Cock of the (side) walk.

FOUND ART

On the streets of Seattle, a mystery artist deployed a debut of pure Duchampian genius. Up until now, the media has seemingly misinterpreted the Bugatti I, produced by an anonymous artist, as the work of vandals, while the artistic community has stayed largely silent. It is my aim to defend this bold piece, and to reveal the brilliance behind the work that the tabloids have failed to identify.

Conservatives might argue that this work is just a simple readymade, requiring little imagination and simply relying on ground already pioneered by Dadaists in the early twentieth century – if they are willing to acknowledge it as art at all. This is fundamentally not true. While the hand of the artist is metaphorically present in terms of the alteration made to the original form of the vehicle, as the action of the artist remains clear for the viewer to see, they also subvert this concept. Gone is the “hand” of the artist; all that remains is the phallus.

This is clearly a wry criticism on the tendency of art-historians to privilege the Italianate. ‘Penis’ is from the same root word in Latin as ‘pen’, so this can be seen as a self-asserted continuation of canonical artistic tradition. The Italian is the highest order of the artistic, and here that is played out etymologically, creating a pun which questions this art-historical bias. However, it can also be viewed in more ideological terms. Renoir once said that he painted with his penis. By leaving the mark of the phallus rather than his hand, the artist shows himself as of the same mind. As such, the unknown artist connects himself to that great chain of males, the cord of inspiration spanning from master to student , which forms the dominant canon. Nonetheless, the now proclaimed artist is also simultaneously debased. The genius artist is revealed to be a creature governed by primal urges, a self-inflated prick rather than a universally praised soul. Matter, or member, over mind.

nude-seated-on-a-sofa-1876

Despite claiming kinship with artist’s past, the terms of this artists work are far from the apple-like, organic women of Renoir’s oeuvre. Rather, the work continues the principle forwarded by Epstein in Rockdrill, shifting the source of inspiration from nature to technology. At the beginning of the age of modernity, Epstein glorified the idea of man and machine, but after seeing the reality of mechanised warfare 1914-1918, he crippled his child and left him vulnerable despite his physical marriage with technology. In Bugatti I, the anonymous artist revisits this theme, reviewing the progress of Epstein’s cyborg progeny in present day. Now, the hybrid is fully machine, with only the emblem of reproduction to distinguish it as once human.

rock_drill_by_jacob_epstein

However, whereas Epstein – in both incarnations of his sculpture – had his figure seemingly able to produce life asexually, here the artist shows a lone beast without its partner. In our world, a hundred years from Epstein’s, modernity has progressed from the isolation and anxiety expressed by Munch et al. to a world where the closest thing we have to love is tinder, and the act of sex is often supplanted by masturbation in front of images of nameless strangers. Small wonder, then, that the organic containment of life in one body imagined by Epstein should be replaced by a lonely, desperate, alpha stalking the streets of Seattle in order to propagate or, at least, to copulate.

This prominent juxtaposition between flesh and machine is again proclaimed in the works formal qualities. The silver tones of the artist’s chosen canvas is the height of the cold, the sleek and the metallic, whereas the pinkish red of the penis symbolises something much more vital. It evokes the blood and flesh colours of the human body, clashing man against machine, rather than describing the partnership which our love affair with modern technology – which has quickly become one of dependence rather than symbiosis – has lead us to believe in. Taken at face value, the chosen form of expression offers a direct example of this dependency. The car itself expresses this idea – where once we walked, using the strength of our bodies (concentrated and distilled into the form of the penis) now we allow a machine to take us. As such, the work can be viewed as a comment on man’s dependence on technology, and perhaps related to issues of climate change.

So it is plain to see why the artist chose a car. But why this car? The Bugatti Veyron is the most expensive car available for public purchase in the world, costing £1.5 million when new. Therefore, the work could be seen as a comment on consumer culture in general. Whereas we are sophisticated enough to create these machines and to amass the wealth with which to buy them, its possession in fact merely symbolises a lust for commodity, a lust made literal by evoking the idea of sex. We are stronger and smarter in the world of Bugatti I, but no wiser. However, the choice also again indicates a return to the traditional idea of art as skilled craftsmanship. The tilted bonnet chosen by the artist could be seen to like to the myth of Xeuxes and the highly valued ability to render reality to the extent that, by trompe l’oeil it seems to (or here, literally) protrude into the viewer’s space. Furthermore, with each car sold, Bugatti makes a loss in the interest of producing a superior product. This particular canvas then, evokes the traditional aims of representative art and the nineteenth century doctrine of “art for art’s sake”.

By interrogating and investigating this piece in terms of its formal qualities, theoretical associations and artistic pedigree, it is plain to see that it is art rather than iconoclasm. While the Daily Mirror reported that the owner of the car can expect to knock £500,000 from its value, if history is anything to go by, it is more than likely that the insightful and provocative interaction with it by the artist will in fact only increase its monetary value, where is has already increased its ideological and conceptual value. The multivalent aspect of this work reveals the penis, after all, as a symbol of creation: of debate; of curiosity; of art.

Originally published as part of student magazine project HASTA, 14/10/2014. Current form revised and edited.

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