March 29, 2009

Bikes are not art

Framebuilding and the concept of “art” have always been a contentious subject (at least among framebuilders – read back through some of the archives of the framebuilders email list to see what I’m talking about). On a semi-lazy Sunday morning (we were out late at the in-laws place making dinner last night and watching the Nuggets rout the Warriors) I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents, here, where there’s nobody to contradict me.

I’ll come right out and say it. Bicycle framebuilding is not art. It’s not even close.

There are really 2 big reasons why. The first has to do with meaning, and the second has to do with function. And they’re related to each other. I will now attempt to explain – if you have more training in philosophy (or art) than me, try not to laugh as I blunder through this.

I’m not going to argue that bicycles can’t be beautiful. They certainly can be, and some people have even told me that the ones I build are (which I’m not so sure about, but thanks). But lots of things are beautiful (it’s of course in the eye of the beholder) and I think bicycles fall into the category of beautiful that I call, for lack of a better term “magpie junk”. In other words, humans are like magpies in some ways – we like shiny things. A shiny purple/blue fade paint job can make a bike look like a piece of jewelry, and the magpie part of our brains wants to take it home and put it in the nest along with our other shiny things (ever wonder why there aren’t any matte paint jobs on cars?) But to me, pretty things aren’t art. Lots of things are pretty to lots of different people, in different ways, but a Faberge egg, or a diamond ring, for example, don’t tell us A) anything about the mindset or emotions of the artist, or B) anything new about ourselves as the observers of the object.

So to me, art has to be intentional, in that there is something being communicated by the art (it doesn’t have to be what the artist intended to communicate) and it has to be in some way transformative, in that it can (this doesn’t always happen) make us see the world is a slightly different light. Bicycles generally fail on both counts, partially because of the second part of my argument: function.

There’s no rule that says art has to be without function. But function cannot dictate the form of the object if it is to be art – with bicycles, we are constrained in a lot of ways. The bike has to be rideable, it has to have wheels, etc, etc. You could create a piece of art that *also* functioned as a bicycle, but if you start from a set of *requirements* that the object end up as a functional, human-powered, 2 wheeled vehicle, that’s no longer possible, because function is dictating to the builder the requirements for the final form of the object. In other words, physics is really in charge – no matter what you do, the forms that will perform these functions are limited and dictated by nature.

Note that a bike could certainly have artwork attached to it – in the form of a paint job that communicates something of the artist to us, or a spoke card with a poem on it, or an android singing the blues. But the bike itself can never be art, in my opinion – after all, we could paint *any* bike frame, or attach a spoke card to *any* bike – the bike itself is the equivalent of the painter’s canvas. It’s just background.

That’s not to say that custom framebuilding isn’t creative – but it’s like making jewelry, or fine suits of clothing, or whatever. The goal is perfect function, and pretty looks can often be part of the bargain as well, but the bike will never be art. Framebuilders are craftsmen, like stonemasons, or carpenters, or athletes. There’s plenty of room for grace, efficiency, and beauty in all of these endeavors. But that doesn’t make them art.