Lady Gaga Goes Dada

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 SB1070), a work of art was madefound. I mean, made. Found…well, here it is:

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 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.”
  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, a collaborative piece now on display at the London art space SHOWstudio, she inscribed this note to the public: “I’m not fucking 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 that of another woman who made a few people nervous and whom many believe is the artist behind 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 woman’s (and more broadly, the non-White man’s) 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 about Duchamp’s work:

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.

ABOVE: Top left, image of Armitage Shanks, courtesy of the SHOWstudio Shop. Middle right, image of  Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Cross-posted from Gender Across Borders


  1. A couple things that I thought of while reading this:

    1. This could be viewed as a response to criticism that she is a copycat, in essence, she’s saying since she can’t beat Duchamp in a pissing contest, (at least not when it comes to originality) she might as well join him. Meanwhile the fact that Duchamp’s act was symbolic of pissing on the whole idea of originality and authorship, makes Lady Gaga’s take on it even more removed from any sense of traditional artistic authorship. Then to complicate matters more, we can throw the Baroness spin on the whole project. I am personally not sure if we are giving Lady Gaga more credit than is due, but I think it raises an interesting point.

    2. The fact that she has turned the urinal on it’s side, so that a lady could potentially squat on it, could be viewed as her way of leveling the playing field. Perhaps along this path of reasoning, one could view it as response to being a female interfacing with an industry such as pop music, where sexuality is commodified. If a girl wants to be in the boys clubhouse, which the music industry is arguably one of the biggest boys clubs imaginable, she must be willing to drop the “ladylike” behavior. However, if one is to sell records, one must pander to the desires of the given audience. This creates a contradiction that in some ways Lady Gaga personifies, and the Baroness did as well.

  2. Judith White says:

    I adore this article. I always though beneath the glossy pop that is Lady Gaga's music there lives the heart one of the most interesting artistic figures of our time. I never listen to the music alone because I feel the most exciting aspect of her art is how her absurd visual persona interacts with her bubblegum pop persona. It's refresing to see an artist embrace the readymade nature of pop music and bend it's production to her will to create true art.

  3. I thought of a couple things after reading this. First, I think Lady Gaga is responding to criticism that she's a copycat. She's referring to a metaphorical pissing contest that she can't win. On one level she's copying Duchamp, whose act of placing the urinal on display as artwork, was to say piss on the whole notion of traditional artistic authorship for the sake of being clever. On another level, she's taken the stance that if you can't beat them, join them, and "them" could refer to both men and the media.
    Secondly, I think the act of turning the urinal on its side has something to do with cheating to level the playing field. A woman could pee in a urinal, but how unLADY like would that be? I think that Lady Gaga embodies the contradiction of a woman trying to stand her ground as a relevant artist in a generally sex-driven industry, while maintaining her sexuality. Her use of her own sexuality as a tool for engaging an audience throws her sincerity into question when she attempts to assert her equality. Definitely problematic, but at least she is (forgive the term) ballsy enough to try to chart such turbulent waters.

  4. Why does anyone take her seriously?

    • People take Gaga seriously because she has become someone to look up to. For any narrow-minded individual, it could be hard to understand how such a pop icon came into existence with her extravagant outfits and her unruly attitude. However, she has freed the minds of so many young people out there who just could not be themselves. Liberation in a society that so often times ridicules and outcasts simply because of ignorance.

  5. gaga, oh la la!

    i'd never thought of lady gaga in the context of dadaism before, but her playfulness and combination of pop culture and the subversion of that same culture certainly has parallels. great post!

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