Maurizio Cattelan’s America

A game of thrones

Harley Filben mourns the loss of Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet.

With the government having extended the silly season by the devious method of parliamentary prorogation, it is with great interest and bafflement that we follow the saga of Maurizio Cattelan’s America, audaciously robbed from Blenheim palace on September 14.

The work - a fully-functioning toilet cast in 18-carat gold (the materials are valued at $1 million and the artefact itself at $6 million, if it has not yet been melted down) - was part of a retrospective of Cattelan’s work at the palace, famously the residence of the Churchills, and still in the family’s hands and operated as a tourist attraction. One man has been arrested; but the miscreants are believed to have turned up with two vans, and so others remain to be apprehended. The location of the gleaming throne itself remains a mystery, and may yet turn out to be the great unsolved mystery of our generation: our Shergar or Lord Lucan.

A raffish interview from Edward Spencer-Churchill, the founder of the Blenheim art foundation and one of the many chefs in charge of this particular kitchen, now looks a little ill-judged: “It’s not going to be the easiest thing to nick,” he told The Times last month. “Firstly, it’s plumbed in and secondly, a potential thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate. So, no, I don’t plan to be guarding it.” The million-dollar khazi, alas, was not removed from the wider plumbing system with the same care with which it was installed, causing the Oxfordshire pile a great deal of flooding damage, on top of the humiliation.

Astonishingly, this is not America’s first brush with infamy. It was originally a commission for the Guggenheim in New York; indeed, its design is bespoke to that venue; it is identical in every respect, except the obvious one, to the conveniences used by the gallery’s visitors every day; and when it was first exhibited - if that is the word - an estimated 100,000 art enthusiasts obtained physical relief with the proffered luxury. In the rarefied world of high art, this has to count as a hit. When Donald Trump attempted to borrow a van Gogh from the Guggenheim collection, meanwhile, the latter - in those early, heady days of the ‘resistance’ - hit upon the splendid idea of offering the newly-inaugurated president America instead.

In spite of its plainly humorous intent, America is a subtle artwork, which refers most obviously to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). America is almost the anti-Fountain. The latter is a plain old porcelain urinal, signed and brought into a gallery as a provocation. The principal target of the provocation was the staid, uptight bourgeois art world; Duchamp and his colleagues wanted to burn it to the ground in anarchistic fashion. But that art world turned out to be more resilient than the Dada crew first thought, and the long-term effect is bizarrely the opposite: instead of the brittle art-mythology of the gallery being destroyed by the incursion of the vulgar materiality of the urinal, the urinal itself became dematerialised and incorporated into the same mythology. By being so incorporated, it becomes a barrier to entry into the cultural sphere of high art - by being yet another thing that needs to be properly ‘understood’ by initiates.

America’s ambition is not revolutionary, but rather populist. It takes the glamorised sculpture and turns it back into an old-fashioned crapper, and says to every Tom, Dick and Harriet - do your worst. The objet d’art is turned back into an object of use. The gold material, in this instance, takes the role of capital-A art. It also makes a pun - between the dictionary and slang definitions of the word ‘throne’. Yet it must also refer to the title: America, that most triumphantly commercial of nations, and also like England a place with a conventional reputation for philistinism. The bourgeoisie in these indefeasibly bourgeois countries attempts in part to overcome that reputation by generous patronage of the arts - the path taken by Solomon R Guggenheim, whose philanthropy ultimately gave us America. For other individuals, a deliberate image of uncultivated ‘practicality’ is sought: Trump himself, a power-worshipping Queens crook, is an example, but so in reality are the various tech billionaires who go around trying to fix things with their philanthropic donations instead of sponsoring high culture like Guggenheim.

There emerges in the wake of these two basic types the dialectical fusion of them both - the ingénue’s ingénue, the newly super-wealthy individual (archetypally the Russian oligarch) who may have been too ‘practical’ in gathering his wealth to have stayed strictly the right side of the law. He thus needs to launder two things - his money and his reputation - as he tries to cultivate new friends among the old (or at least older) money of London or Paris. He is not typically any more interested in the merits of the art on his walls than he is in the fuel economy of his Bentley. The art market has grown fat on the money of these easy marks, with someone like Damien Hirst operating a factory for spot paintings and suchlike to meet demand. “To own a Hirst,” the late conservative critic, Brian Sewell, once wrote, “is to signify that your taps are gilded and your Rolls-Royce is pink.”

Hirst’s For the love of God (2007) - a diamond-encrusted platinum skull in the fashion of a traditional memento mori - is another instructive contrast, because it is a purely nihilistic display of scandalous wealth. Its purpose is basically to cost £50 million. We begin to see two axes of opposition in these works - the modesty or extravagance of the materials and the utility of the piece (that is, whether it serves a simple, useful purpose or exists only to be collected and displayed - by an institution like a gallery or an acquisitive oligarch). Among the modestly made, useful items we may number the ordinary porcelain john. Hirst’s skull is the extravagant collectible trinket, in the opposite corner of the square. The exalted art objects of ordinary construction include Fountain, but also more recent two- and three-dimensional works constructed out of blood, excrement, menses and so on, such as Marc Quinn’s Self, famously sculpted out of the artist’s frozen blood.

Art and politics

Lastly, we have America - bringing, as we said, extravagant construction to the most elemental of purposes. If we want precedents for this idea, we may profitably reach outside art and into politics. For the inversion of values at issue here - placing gold, as a stand-in for money and the privilege of wealth, at the mercy of the basic human by-products of grime, dirt, piss and shit - is an obvious one for socialists.

We could cite William Morris’s utopian classic News from nowhere, where the hero - who, in the usual fashion, has fallen asleep and woken up 100 years in the future - soon meets a jovial chap by the name of Boffin - “a splendid figure slowly sauntering over the pavement; a man whose surcoat was embroidered most copiously as well as elegantly, so that the sun flashed back from him, as if he had been clad in golden armour”. We shortly learn how he came by that nickname. The narrator is told that “we only call him Boffin as a joke, partly because he is a dustman, and partly because he will dress so showily, and get as much gold on him as a baron of the Middle Ages.” The reference is of course to Noddy Boffin in Dickens’s Our mutual friend - Boffin begins the novel as a jovial dustman whose character is poisoned by a sudden, large inheritance. Morris sees a happier ending for gold-draped dustmen than his forebear (Dickens’s Boffin gets his soul back, but only at the cost of the gold).

Still more directly relevant is an offhand remark of Lenin’s in 1921; in relation to the post-civil war changes that became the New Economic Policy, and the need for the isolated Soviet Union to get involved in the grubby matter of international trade, he allows himself a brief moment of utopian fancy:

When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world. This would be the most ‘just’ and most educational way of utilising gold for the benefit of these generations which have not forgotten how, for the sake of gold, 10 million men were killed and 30 million maimed in the ‘great war for freedom’, the war of 1914-18.

Under capitalism, especially in its decline, gold - or its dematerialised contemporary analogues - presses us into the dirt; the revolution flips this upside-down, and in the public toilets of world communism, we might, so to speak, re-enact the revolution every time nature calls.

America, being merely a toilet and an art-object (and a rather more vulnerable one than Edward Spencer-Churchill first thought), cannot do this job, naturally. It seems to me that it resists commodification in one precise sense relevant to the contemporary art world, which is that it is worthless as an oligarch’s purchase. A fully-plumbed gold toilet in some gaudy McMansion or Kensington flat would not be art, because it would (frankly) not be out of place. For the same reason, the Guggenheim foundation’s offer to Trump is much funnier than most elite-liberal mockery of the man.

And funny is the word - in losing America, we have lost a joke as much as a work of art, which points dimly towards a world in which culture might be more generally ludic, and works of art escape the dilemma in which they are expected to be almost worshipped and also to serve as gaudy trinkets for the ultra-rich. It is a world in which gold will start showing up in all kinds of funny places, if Morris and Lenin have it right.


. This little analytical contrivance we owe to Fredric Jameson, who in turn pinched it from the otherwise little-known AJ Greimas.

. www.gutenberg.org/files/3261/3261-h/3261-h.htm.

. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/nov/05.htm.