the shock-waves created by Fountain.
There are a few conflicting accounts of how Fountain came to be, but the most popular narrative is that Duchamp picked up a mass-produced porcelain urinal, labeled it “R.Mutt,” and then submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists to be displayed in New York.
A debate about whether or not it could be considered a piece of art ensued, and it ended with the society rejecting the piece, which led to its publication in The Blind Man magazine.
The reason for its fame is the conversation it started about what exactly art is. Is it something that should be objectively judged? Or does everybody get to decide their own definition?
It’s an issue that transcends the surface-level disagreement, and if we strip it down a layer, it’s not just about art, either. What is really being asked is — What determines value? What is meaningful? What matters?
The debate still hasn’t been resolved. Not in the art world, not in philosophy, and not in our culture at large. Any attempt to box the predicament into a standard solution has usually been met with a similarly well-reasoned response that suggests an opposite solution. None clearly right.
I personally have no illusions about my ability to provide an answer in the broader context here, but I am interested in these same questions in relation to how we live our day to day lives.
How should we interact with and respond to meaning?
The Boundaries of Reason
I have always had a close relationship with reason. I like breaking things down, I respect the process of logic, and I tend to think from first principles.
I’m not sure when and how it began, but it largely dominates how I see the world. In fact, if I want to see it any other way, then I have to actively work to get my mind out of these patterns.
This isn’t in any way a bad thing. It’s actually a big part of my identity, and for the most part, it’s led me in the right direction.
The problem, however, arises when this kind of thinking goes a little too far.
What reason likes best is reduction. It breaks things down to their core, and it begs to understand everything in concrete and tangible terms.
Any time I feel something, it’s immediately complemented by inquiry. I have a sharp instinct to tear it down so that I can characterize in my head. I almost need to know how it works and why, even if it doesn’t matter.
When I see an act of kindness, I can’t help but analyze the group dynamics of the situation. When I witness a moment of courage, my first thought is always why. When I encounter something genuinely inspiring, skepticism lingers.
The best things in life aren’t a product of active thought, but they emerge from feeling. They’re best engaged by just letting them be. I’m not immune from this by any means, but I find that the impulse of reason is still always there.
Unfortunately, all it ever does is cheapen the experience.
Taking a More Complete Approach
I read a blog post by Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm a couple of weeks ago.
He’s a deep thinker, and like most of his writing, there is a lot to digest in it. Funnily enough, out of all of the things that he talked about, there is only one short phrase that stuck with me after finishing it.
It’s six words, near the end, and while relevant, not exactly representative of the general thesis of the post in a significant way. The phrase?
“Don’t be too suspicious of beauty.”
I have been thinking a lot about it. It captures something that’s been roaming around in my mind for a while now, but not something I have been able to fully pinpoint and verbalize until now.
The reason, I think, is not only that suspicion of beauty cheapens it, but also that most of the things that are beautiful — like kindness, courage, and inspiration— can’t be fully quantified by our current language and reasoning.
I mean, sure, I can give you some story about group selection and altruism, or I can rationalize evolutionary theory to fit whatever it is I want to justify, but the truth is that the science here is still very, very young.
The universe is complex and dynamic, but when we label and interact with it through logic and reason, we make it static. We may be able to use this to build models and metaphors, and this may even capture some essence of its reality, but it doesn’t fully explain it. It’s still inexact enough to be unreliable.
To add to that, the process of using reduction to capture meaning generally strips the thing of that meaning. It comfortably overpowers the information of the senses and provides an illusionary certainty.
Now, if we could be sure that the conclusions of reason — with the backing of our current scientific understanding of the world — are completely right and infallible, then that phrase would essentially be asking you to conclude that something is meaningful even if it isn’t.
The reality, however, is that our current reasoning abilities aren’t infallible, and most who argue they are likely haven’t spent enough time thinking.
In fact, the argument could even be made that our senses — which provide the cues regarding what is beautiful and what is meaningful — have information about the nature of reality that lie beyond reason. After all, they have survived and endured the refinement and battery of evolution for far longer.
We can’t always figure out why something is beautiful, and that’s okay. That shouldn’t be an invitation to reduce it down until it isn’t.
To not be suspicious of beauty doesn’t mean that all moments of perceived kindness, courage, or inspiration get a free pass. We know that, sometimes, our feelings can fool us and, often, there is more behind the surface.
If there is a decision to be made based on such instances, the content behind the initial association matters and deeper inquiry is certainly important. This is why it’s so much harder to apply this to art and philosophy.
The point is only that the sense of kindness, courage, and inspiration is irreducible and the feelings of meaning and beauty that we attribute to them can’t be intellectualized away with the mask of logic and reason.
It was Nietzsche who once said that,
“It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”
There are a host of things out there that contain some form of beauty. They have meanings that can’t be fully captured. Yet, they matter to us.
We may be able to speculate, but right now, we don’t know for sure why nature has imbued us with this capacity. The only thing we do know is that it gives life a kind of essence that’s best engaged with as a feeling.
To me, it’s a reminder to not be so quick to always dissect what I sense. It’s an invitation to just pause and to fully experience.
Sometimes, what is beautiful doesn’t need a reason. Sometimes, it just is.