Is the Emperor Naked Again?
By Patrick F. Cannon
In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen published a little tale titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In it, two tailors had been commissioned to sew up some new duds for the Emperor. They dithered and had done nothing when the day came to deliver the expected finery. They showed up at the palace anyway and somehow convinced the Emperor that his new outfit was invisible.
Proving as dimwitted as most royalty (and politicians for that matter) have been throughout history, the mighty one was soon parading around his domain with his magical invisible clothes. Fearing his wrath, his subjects wisely kept their mouths shut; some may even have thought that they were the only one who couldn’t see the product of the Emperor’s talented tailors.
Then one day, when the all highest was parading through his capital, a little boy, who had perhaps been away at summer camp when the invisible clothes had first made their appearance, looked aghast when his highness came into view, and was heard to yell rather loudly, as young boys will, “look, the Emperor has no clothes!”
Thus was the illusion shattered. Soon, others in the crowd took up the call. While the Emperor himself realized they were right, he just kept on going as if nothing had happened. In our own time, we might think of leaders who also double down even when proven wrong.
Anyway, I thought of Andersen’s classic tale when I read Steve Johnson’s piece in last Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune about the Art Institute of Chicago’s acquisition of Marcel Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack.” If you didn’t read Johnson’s article, I should tell you that a bottle rack – one is pictured above – is a kitchen appliance used to dry bottles. Nowadays, similar racks are sometimes used to dry infant formula bottles. Duchamp’s bottle rack was once common in France, where they were used to dry wine bottles, after which they were brought back to the local wine shop to be refilled with “Vin Ordinaire,” (just like some folks now refill bottles of expensive vintages with Carlo Rossi’s best, recork it and foist it off on the unwary wine snob).
Duchamp (1887-1968) apparently bought his rack at a Paris department store. To move the story along, at some point he signed it and it ended up in the possession of American POP artist, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who was in a position to appreciate it, since two of his best known works are three panels painted white; and a drawing by fellow artist Willem De Kooning, which he erased and framed.
Before you get the idea that Marcel only bought stuff and signed them, you should know that one of his famous works is “Nude Descending a Staircase.” (1912), which hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is a cubist rendering of a presumably fetching lass doing what the title describes. While you might think it odd, you can’t deny that it’s not only complicated, but well executed. But it seems to have worn Duchamp out, since he soon took to taking utilitarian items like bottle racks and signing them.
His most famous work in this vein is, alas, lost. Called “Fountain”, it was in fact a urinal, which he signed “R. Mutt, 1917.” As Johnson’s article reminds us, it was declared the most influential work of art of the 20th Century by a panel of 500 art critics and experts (one wonders what came in second). Copies do exist – the Tate Gallery in London has one – but it wouldn’t of course be worth what the original, if found someday, would fetch.
(Let me interject a question here. Duchamp’s urinal and bottle rack were appropriated; i.e., they were the work of someone else. Should not their original designers get some credit here? How about the designers responsible for the originals that Andy Warhol used as the basis for his famous Campbell’s soup can and Brillo box? I sense injustice here, but can art and justice co-exist?)
As a long time member of the Art Institute, I would love to know what they paid for the sadly second-best “Bottle Rack.” Someone estimated that it might be worth at least $12 million, but others thought the museum would have had to pay even more, since it was coveted by many others around the world. Be that as it may, it can now be seen in a third-floor gallery of the Modern Wing.
If you would like a similar work in your own home, I found a bottle rack for sale on the Internet for $16.99. While it only has three tiers to Duchamp’s five, you can of course buy a pair for $33.98 and still be ahead of the game! I would be happy to sign them for you for a small fee. Oh, and if your taste runs to urinals, the men’s bathrooms at the Art Institute are lavishly equipped.
In the meantime, I think I’ll contemplate the enduring wisdom of Hans Christian Andersen.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon