Art Court’s in Session: The case of the bicycle as art

Have the Portland Art Museum and its "Cyclepedia" exhibit broken important crucial Art Laws? Defense and Prosecution make their cases.

On July 26, 2013 at 5:14 PM, officers SJP Cangle and MD Starney arrived at the Portland Art Museum responding to a report that an Unlicensed Commercial Retailer had been erected inside the hallowed exhibition halls of the museum. Upon arrival, Free Friday crowds wrapped around the block and museum staff escorted Cangle and Starney to a side entrance. Inside, the officers stormed four rooms of permanent collection before they came upon a single exhibition hall with bicycles hanging from steel cables, resembling with exactitude a retail outlet.

After unsuccessfully soliciting bike purchases from museum staff and attendees, the officers assessed that the retail outlet was in fact a bicycle exhibition in violation of Article 9, Section 14: “If a design exhibition does not clearly explicate the value and/or cultural significance of a functional object, it is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.” The officers further found the exhibition in violation of Article 19, Section 3: “Misuse and/or absence of a pedestal and/or adequate display device while exhibiting a functional object is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.”

url-2The Prosecution:

Art World vs Marcel Duchamp

In 1917, the Art World charged French artist Marcel Duchamp with Failure to Complete a Work of Art for his contribution to an exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists, a urinal featuring the pseudonymous signature “R. Mutt” and the title “Fountain.” Duchamp was found not to be in violation of the statute by Art Court as the court recognized that the recontextualization of the urinal by its placement upon a pedestal negated the object’s use value, thus making it art.

Following Art World vs Marcel Duchamp, the Prosecution submits that the Portland Art Museum’s “Cyclepedia” is in violation of Article 19, Section 3 of The Articles of Artistic Validity: “Misuse and/or absence of a pedestal and/or adequate display device while exhibiting a functional object is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.”

Counterargument from the Defense:

Stop Functional Objects Now vs Marcel Duchamp

In the case of Stop Functional Objects Now vs Marcel Duchamp, also a response to Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the court ruled in favor of Marcel Duchamp and his Readymade—”an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”—due to arguments made by the defense positing that both contextual and conceptual artistic intentions were prescribed by the artist. The defense argued that an artist’s intentions dictate whether or not a functional object can be considered a Readymade. In order to be considered for the tradition of the Readymade, an artist must make a clear decision to elevate an ordinary object to “the dignity of a work of art.”

Following Stop Functional Objects Now vs Marcel Duchamp, and in accordance with The Law of Epistemic Access—that no person can claim to have direct access to the knowledge possessed by an artist without evidence to support such a claim—the Defense submits that the bicycles on view at the Portland Art Museum’s Cyclepedia are not in violation of Article 19, Section 3, because evidence as to the intentions of the artist/engineer have not been submitted, and if a pedestal and/or display device were present at the exhibition, it could be argued that a pedestal and/or art signifying display device could potentially disrupt the artistic intentions of the bicycles’ creators. It is the object in and of itself that an artist embraces as worthy of “the dignity of a work of art,” the pedestal is a secondary decision rooted in the provision of artistic context, which a museum provides de facto.

The Defense

The Law of Institutional Tradition: Portland Art Museum’s The Allure of the Automobile

Displayed at the Portland Art Museum and curated by former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Ken Gross, The Allure of the Automobile displayed useful objects, automobiles, on what amounted to extremely short, very wide/long pedestals (like small stages).

The Defense submits that PAM recognized the automobiles as art, setting a precedent for other functional objects to be viewed as art, and because Cyclepedia is the third exhibition in the institution’s design series, the use of a pedestal and/or art signifying display device is unnecessary, following The Law of Institutional Tradition.

Counterargument from the Prosecution

The Prosecution counters the Defense’s citation of The Law of Institutional Tradition, submitting that the first of the Portland Art Museum’s design series was an exhibition titled China Design Now which largely explored non-functional objects. Because Cyclepedia is the second exhibition in the series featuring functional objects, the curatorial focus should be considered inconsistent and the show is not eligible for the distinction of Institutional Tradition.

On the charges of Article 9, Section 14: “If a design exhibition does not clearly explicate the value and/or cultural significance of a functional object, it is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.”

The Prosecution

The Law of Functional Objects as Cultural Descriptors

The Law of Functional Objects as Cultural Descriptors allows for the use of functional objects in gallery settings to describe the culture from which the object came. In recent years, for example, Subodh Gupta was successfully defended under the law when he displayed bicycles to describe their role in Hindu culture: “Cows,” a bike gilded in brass, was intended to describe how bicycles have replaced animals in urban settings; “Cheap Rice” told of the bicycle delivery drivers in dense Indian cities and the physical burden of their profession.

The Prosecution submits that the bicycles on view at the Portland Art Museum do not describe use culture but, instead, describe a culture of engineers. The Prosecution reminds the court that a functional object displayed in a gallery or museum does not constitute art if it only describes the person who made the object, while excluding use cultural and social functionality.

For an example of bike art that describes use culture, see Portland, Oregon’s zoobombing monument at NW 10th Avenue and Burnside, a work of bicycle art that clearly embraces and celebrates an activity known as zoobombing, in which packs of grownups on tiny children’s bikes travel at breakneck speeds down the side of a mountain.

Following the Law of Functional Objects as Cultural Descriptors, the Prosecution submits that the Portland Art Museum’s Cyclepedia is in violation of Article 9, Section 14: “If a design exhibition does not clearly explicate the value and/or cultural significance of a functional object, it is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.”

Counterargument from the Defense:

The Provisions for Audience Uncertainty clearly state that no violations of The Articles of Artistic Validity may be confirmed based on assumptions about the cultural identity of the audience. While the Defense recognizes that many people may not find their cultural identity described in Cyclepedia, this isn’t to say that the exhibition will be universally irrelevant to audience culture. If, say, an engineer were to view Cyclepedia, they would no doubt see much of their cultural identity in the bicycles on view at PAM.

The Defense submits that the Law of Functional Objects as Cultural Descriptors does not apply to Cyclepedia due to the Provisions for Audience Uncertainty, and therefore cannot be found in violation of Article 9, Section 14: “If a design exhibition does not clearly explicate the value and/or cultural significance of a functional object, it is in violation of The Articles of Artistic Validity.”

[On August 29, 2013 at 4:14 PM, hearings adjourned. The court has yet to set a date to hear the jury’s verdict.]

NOTES

“Cyclepedia” closes September 8.

Officers Cangle and Starney are on the prowl for other potential violations of the Art Code.

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