Words by Alison Fletcher.
‘America’ by artist Maurizio Cattelan. Piece is a fully-functioning toilet made from 18-karat gold. Displayed at Guggenheim Museum and open to the public as if it were any other usable facility.
When I first heard about Cattelan’s ‘America’ piece, I was reminded, inevitably, of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’. This is a comparison that a lot of critics are making; drawing attention to the similarities of toilet features and the satirical implications of what modern art is. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, however, in retrospect, I renounce the idea that they are anything alike. While Duchamp’s piece challenges and, arguably, ridicules the spectator; the piece is primarily about questioning what modern art is, what it can be, and where the line is supposed to be drawn (of course, some argue that to draw a line at all is counter-intuitive.) And while Cattelan’s ‘America’ is a product of modern art and therefore makes a statement about what is acceptable as modern art, I believe the real aim here can be summarised in the sculpture’s title.
Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture was created in 1917. The piece is a porcelain urinal which was signed ‘R,Mutt’ and titled, controversially, ‘Fountain’.
‘America’: it is easy to take the title at face value: the art tells us that America is *insert expletive here*, and frankly many expletives synonymous with bodily waste. Disguised in gold, the toilet can claim itself to be the greatest toilet in the western world. However, if one is to consider the philosophies behind the materials, it opens up the opportunity to think about Cattelan’s interpretation of what gold can represent: elitism, wealth, and its limited availability to the one-percent. One can interpret this as they please, but denying a link between the concept of the American Dream and elitism in America would make you look silly.
Whether the spectator of the piece believes in the American dream or not, it is clear that ‘America’ promotes an optimistic view of how it could be under a liberal attitude. The piece, unlike any other in the exhibition, is encouraged to be touched, used, flushed (yes, it works!) and is available to anyone and everyone.
Though the piece was built pre-Trump, the artist has not denied links between the current state of the White House, though he encourages people not to forget the previous presidents who were lined up before him. But observing Trump’s history of business endeavours, fame, and immense fortune, it is hard not to connect the golden toilet (intended for the one-percent but used by the many), to some of Trump’s most recent decisions including the popularly nicknamed ‘Muslim Ban’ and his decision to put a ban on federal money going to international groups that provide abortions.
A photograph that will go down in history: Donald Trump signing the ban on federal money contributing towards abortions. The photograph became widely shared on social media condemning the White House for the one-hundred-percent male team that made decisions about women’s ability to receive abortions in the United States.
What the above photograph can tell us about Cattelan’s piece, is that the 18-karat one-percent are making decisions for the many. Trump is one of many figures that represent celebrity and elitism as being synonymous with power, and the left have grown tired, frustrated and angry. Liberals believe it is time for Trump – and his agenda of exclusivity – to get flushed away.
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