Saturday, April 21, 2012

The toilet in the town square

(Image by Matthew Umstead, Chicago Tribune)

In the town of Martinsburg, West Virginia, on the morning of April 18th, artist David Heatwole placed a toilet on a pedestal in the middle of the town square as a "publicity stunt" to promote "more public art." As you might imagine, it turned the heads of quite a few motorists passing by before it was removed twenty minutes later.

The toilet is eye-catching. It suggests both the banality of art and satirizes the project even as it advocates for it. It also goes to my point earlier that toilets have a long, proud history of being in art. Here is a good example in which our simultaneous fascination with and disgust with a fecally-related object serves to transgress boundaries and challenge ideas of space (an object associated with privacy being put in an incredibly public space) and art (is it art or a "nuisance" or "junk" as the city claimed?).

Unfortunately, Heatwole now faces up to a $500 fine for the "littering and deposit of garbage, rubbish, junk, etc."  Sorry, is it really junk if it was deliberate? Many pieces of art would be indistinguisable from trash if they were any other context but a museum or some other art venue. This toilet is obviously placed in a prominent place (the pedestal was originally intended for a statue of the town's founder, but arguing and money stopped the project partway through), so it doesn't just look like he decided not to take it to the dump. If, for example, he put a beautiful stone statue up there, would he have gotten any flack? Nope. But toilets are private, and art is supposed to be public.

Well done, Mr. Heatwole. Well done.

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