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We are just supposed to look at it and marvel. It is, oddly enough, an extraordinarily beautiful object. Its lovely curves have the warmly shifting shape of many of Duchamp's renderings of femininity. In a famous photograph of by Alfred Stieglitz, Fountain has reminded many people of a grossly oversimplified erect penis and testicles. In other representations, under bright light and with its shadows clearly outlined, it has been likened to the shape of a modest woman with head covered. It is difficult to understand why those Americans who delight in discovering likenesses of the Virgin Mary in the most unlikely objects have never turned their attention to Duchamp's Fountain.

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In many photographs, that is exactly what it looks like, and I guess Duchamp turns it on its back to exacerbate this iconic, blasphemous resemblance. Fountain, as full of meaning as an egg is full of meat, changed art for ever. It had always been clear to thoughtful observers that the link between an artist's skill and the merit of his work was a false one. Some of the greatest painters in the world, such as Watteau or Goya, possess a limited technique, and many of the most brilliantly virtuosic and intricate produce art of no ultimate value. There has never been any value in the proposal that the harder an artist works, or the more skilfully detailed his craft, the better the work of art in the end.

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The link between labour and product was not decisively broken until Duchamp, however. Perhaps the larger context helps us to understand why this happened in , and not before. Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dada and a thinker in tune with Duchamp, said in his "Dada Manifesto" that "a work of art should not be beautiful in itself, for beauty is dead.

A work of art is never beautiful by decree, objectively and for all. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind.

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Duchamp came from a small town near Rouen, very close to the battlefields of the Great War. The war was a massive discrediting of the powers of authority, and what men like Tzara and Duchamp were doing was dismantling the shaman-like powers of the virtuoso artist, the powers of judgement of critics and the juries that turned out to rule even the New York Society of Independent Artists. As the century went on, the power and enchantment of the "readymade", in the hands of men like Joseph Beuys, would turn out to be precisely its democratic, unambitious scale.

Many German artists, after the Second World War in particular, were uncomfortable with virtuoso artists commanding a mesmerised following. Beuys's response, always, to the philistine response of "I could do that — I could find something and put it in an art gallery; anyone could" was always: "Of course you could; why on earth do you believe the creation of art to be something beyond your capacities? Who taught you that?

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The liberation of art within Duchamp's Fountain and the other "readymades" took a long time to appreciate. The version displayed at Tate Modern from this week is one of half a dozen replicas certified by Duchamp, 50 years after the original was first exhibited, and much of Duchamp has had to be reconstructed in this way. Most of the original "readymades" were thrown away or misplaced, or perhaps, as in the case of the hatrack, it just started being used for its original purpose.

Duchamp was a paradoxical master; somebody who made both a complex theoretical contribution, and the most lovable and forgivable of charlatans — anyone who thinks there is no element of the charlatan in Duchamp has understood, frankly, nothing. He was somebody who opened the way for the slacker, the anti-authoritarian, the Zen contemplator of emptiness and small moments of anonymous poetry, while remaining the most charismatic, disciplined and powerfully individual of artists.

Some people will always maintain that Duchamp's gesture is not art, perhaps mistaking a statement of factual category for a critical judgement of excellence. Others go on maintaining that it only needed to be done once, and nothing afterwards would ever have the shock or the fascination of that initial display of That misses the point. Duchamp knew perfectly well that, with the public display of Fountain, he was taking off a lid that was screwed down tightly, with immediate and explosive effect. There was never going to be the slightest possibility that it could be screwed down again afterwards.

Art had escaped, and was enveloping the world. Hamilton, 86, has been described as "era-defining" and "Pop Art's intellectual father". He is one of Britain's most distinguished Pop artists; a "Pop Daddy", if you will. He designed the cover of The Beatles' White Album and the poster in Hamilton has written extensively about Duchamp. He says: "Duchamp was iconoclastic.

He questioned anything that happened before, and he clearly tried to create a work which was unique. I say a work; I mean, his life work; his life's work was something that was completely unique and had never been done before and I think that's quite deliberate. She was not amused; they said they were searching for a "new route" in art. A year later, the duo urinated on Duchamp's Fountain at the newly opened Tate Modern, but were prevented from soiling the work directly by a Perspex case. Tate said they were threatening "works of art and our staff" and banned them from the premises.

Asked why they felt they had to "add" to Duchamp's work, Cai said: "The urinal is there — it's an invitation.

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As Duchamp said himself, it's the artist's choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it. The Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter Grayson Perry admits his work is influenced by Duchamp, but is keen to distance himself from him in the cross-dressing department. Earlier this month, Perry, 47, said that unlike Duchamp, he doesn't have a female alter ego.

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For those who weren't quite sure what he meant, he explained: "I'm a transvestite — a man in a dress. Perry's views on Duchamp's contribution to art are more profound. Now, when judging it, I have to make sure that I am using the specific criteria that measure quality in an art work. I look at a work now and think: I like this. But am I drawn to it because the juicy red bits would look great next to my yellow sofa or because I agree with its political statement, or because it is a masterpiece? Wentworth emerged during the s as one of Britain's most striking sculptors.

He makes direct reference to the subversive Gallic urinal merchant in a recent piece called If Only, in which Duchamp's Bottle Rack in France, these were used to dry empty wine-bottles is spliced by a vertical piece of glass. The year-old said recently: "I think Duchamp is like accepting your grand parentage.

It is like [such artists] made an enormous space in which you were allowed to be 50, 60 years later. In this series, which were featured in a retrospective last year, the artist meets the Spice Girls and Elvis Presley, and even plays chess with Tracey Emin. They couldn't have existed without him. Which is why I put Tracey Emin in.

So in a way I'm thanking him by sending him on this wonderful world tour in the afterlife. I am giving him the gift of living forever. Everybody in the 21st century owes a debt to him. The world's most lucrative contemporary artist has paid homage to all and sundry in his various splutterings about contemporary art — but Duchamp was responsible for launching the movement on which his considerable fame and fortune were originally founded.

In one recent interview, Hirst, 42, declared: "Duchamp and Picasso I'm interested in What about [Richard] Hamilton? Don't you think he should be important? It just seems a little weird to me that [many artists' influences are] all Americans. The big ones.

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Throughout history It seems a bit of an imbalance, d'you know what I mean? You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today. Independent Premium Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Premium. It allows our most engaged readers to debate the big issues, share their own experiences, discuss real-world solutions, and more. Our journalists will try to respond by joining the threads when they can to create a true meeting of independent Premium.