What is the single most important art object of the 20th century?
Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel.
Why? Simply because, when it was created in 1913, it generated such outrage by the public that it launched a whole new way of thinking about art and the definition of Modern Art. As you can see, this piece is a bicycle wheel attached to the top of a common kitchen stool. Think about this in the context of 1913. Art at that time was primarily defined by earlier movements such as Impressionism – meaning people were used to seeing watercolor paintings of flowers. That's art, they said. But here comes Duchamp with this wheel on a stool and we are supposed to call it art. We're outraged! Also keep in mind that in the early 1900s the bicycle was a new but very popular form of transportation. 10 million people owned bicycles by 1900. 'The wheel is functional,' they said. 'How can we look at that and appreciate anything other than the spokes and tire that get us jolly well 'round to the market or the corner store for the evening paper?' You may have had this same reaction the first time you viewed Warhol's painting of the Campbell's soup can. It's a can. With soup in it. This is art? Why, yes, it is. It's Modern Art.
The official definition of Modern art is sculpture, architecture, and graphic arts characteristic of the 20th century and of the later part of the 19th century. Modern art embraces a wide variety of movements, theories, and attitudes whose modernism resides particularly in a tendency to reject traditional, historical, or academic forms and conventions in an effort to create an art more in keeping with changed social, economic, and intellectual conditions. It's this last characteristic that most helps define an object as Modern Art. Duchamp switched the roles: he made the viewer the artist. The viewer became a part of the object. Duchamp was inviting the viewer to decide for himself whether to consider this art or a joke.
Moma.org currently has a whole series of interviews by highschool students with curators at the Museum on various topics, including this one. Joachim Pissarro, curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, answers, in depth, this question of what is Modern Art. He discusses Duchamp's work as well as defines further what is art, how to view modern art vs. a traditional painting, and so much more. These kids ask every question you ever wanted to ask about art. Take a look! Enjoy!