It is an age-old question, but there still does not seem to be any definitive answer. It is a question I’ve struggled with myself, more often than not when looking at the controversial work of Marcel Duchamp, the unofficial creator of tongue in cheek art. Take, for example, Duchamp’s assisted readymade, “Bicycle Wheel”, which features a disembodied bicycle wheel placed on top of a stool. The entire purpose of the work seems to annoy, not least because the only possible uses for either object, movement in the case of the wheel and stability in the case of the stool, are cancelled out by the fact of them being placed together.
But this is not to say that I do not appreciate “Bicycle Wheel” for what it is. Duchamp used skill as well as innovation in order to create the piece, just not the kind of skill we usually connect with artistic endeavours. There is very little evidence of craft present, except for the obvious act of drilling a hole through the seat of a stool to fit a bicycle wheel into it, and it is doubtful that Duchamp spent more than a few hours executing it. Indeed, when looking at the artwork of the so called ‘greats’ such as Michelangelo or Titian, craft and man-hours are held very highly because of the simple fact that it took a great amount of time and an even greater amount of skill to create the magnificent Sistine Chapel fresco or the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’. However, just because it seems ridiculously easy to place a wheel on a stool as opposed to conceiving the divine creation of man with only empirical tools, is it fair to say that Duchamp is not a great artist?
I would disagree with this statement, not least because Michelangelo and Duchamp were aiming for completely different ideas and effects. Duchamp was trying to ridicule the art world and move away from the rigid meanings of what is and is not considered to be art. Art is a human endeavour, but by creating platforms for artists who we think are better than anyone else, we can fall into the trap of thinking that the only thing that makes art great is technical skill and precision. At this point in time we have to ask ourselves, do we regard the craft as a higher good than the concept, and if so, why do we not use art as furniture so as to put it to practical use? It is ridiculous to say that skill must be inherent in art in the same way that skill must be inherent when building a lamp. Duchamp created ideas and feelings, which, in the end, is what art is all about.