$395 to teach your dog to drink out of the toilet!

The Problem with 'Our Mutt'

Owners of Sweet Pass Sculpture Park, Tamara Johnson and Trey Burns are selling a handcrafted urinal shaped dog bowl called ‘Our Mutt.’ If you’re acquainted with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the reference here is immediately apparent. Here I will debate the complexity of its commercial and conceptual value.

$395 to teach your dog to drink out of the toilet!

Written by Sophia Layton

In 1917, Duchamp submitted the readymade sculpture, Fountain, to a show for young artists. Rather a urinal turned on its side than a fountain, the vulgar pun appalled its audience and the work was thrown out. It has since become infamous in the progression of 20th century conceptual artwork. 

A ‘readymade’ is a work of art assembled from already manufactured objects. Duchamp said [PDF], “Another aspect of the ‘readymade’ is its lack of uniqueness… The replica of a ‘readymade’ delivering the same message; in fact nearly everyone of the ‘readymades’ existing today is not an original in the conventional sense.”

This is the product description from the "Our" Mutt website:

A play on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), Our Mutt transforms Duchamp’s iconic readymade into a functional water bowl for pets. Both functional and unique, Our Mutt is conceptual art for your favorite quadruped. We hand cast each Our Mutt with ceramic slip, brush on the glaze and number, and date each bowl.

To claim this dog bowl ‘transforms’ Duchamp’s readymade would make as little sense as saying a drawing of a urinal does the same. To call this a ‘play on’ reveals ‘Our Mutt’ is indicative of Tamara and Trey’s comical yet contradictory exploitation of both the industry and ceramic craft. ‘Our Mutt’ recontextualizes ‘R. Mutt’ in a highly commercial (exploitative) sense and by the mechanics (ceramics) of that exploitation directly exploits the notion of ceramic craft. 

Besides its humor, the duo’s idea is in fact the complete opposite of Duchamp’s notion for Fountain (1917). Whereas Duchamp recontextualized a shelf item as an art object, ‘Our Mutt’ reiterated that art object in the form of craft. As we stand as consumers, Tamara and Trey have placed this dog bowl back on the shelf next to the urinal before Duchamp CHOSE it. 

On this shelf also sits the abundance of Fountain (1917) stickers, mugs, t-shirts, and tote bags. Theoretically there is nothing setting ‘Our Mutt’ apart from this paraphernalia, but its ‘uniqueness.’ Each dog bowl is hand crafted and numbered for the express purpose of giving it unique (commercial) value—$395. How do we elucidate ‘Our Mutt’s punny intentions when we are looking through the lens of the consumer?

Is this a thinly veiled fast-fashion equivalent of fine art and museum gift shop paraphernalia, revealing the erosion of Fountain’s conceptual rigor by its absurd monetary inflation? Much like Pop Art, one could argue the art market & its paraphernalia is nature and ‘Our Mutt’ is simply commenting on that in plain form1.

But the bane of the consumer is ever present: in the real world, money is real and this dog bowl costs $395. Who can afford this? And what is really for sale, the craft or the reference? They’re advertising an idea an ‘EGOMANIAC’ had about 100 years ago and now skilled hands are using their time to ‘craft’ an object inherently exploitative of craft’s connotations. I don’t know about you, but my pets drink and eat off my kitchenware. Find your own urinal, you can even write “Our Mutt” on it, or something funnier. 

And that’s all this is anyway, a play on a joke. Maybe that’s a reason to resign to liking ‘Our Mutt’. Besides, Tamara Johnson and Trey Burns have a pretty cool sculpture park in Texas, and all the ‘Our Mutt’ profits go to the programming. Funding without strings attached can be a hard thing to come by for art venues. This is a creative and conceptual solution to make ends meet. In that spirit, it might be most productive to acknowledge that the power of a hand-crafted object is not yet obsolete. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not the University of Michigan or UMMA. Neither the University of Michigan nor UMMA endorse any product, service, or company mentioned on this page. 

Sophia Layton explores arts and culture writing as an instrument for imbedding herself deeper into both local and global communities of contemporary art and fashion. She is a senior in University of Michigan’s History of Art department and is minoring in Museum Studies and Asian Languages and Culture.

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