When can a bicycle also be art?

There can be no doubting bicycles arouse certain viewers, mainly men over 40. But then so do photos of Justin Bieber, mainly girls below 12. (Social order depends on us keeping that as it is!) I know you love your bike, tell your wife it’s art when she would rather you bought her a painting, and frequently mistake your one red Mavic spoke for the stigmata, and I so hate to be wasting your flavour here fella, but your bikes are not art.
When Marcel Duchamp fed a steerer tube through a wooden stool in 1913, he made a great work of art; great because it came along just when conversations in the art world had readied curators and critics for broader, alternative definitions of what art is, and is not. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel earned the moniker "art", because the art world gave its thumbs up. The cycling world thought it was shit.

Satisfied users of BrIllo pot scourers did not decide Warhol’s fake Brillo Box should be put in a gallery. The art world decided. Warhol’s silk screen prints of Campbell’s soup cans were not made famous because Campbells won some prize for their soup. The best any of us living outside the art world (which, to generalize, means living outside of New York) can hope to gain, is a sufficient knowledge of art world discussions to appreciate why certain things are admitted to that rarefied class of object, the art object, and why things we might idolize as cyclists, are not.
Where does this leave the SRAM-X cassette, CNC routed from a solid block of chromoly? Is it not art? Well actually, according to one philosopher, Plato, it should be called art. But then Plato had the idea of banning everything, from painting to poetry, that might give citizens a taste for what he called the "florid". He was a block-head engineer, to be blunt, wanting to make every aspect of life rational, while dismissing as effete anything wondrous or touching. The only kind of art Plato would countenance, would come under the label of techne, a Greek word referring to the rational means of bringing Ideas into being, as one might do when building a ship, for example.
What separates a Behooving Moving reader from, say, a blockhead who gets by just reading Pez Cycling News, is your curiosity regarding such things as the art world’s recent embracing of low rider bicycles. These contraptions embody so little techne that most can’t even be ridden. How can the art world fawn over such piffle, while completely disregarding wonders like the SRAM-X cassette? Well, I am so glad that you asked.

In a broader world of state-of-the-art engineering of every description, the art world must stake out and defend it’s own little patch. It does so not only to protect the livelihoods of everyone in their industry, from dealers to cleaners in art schools, but to provide a commodity the middle classes have craved since The Renaissance. As long as there are buyers for something called "art", the art world will define and provide it. In the case of low rider bicycles, art dealers are selling objects that fit within a discourse concerning identity politics. These bikes speak of kids whose craving for recognition is greater than the desire to actually pedal. Without the art world’s sanction, a bike like this might sell to a fellow enthusiast for perhaps $2000. As bona fide "art" though, it is worth many times more. The art star Damien Hirst encrusted a skull with £15,000,000 worth of diamonds, then joined a syndicate to buy it for £50,000,000, from his own exhibition, to demonstrate this point about art status adding monetary value. For their money, an art collector paying 20K for a low rider bike, gets a sign that they know, that the art world knows, about kids from disenfranchised minorities pimping their rides—such a sad story! Contemporary art is self effacing, satirical, fun and big business. It is great to see bicycles featured at all.

From the bicycle example, we can see that for a useful artifact to attain art world status, its meaningfulness should surpass usability. In fact, its very lack of utility draws attention to the deeper meaning embodied within it. Foregrounding meaning beyond whatever tipping point makes a use item useless, thus becomes a standard way to make art from such things as bikes, or buildings. The architect Peter Eisenman has made a career of designing poorly functioning buildings whose meaning speaks louder than their utility. Yet another lesson for architects that comes from looking at bikes.

As I find them I will drop links here to articles linking bikes and the art world: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

1 Comment

  1. Hemp Bike says:

    The right bicycle is better than art and can even replace it.

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