Explain the purpose or function for which it was originally made (e.g. Who was it made for? Was it for public viewing/use? Was there an intended meaning behind the work?, etc.).
“Bicycle Wheel (1913) ”, Marcel Duchamp
Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool
51 x 25 x 16 1/2″ (129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm)
“Bicycle Wheel, 1913” by Marcel Duchamp takes on the form of an inverted bicycle wheel mounted on top of a wooden kitchen stool. The work is made from preexisting objects taken from the surrounding environment of everyday life. The movable wheel attached to the static stool transforms the artwork into a nonfunctional machine that invites audience participation. To construct this work, Duchamp abandoned the most fundamental values of art – aesthetic beauty and craftsmanship. This is done by deliberately withdrawing the hand of the artist from the art-making process and deprioritizing technical execution. In its place, Duchamp selected readily found, mass-produced products and assembled them in a random yet conscious manner. In doing so, Duchamp focused on the conceptual significance of his work instead of its outward appearance. The result is an artwork devoid of any pretense of artifice and of any effort to imitate reality on the part of the artist – something that is extremely rare in the artistic scene of Duchamp’s era.
By using readymade objects in his work, Duchamp’s purpose was to challenge assumptions about what constitutes a work of art. He dignified ordinary industrial objects by designating them as art and giving them titles. In this way, he effectively challenged the widely accepted distinction between what was art and non-art. This particular work can be interpreted as Duchamp’s subversive take on the intellectual pretensions of the art world and a veiled mockery of hitherto-revered artistic standards and conventions. By placing a wheel on top of a stool, Duchamp draws reference to the elevation of classical art by formal art institutions. His inverted bicycle wheel rivals the heroic figures often being portrayed in classical art; while the stool represents the pedestal on which famous statutes and sculptures are frequently placed. The comical/parodic nature of the work shows Duchamp’s irreverent attitude towards the rules and norms of artistic tradition typically worshipped by Euro-American culture. Beyond the cultural and artistic references in this work, Duchamp also hoped to provoke, stimulate and involve the audience and general public by presenting to them an unprecedented and unconventional form of art.
This artwork is Duchamp’s first readymade. Duchamp chose utilitarian objects that reveal visual indifference and the lack of taste, thus defying the traditional notion that art must be aesthetically attractive. As such, he paved the way for later art movements such as Conceptual Art – a new kind of art that engages the mind instead of the eye, to stimulate the participation and thought process of viewers. His readymades also prefigured New Media artworks that involve blank appropriation, such as Alexei Shulgin’s WWWArt Award and RSG’s Prepared PlayStation (2005). Modern and contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and AiWeiwei have also recognized Duchamp as being a major influence in their art making practice. Aside from its impact on the art world, Duchamp’s radical approach to art also stretched the understanding of art by the general public. Despite widespread critique and controversy from both experts and the public across generations, his work has served its functions of subverting preconceived notions of the definition of art and modes of artistic expression, and transforming our cultural perception of artistic significance. As viewers, the public takes on a more active role in assigning meaning to artworks, instead of simply admiring them as beautiful objects without much thinking.