At first glance, there’s not much that connects Maurizio Cattelan’s artwork America with a Bronze Age latrine discovered in rural Greece. Both are toilets, but were constructed four thousand years apart, installed at opposite ends of Europe, and couldn’t look more different. The Greek loo is a simple affair constructed from stone and ceramics, whilst Cattelan’s sculptural toilet is made from solid gold. Nonetheless, both are connected by their ties to Oxford, as well as through tales of plunder where the theft itself proved less unsettling than what was left behind. These stories can reveal a surprising amount about changing narratives of ‘Western’ history and civilisation. Maybe it is possible to turn sh*t into (intellectual) gold after all?
This process begins at Knossos, a vast palace complex on the Greek island of Crete. The complex lay buried and forgotten for generations after being abandoned during the second millennium BCE. Rediscovered in the 1870s by a local merchant, it was subsequently excavated under the aegis of Sir Arthur Evans, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Western European philhellenism has often expressed itself through the wholesale removal of artefacts, and it is consequently unsurprising that the Ashmolean now houses the largest collection of ancient Aegean items outside Greece itself.
Nonetheless, Evans took care to proceed with legal sanction from the newly independent Cretan state, and to allow local authorities first pick of the most valuable finds. Thus, his acquisitions never acquired the notoriety of those made by Lord Elgin (whose transportation of the Parthenon friezes to the British Museum is still fiercely contested by the Greek government) or Heinrich Schliemann (whose eagerness to reach Trojan treasure led him to dynamite through swathes of his own dig site). What is truly controversial about the excavations, therefore, is not what Evans took from Knossos but what he added to it.
Most obviously, this includes the large-scale reconstructions of palace buildings which Evans created with modern building materials - mostly based on his vision of what the original site 'probably' looked like. Many subsequent archaeologists have decried these restorations as inaccurate, but they have become part of Knossos’ iconic imagery and there are no plans to remove them; for good or ill, one colonial-era scholar has permanently stamped his legacy on the physical fabric of the 4000-year-old structure.
On a deeper level, these reconstructions form just one part of a broader intellectual project pursued by Evans and his British colleagues. At Knossos, they believed they had found nothing less than the origins of the West itself. By popularising the idea that the palace’s builders – a people whom he dubbed the Minoans – were the direct ancestors of Greek culture and thought, Evans promoted the belief there was a distinctive Western form of civilisation whose inheritance had been transmitted, unbroken, from the Bronze Age to modern Europe via classical antiquity.
This is where the toilet comes in. Supposedly, the essential hallmarks of classical civilisation were intellectual and technical sophistication, and the excavators of Knossos were not just excited by beautiful frescoes and carvings, but also by the discovery of an extensive sewer system which included what may have been the world’s first flushing lavatory.
The existence of this modern-seeming convenience in ancient Crete seemed to confirm their extreme optimism about Western culture; even when divided by several millennia, Europeans appeared united by their focus on sanitation and innovation.
Though the Greek curators who inherited Knossos from Evans are ambivalent about many aspects of his legacy, a visit to the associated Heraklion Archaeological Museum confirms that they have embraced this central tenet of his thinking. Here, one can find various information panels celebrating the Minoans as founders of a new cultural tradition whose progressive values were distinct from the “despotic” societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
If we turn our attention to another famous piece of plumbing with an Oxonian connection, we find some rather similar themes tackled in radically different ways. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan created the sculpture America in 2016 for New York’s Guggenheim museum, but earlier this year the fully functioning gold toilet was installed in Blenheim Palace just outside Oxford as part of a temporary exhibition of his work. This quirky sculpture immediately created a stir, with tickets for a three-minute slot on the gilded loo in high demand.
However media interest skyrocketed further on the 14th September, when staff arrived at the exhibition to discover that the toilet had been stolen.
At the time of writing, both the identities of the thieves and the eventual fate of their prize remain unknown, but of particular interest is the art world’s unusually relaxed reaction to the loss of a prestigious piece. Critic Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian that “I usually find art thefts upsetting, but it’s hard not to laugh at this one”, and even Cattelan himself has praised the thieves for their audacious “performance art”, adding “I always liked heist movies and finally I'm in one of them”.
Of course, the lack of outrage partly stems from the absurdist toilet humour of the whole situation, but there’s also a more serious historical point to be made. Just as at Knossos, the plunder of Blenheim’s artistic treasure met with fewer objections than might be expected, but perhaps that’s because the things which weren’t taken are ultimately more disturbing.
As is apparent from its title, Cattelan’s America has something to say about Western society, and its message is rather less positive than that put forward by Evans and his followers. By depicting the supposed pinnacle of the West’s development as a gaudy receptacle for human waste, the artist makes a mocking comment about the decline of the American Dream into crassness and commercialism.
It’s only on viewing the other (yet to be pilfered) artworks in the exhibition, however, that the full breadth of Cattelan’s critique of our civilisation becomes clear. In one room you can find a similarly gilded set of three horse skulls, covered with their gold plated helmets. The death and suffering humanity has brought to animal-kind is covered by the wealth we gain from it. Joan of Arc, Pope John Paul II, and other figures from Christendom’s canon of ‘greats’ appear in parodic form, as does – shockingly – Adolf Hitler.
The back of the statue in front of the great organ looks like a praying child - but when you walk around to the front, you are confronted with the horror of looking into the face of Adolf Hitler.
As Jones explains, “to put Hitler in the house where Churchill was born is even more disconcerting than plumbing in a gold loo. Both reduce history to chaos and abjection.” By taking Blenheim Palace, home of the man regarded as the saviour and epitome of Western civilisation, and transforming it into the backdrop for a bleak send-up of that civilisation’s cultural icons, the exhibition retains the power to challenge historical narratives despite the loss of its headline act.
Cattelan’s blunt satire won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does neatly illustrate some changing trends in how we view the West and its history. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which a uniformly positive and optimistic narrative of Euro-American development has been replaced by a uniformly critical and pessimistic one.
As the displays at Heraklion show, the idea of Western history as the story of continuity and progress is still very much alive and kicking. Meanwhile, Cattelan’s America is often seen as a topical comment on the Trump Age (famously, when the president requested the loan of a Van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim in 2017, the gallery quipped that he might like the golden toilet instead), but the point it makes is scarcely new.
A hundred years earlier, whilst Evans was still presiding over Knossos as his personal fiefdom, the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited his piece Fountain, a common urinal on a plinth that attacked the pretensions of ‘civilised’ art.
Debates over whether celebration or satire is the appropriate response to Europe’s cultural heritage will no doubt continue, but perhaps we should pause to question the extent to which we can even talk about the West as a continuous historical unit in the first place.
After all, the Minoans would have been bemused by the notion that they had founded something called Western Civilisation; they were much more closely connected to networks of trade and exchange centred in the Levant than they were to mainland Greece, and they predated by centuries the idea that the western end of Eurasia was a separate entity named ‘Europe’.
Whatever you think about these issues, it’s plain that there’s more to the history of palace plumbing than meets the eye. Existing at the intersection of art and arsecheeks – of form and bodily function – they confront us with an essential question: which of our ideas about the past do we want to hang onto, and which deserve to be flushed?
By Louis Morris