Brandon McElrath / Essay

A Pot to Piss In

Leaving your friends and their judgment behind, you casually stroll to the bathroom and push open the door. The fluorescent light beams down illuminating all your physical defects, and soon your moral defects will join them in illumination. This is not your bathroom, or your friends, it is owned by some evil conglomerate a thousand miles away and cleaned by some janitor from the developing world whose very existence you will acknowledge briefly, then forget. You open the stall door and drop trou’. Damn; aim is off today. The brush strokes of your urine paint the lifeless floor and toilet seat a sickly shade of yellow. You don’t think twice about cleaning anything up; hell maybe you don’t even acknowledge what you’ve done; you return to the table and when your friend gets up to head off to the bathroom you warn him that “ Some asshole left that place a mess.” The toilet has rarely been the subject of much philosophical or artistic expression. Perhaps the taboo nature of toilet talk can be attributed to the shame we feel as a community, even the most devout humanist must question his beliefs when entering the perdition that is our public restrooms. Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, “Fountain”, is nothing more than a urinal scarred with Duchamp’s inky pseudonym ‘R. Mutt.’ Duchamp and other members of the Dadaist movement proposed that art should move away from creation through skillful hand and eye, and rather focus on interpretation and reflection of common objects. In essence, they believed that beauty did not lie in color, form, pattern or any other artistic criteria, but that meaning was derived from those objects which we place it in. The urinal is one of the most visceral and extreme examples of this. The question of whether or not I am a good person hardly keeps me up at night. But for those of you who do wonder whether you are good or bad, I have devised an infallible system of self-analysis.  No courtroom, nor therapist, nor closest friend is nearly as accurate a judge of character as the public bathroom is. The community john becomes the ultimate judge of character not only because you tread on those grounds by yourself, but also due to the fact that other people will eventually come to use this facility. One’s true self is reflected in the narcissistic pool of water in the porcelain bowl. A man viewed by his peers as one of upstanding moral values could go into some gas station bathroom, piss all over everything and not have the slightest inclination to clean it up. This action will not change how his peers view him; they have no idea that this person of such high class is only providing a public façade. So, conversely, it stands that those of us who do clean up after ourselves in the washroom stand on a higher moral pedestal. They are not being charitable to be perceived as charitable, their kindness is only due to what they believe is right. This morality without witness is the highest type of goodness. It asks not for praise or reward but is simply altruism in its truest sense. Is it possible that, in creating ‘Fountain”, Duchamp was suggesting a higher meaning of our often overlooked time in the restroom? Maybe “Fountain” strikes us so poignantly because it brings the ethical dilemma of bodily functions into public light. Duchamp may have been suggesting that the toilet itself is the most prevalent moment of choice in life. Without outside influence, we exist as we actually are. The beauty of “Fountain” is not aesthetic, but exists solely because of the moral struggle that it creates. Perhaps Duchamp was not always the surrealist we take him for – perhaps in this case he was a literalist. By naming it ‘Fountain’ perhaps he was referring to the fount of knowledge, or enlightenment. The bathroom may show the darkness of man, but it is beautiful because it has the potential to show the light. 

 

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