In 1917, the artist Marcel Duchamp signed a porcelain urinal “R. Mutt,” titled it Fountain, and submitted it anonymously to the Society of Independent Artists, which famously refused to display it in an exhibition. Alfred Stieglitz took a photograph, but the work itself was lost. In the 1960’s, Duchamp allowed reproductions to be made, based on the Steiglitz photo.
The work has continued to stir up feelings, from “performance artists” attempting to urinate in it at the Tate, to being voted the most influential art work of the 20th century in a poll of 500 British art experts in 2004, beating Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. If one of the authorized reproductions comes up for auction, it will probably cost you over $3 million.
The surrealist certainly understood that toilets strike a human nerve. This much was assumed last Saturday at “Outing the Water Closet: Sex, Gender, and the Public Toilet,” a conference organized by New York University sociology professor Harvey Molotch and the Center for Architecture. Not only was the toilet discussed in terms of art and architecture, it also served as a prism through which to view gender, money, culture, power and, naturally, New York City politics. (“Double entendres,” professor Molotch noted later, “are unavoidable.”)
Among those attempting to speak about the unspeakable were representatives from the mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocates—after all, in this city, the lack of public restrooms has long been a source of acute discomfort.
“In the past we’ve overcome other taboos, like sexuality,” said professor Molotch. “This issue of the body and its waste is taboo. By not discussing it, we keep ourselves from fixing certain problems that exist.”
Australian scholar Ruth Barcan, whose interest in bathrooms, she said, arose from her interest in nudity, described public bathrooms as being “technologies of separation and concealment,” which divide us arbitrarily and reinforce bodily shame and irrational fears of germs. On this last point she was particularly descriptive, noting the “stark mismatch between our perception of toilets as unclean, and the microbiological truth: Our hands when preparing a meal are more contaminated than when leaving a public toilet.” And, she continued, “it’s less a fear of germs than a fear of touching the body of another via proxy.”
British professor Clara Greed bemoaned the fact that the women of the world do not have enough places to go to the bathroom. She blamed men for the “major problem with street urination in London. They drink all night, and they’ve got to relieve themselves.” The solution, she said, is not arty public toilets by the likes of Rem Koolhaus, which have just one stall, but more bathrooms for everyone, and bigger bathrooms for women. She proposed including nonsegregated restrooms to accommodate people who do not identify with their assigned gender and parents with children of the opposite sex. “We need to get more women into toilet design, toilet decision making, or things are never going to change,” Ms. Greed said.
The crowd of close to 100 seemed riveted, nibbling cookies and tea sandwiches between sessions. Most seemed to have gathered out of genuine enthusiasm; one N.Y.U. student admitted he was there for class credit.
The afternoon session offered solutions to the public toilet’s many failings, in the form of cutting-edge designs by top architects. The first, Joel Sanders, a Yale professor, argued that Western architecture since ancient Greece has favored the visual over the carnal and sensual, and this makes it inherently misogynistic. Adding insult to injury, when modern plumbing consolidated the processes of washing and elimination into one room, he said, women, who were “traditionally regarded as unclean,” were called upon to uphold an irrational appearance of cleanliness in this combined space. “The ocular-centric, flesh-phobic values embodied in architecture are no longer relevant today,” he said.
But not to worry! He presented a design that featured a private kitchen and bathroom separated by a vaguely see-through wall—allowing, one assumes, for a woman upholding her kitchen’s appearance of cleanliness to at least be treated to the sight of her husband in the shower.