Sunday, 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.


the mighty war-khan said...

The irony of your perspective makes you a great artist.

Brandon Ives said...

As a student of art history and bike builder with a wife that is a prof of AH, I say I think you're on the right track. I think NAHBS being the "public face" of modern framebuilding is part of the problem. People see the show bikes and think that is what it's about.

I'm currently at Doug Fattic's place trying to get my building game better and learning to paint. The three other students are all here, more or less, because of what they saw NAHBS. They like to refer to what we do in the language of art not the language of cycling. No matter how much I tell them that it's not about the lug shoreline, but how the bike corners on descents, they still end up reaching for their files.

I think the bikes most builders are making today are vastly better than we've seen in the past both in aesthetic and ride quality. As an old timer builder once said to me, "the proof is in the pudding and the pudding is the ride." There's nothing wrong with nice looking bikes and building with aesthetic ideals in mind, but in the end bikes aren't art.

Oh, and they aren't craft either.

Walt said...

Brandon -

Great points. Why do you say that bike building isn't "craft" (I'm not sure I can even define that term, to be fair)?


Anonymous said...

Craftsmanship vs.Art-arguement as old as John Ruskin, maybe earlier. Frame building IS craftsmanship.
I bet you can fix your own plumbing too. Welder, plumber, that is more than 98% of all Americans. Working with you hands is a lost "art".
I see why Sarah keeps you around.

MikeQ said...

so, white or blue for the dualy?

Anonymous said...

–noun 1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Chris said...

Isn't all about color and not function:)

Just kidding, i am just a magpie!

Maxwell said...

Haha! Kryten the android singing the blues.

Walt said...

"Silicon Heaven Blues" by Kryten!

I was waiting for some geek to recognize him...



Brandon Ives said...

The word craft is just another descriptor that really means nothing. Originally it seems to be used to describe art that wasn't strictly visual. Sculpture = art, woven basket = craft. It's a hokey word and full of just as many misconceptions and assumptions as the word art. Something doesn't need to be art or craft to be cool.

There's no need for more dividers and classifications between things. These only create hierarchies imposed by folks that seem to think they know more than other people. Might I recommend starting with John Dewey's "Art as Experience."

aaron m carrion said...

ive not thought much about this topic but
i would think you need to define art? not the Websters definition, but your own.

Walt said...

Um, Aaron, the whole post is my definition of art... read it again, dude.


Feldy said...

I would argue that under your own definition of art, your rather mundane frames are, in fact art. By bucking what the NAHMBS implies is the trend in framebuilding, you're (unintentionally) making a statement about the meaning of a bicycle that function is the primary motivator and one shouldn't bother with embellishments. Like you said, it may not be something that you intend, but it might be something someone else sees.

See what a minor in philosophy can get you?