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Toilet, Humor & Art: Lady Dada Style

August 6, 2010

Amid all of Lady Gaga’s gender-bending and hot topic love affairs (most recently, her Phoenix concert appearance in which she bore writing on her body in protest of AZ SB 1070), a work of art was made found. I mean, made. Found…well, here it is:

Lady Gaga. Armitage Shanks. 2010. Image courtesy of

In an act of art historical savviness, Lady Gaga has again aligned herself with a historical figure-Marcel Duchamp. For anyone that is not familiar with the Dadaist object, known as The Fountain (1917)-let me recap:

1. Duchamp denounces the regime of “high art” objects and proposes his own work of art-a urinal inscribed with a name, “R. Mutt,”

2. The gesture goes down in art history, and introduces the public (and many, many art students) to “readymades,” and

3. Art’s repertoire is substantially broadened thanks to the clever artist.

What has Gaga added to the almost century-old dialogue about art? How does it relate to our culture in 2010? In her latest work, now on display at the London art space SHOWstudio, she inscribed this note to the public:

“I’m not f***ing Duchamp, but I love pissing with you.”

Based on her inscription, she is not trying to outdo Duchamp but she gets the joke. Yet, the comparison remains. Perhaps a better question would be, “How has her appropriation disrupted our notion of her, Duchamp, or art?” To begin with, consider this quote on the site, which explains her version of Duchamp’s statement:

Rather than embodied in the physicality of the piece itself, the reference to the Inside/Out theme comes from Lady Gaga’s ‘marking’ of said urinal with traces of herself

She also adjusted the title of the work to Armitage Shanks. And then it occurred to me in a conversation with a great friend-Gaga’s tendency to perform the monstrous parallels another woman who made a few people nervous and whom many believe is the artist behind The Fountain-the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Lorinhoven. While Gaga essentially marked her territory with piss, Man Ray, a staunch Surrealist, declared the Baroness to personify the “‘shit’ of Dada” in anticipation of her arrival in New York in 1921. How rude!

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dec. 1915, International News Photography, in The Art of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Naumann Fine Art).

The female (and more broadly, the non-White male) presence in works of art tends to rest in the world of objects, not artists.We talk about Duchamp all the time but we don’t hear much about the Baroness, who wasn’t fully respected as an artist but was a popular model for many artists. Despite the gender divide, she produced art, poetry, garments, and performed like hell.  Today, it’s clear that while she was a fixture among the Dadaists, she tends to be a footnote in Dadaist studies. More recently, feminist scholars have helped to articulate her role in the largely masculinized canon. Frida Kahlo is another prominent artist whose persona is only beginning to be understood beyond the gendered language of Surrealism.

I’m sure that Duchamp would be tickled by Gaga’s act but is this all that she had hoped to suggest? Most certainly not-a dead audience cannot be persuaded, and anyone who has dubbed herself a fame monster would know that.

So why reinvent the wheel urinal?

Davin Heckman pointed out the gendered “essence” of a urinal in his essay, Potty Talk: Marcel Duchamp, Kenneth Burke, and Pure Persuasion:

A urinal has a specific use when it is placed in the bathroom, but outside of the bathroom it confounds. It invites the male viewer to participate in a strange way. Traditional high art, the nude especially, is often criticized for being for a male audience, and this piece calls attention to that. But unlike nudes, which are often criticized for seeking to engage the male viewer with sexual imagery, this seeks to do so without it. A urinal requires the male to instead expose himself and to have another type of relation altogether. A urinal is a place to urinate while art is something to adore. To pee on art would be a sacrilege, and this is what Duchamp has done by creating his peon art.

The male audience is “confounded” but what about the rest of the audience? How does it engage women? By “making” Armitage Shanks, Gaga’s implied usage of the urinal explicitly refutes the intended purpose-in doing so, high art is queered.

Lady Gaga’s artistic check mate may be a stroke of good luck. Lately, she’s been exalted by many while others have questioned her own readymade status as a copycat. Whatever the case, it’s a humorous and (still) rare interruption in a largely separatist art history.

The 21st century condition suffers from high-speed internet with a short-term memory-another fin de siècle. It’s part of the reason that we seem to shrug everything off because “it’s been done already”-no need to reconsider it. In turn, history is repeating itself while the early Modernists’ legacy continues to define our associations.

A possible solution? Make more art, promote it until it blends into the rest of the visual tapestry, keep language in mind, and see what happens.

For more information about the Baroness and her role in the Dadaist movement, read Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada by Amelia Jones.

Cross posted at

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  1. August 6, 2010 10:20 am

    It’s too bad that ‘this’ is what the machine of the news cycle knows will get ratings, readers, and viewership. I look forward to the time when people will laugh at things like this being brought up in conversation as what peopled USED to find important to talk about.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  2. August 6, 2010 11:54 am

    Lady Blah Blah is not half as smart as this post is. She’s standing on the shoulders of giants. Good job.

  3. Maria Guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 11:56 am

    @TheIntentionalSage: Are you an art fan? What do you think about the original-Duchamp’s “The Fountain”?

    What I find thought-provoking about this is that it’s been almost 100 years and it’s popping up again. As an art historian, I find that most of the themes in art works have some sort of agenda-race, gender, Manifest Destiny….and art is a very prominent reflection of some cultures. Do you find the 21st century inundated with themes that you cannot relate to?

  4. maria guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 12:09 pm

    @thejamminjabber: haha yeah, I am not 100% convinced Gaga’s that into art history but damn, I love a good Dada article! Thanks, and I enjoyed your blog-especially the unhappy camper retort in your “About Me” section:

  5. August 6, 2010 12:12 pm

    The only problem that I have with comparing Gaga to visual/performance artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray, etc. is that her real talent seems to be in co-opting other people’s style–not to mention that whatever supposed “message” she may or may not be attempting to convey is just as ephemeral and dubious as her own persona seems to be. Don’t get me wrong here–she’s as good at what she does as anyone out there, even if her “shtick” is heavily borrowed from Madonna, Grace Jones, etc. and one could make the argument that the same is true of any musician who attains icon status.

    I’m not talking semantics here, or intellectual property or anything like that, just simply pointing out that when your “product” is very similar in so many respects to what others have done, comparison as well as accusations of “jacking” other performer’s style seems inevitable. I guess Gaga could throw down the “media pirate” card and claim that she’s the female popstar equivalent of Jeff Koontz or something like that, although I’m guessing that if she had the choice she’d probably rather be viewed as a female Marilyn Manson instead…

    At any rate, it seems that what she’s selling isn’t really art per se, but a carefully-crafted, albeit extreme image that references a plethora of controversial and seemingly dissimilar attitudes and ideas that resonate with the masses for precisely that reason. I’d like to offer in evidence the fact that it wasn’t until after she donned the outlandish costumes and more extreme style that anyone paid attention to her or her music.

    I think if I had to compare her to anyone, It’d probably be Quentin Tarrantino–he made the transition from a slightly anti-social video store geek to quintessential Hollywood schlockmeister by parsing together his favorite ideas from pop culture, thereby transforming himself into an icon by association, if you will.

    I’m not criticizing Quentin or Gaga here, or their chosen media–only suggesting that lionizing such people to the extent that we do, based on their ability to manipulate a particular demographic for profit isn’t quite the same thing as being the modern-day Tolstoy or Edgar Allan Poe, or whatever. Every year it seems that the celbrities and popmeisters become more interchangeable–Quentin and Gaga make “junk food” for the soul, and I guess that we all need a little junk food once in a while. Pop stars rise and fall, but credibility is another matter, particularly if you’re a writer…

    “I am,—that is to say I was—a great man, but I am neither the author of Junius nor the man in the mask, for my name, I believe, is Robert Jones, and I was born somewhere in the city of Fum-Fudge.”

    (Edgar Allan Poe)

    P.S. Didn’t mean to “jack” your blog–peace!

  6. maria guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 12:42 pm

    hi margarita,

    no problem whatsoever-in fact, I am glad that you specifically mentioned 3 of the 4 artists that it would be sensible to note in such a discussion-Madonna, Grace Jones (actually wrote my thesis on her haha), and Jeff Koons.

    But there is something sanitized about Gaga-she wouldn’t go as far as any of these artists, not even “Telephone” compares to a vintage Koons marriage portrait (which I thought was mortifying to look at but you know, I never “got” the Arnolfini Wedding anyway so good on him).

    I also think that you are right about the importance of fashion for Gaga’s success-to be specific, the Alexander McQueen stylings lend a contemporary shine to the longstanding image of the Frankenhooker (crazy film, btw), better known as the “monstrous feminine.” But even in this vein, she fails to really “own it” or have fun with it in an intellectual manner. You’d think that the song, “Monster,” would be a prime celebration of the gravity that the “monstrous feminine” possesses but no…it’s about another heartbreak, and she is sad that the guy is a monster….I’ll take “Demolition Man” ANY day 🙂

    Thanks for your insightful comments-please join in and take over anytime 🙂

  7. maria guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 12:46 pm

    oh wow, I just realized that the 4th artist I was going to mention was born today-Andy Warhol!

  8. August 6, 2010 2:57 pm

    I’m starting to love Lady Gaga. She reminds me of early Madonna — and everyone’s reaction to her reminds me as well. But Dadaism, it never crossed my mind. Thanks for the great analysis!


  9. Maria Guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 3:21 pm

    Hi Crystal,

    Thanks for the feedback on the comparison-Dadaism is one of my favorite art styles, and I find it to be pretty (undetected yet) influential in today’s pop cultural antics and trends.

    I have to ask: what is one of your favorite memories of “early Madonna”? I loved watching “Desperately Seeking Susan”! Did you know that it was originally meant to end with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna running away together-apparently, the audience didn’t like that much…boo!

  10. zach burns permalink
    August 6, 2010 4:20 pm

    this post takes me back to my art history courses at college. good times. and i’m not a big Gaga fan, but i’ve always loved Dada and Duchamp’s “The Fountain”. thanks for sharing this wonderful insight into the world of Dada and Gaga.

  11. Maria Guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 4:30 pm

    thank you, Zach-it’s a big compliment coming from an artist (and Midwesterner)!

  12. August 6, 2010 4:42 pm

    Two words: Got style.

    • Maria Guzman permalink*
      August 8, 2010 5:46 pm

      hi there,

      me or her? 😉

      thanks for reading this-it’s exciting to write about things that combine news and opinions…i think that she is an artist that doesn’t do everything quite eloquently or perfectly but she has room to grow as an artist and that’s good to keep in mind. it looks like she’s learning a lot about the details of activism, and i look forward to seeing her establish a bigger presence in activism.


  13. August 6, 2010 6:01 pm

    I really think it is a misnomer to say Lady Gaga has done much with regards to SB1070. She gave a concert during a national week of solidarity called by gay rights activists, immigrant rights activists, and peace justice activists and during an ongoing artist boycott of the state over the “paper’s please” law. She said nothing about SB 1070 or her decision until a national campaign asking her to reconsider was started within the gay community and went viral. Then her response was to scribble SB 1070 on her arm and disparage people engaged in boycotting by implying it wasn’t a “peaceful way to protest” all the while racking in concert money she would have lost otherwise.

    If feminist solidarity boils down to a sharpie and a 5 second speech about how much you care while crossing a picket line, then we really need a new movement.

  14. maria guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 6:14 pm

    Hi there,

    I agree with your approach but just want to clarify that I did not say that she has “done much” in regard to SB1070. I am aware that she tends to flirt with LGBTQ rights, and now, immigration rights as a response to an activist group’s informative meeting. I think that her persona is somewhat problematic but I like how art history was referenced-it can be a very insular community at times.

    • August 8, 2010 12:29 pm

      I did not say that your exact words were that she had “done much” I hope that was clear, as is the point of your article being about art. However, you did start this article by referring to what was going on in AZ and that was what I was commenting on. What several feminist blogs seem to be leaving out in calling her actions protest (which the title of the article you link to actually says explicitly) is that despite the Week of Solidarity, Lady Gaga vacationed in AZ for two days prior to her concert and only met with immigrant right’s activists after the petition calling on her to support immigrants right’s went viral. I don’t want to distract from your discussion of art, but as a feminist myself, I thought it was important to point out that her “protest” amounted to sharpie activism. (I apologize for saying sharpie feminism the first time, I only recently found out that besides the AZ thing and her offensive comments abt trans women, she also disparaged feminism saying that she was “not a feminist, she likes men” which was discussed at bitch magazine when it happened.)

      • Maria Guzman permalink*
        August 8, 2010 12:54 pm

        hi susurro,

        Your discussion is not a distraction to the article’s topic, not at all. In fact, when I read about her Phoenix concert, I really wanted to do a post about that but I felt that this post could broach more topics ultimately, as it has 🙂

        Her stance on immigration was articulated as a result of the meeting with the activists, which she didn’t name. In fact, GetEqual was not mentioned that often in articles about Gaga’s Phoenix appearance. This article was pretty well-researched:

        I found a connection to both immigrant rights and art communities/practice-capitalism. It’s no accident that Gaga’s reaction to her fellow artists’ request to boycott AZ was no. Not for her undying love of democracy and justice, but because she didn’t believe that a group of artists could “collapse the economy.”

        Here’s the video:

        This raises an obvious misunderstanding on her part. Capitalism and immigration have MUCH to do with each other, and by choosing fame over activism in this way, it leaves much to be desired (in terms of an effective commentary on SB 1070).

        Thoughts on this connection?


  15. Maria Guzman permalink*
    August 6, 2010 8:06 pm

    Also, susurro, I wanted to clarify that immigration rights are very important to me. Next week, I’m teaming up with Ms. mag and the NLIRH and writing a more autobiographical article about the intersection of immigration and reproductive rights. please check it out-I’d like someone as passionate as you to add your thoughts 🙂

  16. August 6, 2010 8:45 pm

    Lady Gaga is a very, very, very odd person. But I enjoy her music and at times her flamboyant personality can be refreshingly entertaining. Is it risque? Yes, but it isn’t just “take off all your clothes” risque, but “take off all your clothes and put on a life size doily” kind of risque. It’s hard to explain. She’s smart too. I think people assume she’s not because lets face it, some of her behavior is kind of…lets say childish. But that doesn’t automatically make her dumb – I’m not really surprised she knows about Dadaism and Dada artists. Seems like it would be her style.

  17. maria guzman permalink*
    August 7, 2010 3:02 am

    yes, what I wish that I had come across is a statement by her about what moved her to donate this work to SHOWstudio. i have heard that many of her costumes and videos are influenced by early 20th century films, esp. the costume design. i’d like to see the connection between art and fashion more often, that’s for sure…

  18. August 8, 2010 12:16 pm

    I knew about maybe toliet art but not about the urinals, which is pretty interesting. It doesn’t surprise me too much that she did this with the artist, but I do really enjoy your history of art and what you know. I can see with the urinal they’re almost trying to ‘prevert’ art with the idea of almost destroying (or at least marking) the thing that you just created and that is called ‘art’.

    • Maria Guzman permalink*
      August 8, 2010 12:27 pm

      hi Sarah,

      great point, and thank you for bringing up the concept of “perversion.” whenever she comes up, her sexuality and attire are immediately referred to for justifying whether to like her or not. This brings up the relationship that Judith Butler brought up about gender and its “performance.”

      it’s reading that tends to be dense in some areas, but the ideas are very accessible and true in many cases. this link on the Purdue website is a helpful synopsis of her impact in Queer Studies, Rhetoric Studies, and Art History:


  19. August 8, 2010 12:20 pm

    Considering the fact that the original’s title was a pun (“R. Mutt” or “Armut”, which is German for “poverty”) she should have signed it “B. Day”.

    • Maria Guzman permalink*
      August 8, 2010 12:29 pm

      Hi Steven,

      I am jealous that I did not think of that first! Another matter of originality to be pondered haha…


  20. bldherenow permalink
    August 8, 2010 9:35 pm

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  21. sayitinasong permalink
    August 9, 2010 8:02 am

    What a great and well written post, and educated me a lot about the art world. As for Lady Gaga… I still cannot decide if she is a “true original” or just very very savy…..

    • maria guzman permalink*
      August 9, 2010 9:48 am

      thank you! this post was a challenge to write-there are just so many perspectives at work in our culture, and I can see that she might not fit into expectations easily or at all. It’s tough, and I struggle with admiring the work of artists who may not have been the most thoughtful or feminism-friendly people. For instance, there was a time when Picasso’s changing approach to style was a great influence when I painted but his actions towards women were not acceptable by my standards (read “Loving Picasso” for details about what it was like for to be Picasso’s “first love,” Fernande Olivier, to live with him). During undergrad studies, what I was gravitating towards in research tended to have a feminist element-Luce Irigaray, St. Teresa of Avila and her memoirs, Alice Neel, Francesca Woodward, etc. Applying personal discoveries to writing has been interesting, to say the least. I apologize if that was long but perhaps you might enjoy looking at some of these.

      Finally, speaking about Olivier’s memoir reminds me that while I know more now than when I was 21 and reading her book, Gaga’s a young artist who’s under a microscope. Even my friends were asking, “why her?” Have you read this article?

      As for the matter of genius and originality, did you watch “the Banksy” movie-“Exit Through the Gift Shop”? i still cannot decide how i felt about that one, either!


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