It all started with Marcel. You know, Duchamp? He is considered the most influential artist of the 20th century (not Picasso) and for some reason, I think of him more as a whacky scientist than an artist. Maybe that’s just because he was in everyone’s business introducing people to one another, revolutionizing, criticizing and influencing his contemporaries unknowingly. He knew everyone and he played a key part in so many historical twisted events.
My favorite story in all the stories of Art History that of Brancusi’s fabulous Bird in Space, the golden bullet-like sculpture located at the MoMa in New York. It was originally part of an edition of nine bronze casts and seven marbles created in 1923. An American collector by the name of Edward Steichen bought one of the bronzes in 1926 in France and he asked the artist to ship it to the United States.
“Sure” said Brancusi, “coincidentally, a very good friend of mine, Marcel, is traveling to the States so I’ll just send it with him”.
“Cool” said Steichen.
So off goes Duchamp with Bird in Space wrapped up in a sheet and tightly squeezed into his suitcase. He wasn’t hiding it – it was just the means of transportation. His luggage was inspected upon arrival by the customs officers and when they found the sculpture amidst his belongings, they confiscated it and accused him of illegally importing metal. A 25% tax or so needed to be paid on the price of the bronze.
But this was art, it wasn’t just metal. This was a very different and twisted way of looking at the object.
However Bird in Space didn’t qualify as a sculpture by those days’ standards. For authorities in the 20s, sculpture works had to be “reproductions by carving or casting, imitations of natural objects, chiefly the human form”. This sculpture didn’t even look like a bird! And so, because Duchamp and Brancusi didn’t have the money to take the matter to court and prove that it was in fact art, Dorothy Whitney (who would later found the Whitney Foundation) gave them the money for the trial and long story short, Brancusi won.
As a result, Bird in Space is the first artwork to have ever gone to a court of law for it to determine whether it was just a piece of metal or in fact, art.
Alongside all of this madness, Duchamp was the first person that made us question the nature of art itself when he coined the term ‘readymade’ in 1917 – a mass-produced object that he selected and presented as a work of art. His rejection of modernist painting and traditional painting techniques moved art out of the canvas into every-day objects. His justification was that “the creative act happens when the spectator sees it and has a reaction to it”.