It is not quite the first show of its kind. At the beginning of this year, the Barbican in London played host to an exhibition of Harley-Davidsons, a welcome part of that company's drive to become more a design label than a bike manufacturer (the company makes more money from selling its name as a brand than it does from selling actual Harleys, and the average age of a Harley owner these days is a distinctly untrendy 44). But the success of the Guggenheim show, which will continue to run for another month, is a bit more than just a commercial triumph for its curators (more than 30,000 copies of the pounds 50 exhibition catalogue have been sold). It has also aggravated some familiar arguments about what, in the end, counts as art.
One private dealer, Steven Mazoh, spoke for many: "The Guggenheim might bring in more people if they offered rides from Coney Island. Motorcycles belong in a design museum or a museum for automobiles, but not at the Guggenheim. They may think they're getting a new audience, but none of these people will come back."
He may be right. But is a motorbike a work of art in its own right? Could it become one, in this age of pickled sharks, simply by being presented as such in a major gallery? Certainly, motorbikes do contain and express many of the major preoccupations of this century: freedom, revolution (both literally and figuratively), lust, risk, death and almost everything else we care to think of, including - last and almost certainly least - design. And they have featured powerfully as dynamic characters in art: from Marlon Brando in The Wild One, through the two rebels without a cause in Easy Rider, to the swarms of scooters swaying around Fellini's Rome and Steven McQueen leaping to freedom in The Great Escape. They have had a kitsch phase (just like art) in the era of Eddie Kidd and Evel Knievel. But they retain chic associations, even in advertising, where they appear today as knights of the road, galloping to the rescue of damsels lost and in distress on today's equivalent of the forest track: the underpass.
Motorbikes are also lavish with what much contemporary art contrives to do without: craft. There was a time - roughly when motorbikes were first conceived - when William Morris and others in the Arts and Crafts movement argued that art ought to be useful. It had already been seen that art could be wallpaper; Morris insisted that wallpaper could be art. A definition of art which begins with the premise that it is of no practical use might once have seemed a high point of aesthetics; but these days, it risks being precious. And you don't have to be an enthusiast to appreciate the concision and glamour of motorbikes. They are well- adapted: trim, mobile, and with everything you need stashed under your seat. And of course, they glow with colour and chrome, quite as much as a painting. For oil and canvas, read oil and steel.
Until now they have rarely seemed pregnant with historical echoes as well, but the Guggenheim show includes the earliest known motorcycle, the 1888 Micheaux Perraux steam Velocipede. It is appropriate that this machine sounds like an insect, because riding a motorbike - with that bulging thorax of a petrol tank between the rider's legs - has always seemed a bit like being taken for a spin by a wasp. The original Velocipede, however, resembles a Penny Farthing with a lawnmower engine. It is the kind of thing used by groundsmen to paint the lines on a tennis court.
Inevitably, in a museum, a motorbike seems emasculated or tamed - more like a caged animal in a zoo than a piece of installation art. One of the nicer ironies surrounding the Barbican's show of Harley-Davidsons was that a decorous cultural centre was invaded by gangs of former Hell's Angels who would, in their prime, have frightened the life out of the place. Now, after the Guggenheim, there is an even sharper contradiction to consider. It is possible that the very things which might (perhaps) make a motorbike admissible as art - its sheer rumbling power, the wind it throws through your hair - are frozen out by the very act of parking it in a gallery.
Len Deighton once said that his years in the RAF taught him "that fuel gauges were ... important", a discovery that influenced the level of solid technical detail in his novels. Engineering, perhaps the central cultural force of the last couple of centuries, has always been given pretty short shrift by artists. And the feeling has been mutual. To engineers, artists have often seemed merely effete - as people who didn't want to get brake fluid on their hands. It can't do either side much harm to share rub shoulders in a gallery every once in a while.Reuse content