When you’re surrounded by something, immersed in a given culture, it’s often easy to forget how that culture is perceived by outsiders. For example, cars form the very water in which I swim (were I a fish, which, thanks to a strict and complex drug regimen, I am not). This just means that sometimes I forget that there are people out there who don’t perceive cars as I do, which is to say as something more than appliances, as vehicles not just in a literal sense, but vehicles for all manner of human expression, culture, art.
Cars are embodiments of engineering and sculpture and graphic design and athleticism and sound design and so many skills and modes of art. But, not everyone realizes this, and there’s still many, many people out there who regard the whole of automotive culture as valueless schlock, exclusively populated with drooling barbarians. My own personal struggles with drooling aside, this idea is garbage. And yet, people still believe it, as I was reminded by an email I got last week.
The email was from a reader named Wes, who told me this:
I got into a debate with some artsy friends after Torchinsky’s article about Claes Oldenburg, and the definition of art. None of them thought automotive design had any merit. I (obviously) disagreed.
I hate sneaking off to car shows because *certain friends* will call me a cretin for rubbing shoulders with the “yokels” that allegedly attend them, only to post photos on social media later that they seem to enjoy. It’s just obnoxious.
The art community will call a rotten banana duct taped to a wall “art,” but when it comes to the VW Corrado, the ass of which was inspired by the Bauhaus Movement, it’s just a product.
First off, Wes, you need better friends.
Really, it’s not your fault; I have some wonderful friends, but I personally have still encountered this attitude toward my interest in cars, from family, friends, strangers, colleagues, and more. It’s still a surprisingly pervasive attitude, that somehow cars or really any merging of art and engineering is no longer worthy of being considered “true” art, whatever the fuck that is.
Once, in a painting class in college, I was making a kinetic piece that involved painted objects on clear mylar that would scroll over a background, a sort of not-still still life. It was a bit silly, sure, but I was young and hopeful. While talking about it with my professor, the professor from another painting class walked his old ass all the way across the studio just to sneer at me “they teach engineering at State,” referring to another local university.
Who does that? All because there was a motor involved? It’s ridiculous. But it’s real, and it definitely still happens to many people when they try to appreciate the artistic and cultural value of objects with engines and wheels.
But back to Wes and his jerky friends: Wes, if you confront your arty pals with this, and they push back and question my credentials, lemme just put that shit to bed right now: I have an Art History degree, and I know my shit. Put some Egyptian art on a wall in front of me and I bet I can tell you the time period within three dynasties, and if it’s Armana period, I can spot that across a fucking room. The pun with the feather glyphs used instead of the half bread loaf glyphs in the Offering Formula? I’ll talk about that shit until you cry.
You want to compare Arshile Gorky, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, and Alexander Calder while throwing darts? Bring it, bitches. I’m the dude who’ll remind you why you shouldn’t let a Dadaist iron your shirts, or what’s so funny about the pediments at the Palazzo del Te. Plus, I’ve had art installations of my own exhibited at the Arnolfini in Bristol, galleries in LA, the Walker Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and more.
[Editor’s Note: I hate to break this up, since Jason is clearly on a mission here, but I’m just going to poke fun at him for showing off. That’s all. -DT]
Is my degree useless? Absolutely. Was it a colossal waste of money? Probably. Can I go toe-to-toe with Wes’ snobby-ass friends, art-wise? Fuck yeah I can.
Thank you for indulging my boasting, but I feel like this is one of those cases where I need to establish some credentials with the intended audience in order to get them to pay attention. The audience is full of people who still, somehow, are so mired in archaic, classist, regressive thinking that they still believe in bullshit like the division between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” art. Those divisions are just made up gatekeeping crap from art dealers with financial motives, or, perhaps even worse, simple human insecurity.
Is Henry Moore’s Architectural Project more of a sculpture than Big Daddy Roth’s Beatnik Bandit? No. It isn’t. They’re both sculptures. The fact that one can sit on a vitrine and one can be driven simply doesn’t matter, because they both share the same fundamental goal: be a three-dimensional object that’s engaging and meaningful to encounter.
But what about the idea that cars are “products” or things designed for non-artistic use? Because they certainly are. Does that mean they don’t deserve to be treated as something more, when exemplary? If not, then perhaps we should yank this 15th century basin out of the Met, because it was designed to be a fish bowl or hold scrolls, or maybe we should just chuck the pre-dynastic Palette of Narmer out in the dumpster because it’s just a cosmetics-mixing palette.
The truth is, to anyone who is actually paying attention, this debate was settled decades ago, and cars won over the snobs. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has been exhibiting cars for decades. Established, respected artists like Alexander Calder, Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Chris Burden, and Andy Warhol and so many more have made car-related works for the better part of a century. This isn’t a question. The automobile can be art, full stop.
If you can’t accept that a lowrider painter like Theresa Contreras is a painter you can compare to, say, Clyfford Still, just working in different cultures and media, then the problem is you, not the art, not the artists, not the cars or the people who appreciate them.
Again, this debate is settled, and I don’t even think there’s a serious question about that. But — and the reason why this topic commanded an entire article from me — I understand that the idea is still pervasive and that, somehow, the appreciation of cars is considered by far too many base, uncultured, unsophisticated, and worthy of ridicule. Because I don’t need to prove my point that cars qualify as artistic objects, what I can do instead is point out how some really common areas of interest that are considered “classy” or “highbrow” or “respectable” to mainstream society are, really, no better than being interested in cars. Let’s do that:
Hard to get more classy than opera, right? It’s unquestionably art, and nobody would ever call you a “yokel” for going to the opera! But is it really that much more sophisticated than the love of automobiles? Let’s take a look at a synopsis of one of the most known and respected operas of all time, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in this case the first Opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold:
Das Rheingold features more gods than any of the three following ‘dramas’, and no mortals whatsoever! The introduction to the cycle, it tells of the theft of the magical Rhine gold and the forging of a ring by the greedy dwarf Alberich. He renounces love in order to gain the ring’s power, but when the ring is stolen by Wotan, the leader of the gods, to pay a debt to the builders of his new fortress, Valhalla, Alberich confers a terrible curse upon the ring. Anyone who does not possess the ring will covet it, and anyone who does will live in fear of losing it, and will ultimately be robbed of it and killed by its next owner…
Dwarves, gods, magic rings, Valhalla – this is just some D&D Lord of the Rings shit. It’s a Marvel movie with more singing. And that’s great! But does it really deserve to be so elevated over the appreciation of cars? Come on.
Nobody gives you guff if you’re really into wine, right? Everyone thinks that’s classy. You collect wine? Read wine magazines? Can talk endlessly about how you convinced yourself you taste bits of wood and flowers and shit in a boozy grape drink? Wonderful. Fantastic. Everyone thinks you’re a worldly sophisticate with big, deep, important opinions about wine. Congratulations, you really like grape juice.
How does this get more respect than being into cars?
Have someone coming over and want to make them think you’re erudite without having to actually do all the work? Throw a few copies of Architectural Digest on your coffee table. Because appreciating architecture suggests a lot about you: you have taste, you like to travel, you appreciate the majesty of human achievement, and more. You can go on historical building tours in any city and, again, nobody will call you a yokel.
And sure, architecture is great! It combines engineering and art and the practical and the emotional. Remind you of anything? Yes, dummy, cars. Cars do the same damn thing, but at 60 mph. That’s dynamics and statics. If you’re someone who thinks architecture is worthy of respect but cars aren’t, you’re being a dick.
It’s a game.
I think you get the point; society has arbitrarily decided that some pursuits are ones that confer status, and others are encouraged to be looked down upon. All of this is classist horseshit that should have died off long, long ago. In terms of the joy and enrichment it brings to people’s lives, an incredibly expensive collection of wine has no more cultural merit than someone’s treasured project car, even if it’s a fucking Chevy Vega. If you think this is something you need to debate or disprove, you should take that as a sign to look inward and try and figure out how you got to be such a jackass.
I’m done with all this classist bullshit, I’m done with anyone making any of you, car-lovers, feel bad or embarrassed of your passions, and, yes, I’m done with Wes’ stupid friends who called him a cretin. They can fuck right off.
Everyone else, I hope you find delight in whatever art draws you in, especially if that art has wheels and a motor.
“while talking about it with my professor, the professor from another painting class walked his old ass all the way across the studio just to sneer at me “they teach engineering at State,” referring to another local university.”
This is another fascinating example of when adults behave like children. The dynamic it creates for younger adults and kids is what interests me, because they think it’s their fault, that something THEY did caused the older, experienced adults to behave that way.
I love it! It’s just another bizarre human thing, and it’s especially great when you get to an age where the behavior of older adults no longer intimidates you, but rather makes you laugh at the fool THEY are making of THEMselves as they try to make you feel worse.
But the trippy part is when you feel sorry about who they are and how their upbringing probably led to such acts, so you DON’T laugh out loud because that would be hurting someone who is clearly too traumatized to act in a responsible way. So now YOU are taking responsibility for THEM! Man, it’s just layers of messed up.
I guess the only mature thing to do is to project and respect boundaries. “Hi, Professor, um, I’m sorry, I can’t recall your name, but that was uncalled for don’t you think? I’d like you to knock that kind of behavior off around me, thank you.”
Art exists to please the artist first.
That doesn’t imply that it’s any good/useful to anyone else.
Most of the things on your list are of no use to me. Except for cars.
This is spot on. And it doesn’t apply to just cars, it applies to everything. People tend to forget that you are free to like or dislike anything you want, but you really can’t deny what it is.
For example, music. I’m not a fan of rap, new country, new pop (the over-produced, heavily auto-tuned stuff), etc., but I’ll never deny that it’s art. Same with architecture, there’s several architectural styles I don’t care for, but they’re still works of art.
I happen to own a car that I think is pure art. But, believe it or not, there’s cars I don’t like or care about. I’m not into the whole lowrider scene (and I live in the birthplace of the lowrider!), or even American Muscle cars, but I certainly have respect for those, they are art.
People free to have their own opinions of art, they just shouldn’t deny that it’s art, regardless of what they think about it.
I think Monterey Car Week, the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, and the MOMA collection (https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5210) pretty much negate the “low-brow” argument!
“what’s so funny about the pediments at the Palazzo del Te.”
So, uh, what is it? I clicked the link expecting to see a row a phalluses (phalli? And why did I click on a link with those expections?), but they don’t look any more phallic than any other column-shaped object.
Anyone who does not agree that the type 4 Karmann Ghia at the top of this story is pure engineering art does not deserve to be my friend. 😉
*inhales deeply* My ART TEXTBOOK, from the ART CLASS I took in the ART DEPARTMENT of a COLLEGE, featured CadZZilla, the CUSTOM CADILLAC STREET ROD BELONGING TO BILLY GIBBONS OF THE BAND ZZ TOP, as a PRIME EXAMPLE of how to create a SENSE OF MOTION through SHAPE! Why? BECAUSE IT FRICKING IS, THAT’S WHY!
For the record, every art teacher I’ve had has agreed that cars can be art, and encouraged me to draw them in class. Except that one person who said that anything created to serve a purpose other than “be art” can’t be true art, which is bull crap because guess what, some cars are built to be nothing but art and don’t even have functional drivetrains in them. Those meet every little pedantic definition of art, so why can’t cars that actually run be art?
I’m convinced that anyone who says mechanical things can’t be art is just jealous that they can’t make their art move. Art’s supposed to make you feel things, right? Cars do that, and they do it better than your painting of fruit ever will. Suck it, art snobs! Go drive a Miata and then talk crap.
Call me uncultured, but I ain’t never seen a painting or a sculpture that touched my soul as deeply as throttle blips coming from a big-block V8 or screaming straight 6 inside a truly gorgeous car. Rembrandt WISHED he could have such an effect.
Bah, fuck gatekeepers. Life’s hard enough without shitting on what makes people happy, as long as it’s not hurting anyone.
That said, no one said you have to like everything. Art can be art and still suck or just not be for you.
Shit yeah, Torch! My copy of “Art Through the Ages” still sits aside a number of older Shop Manuals in the current home office. You can guess what gets opened more.
Huh – I didn’t know you had an art background. That actually makes the taillight thing and some of the other Torch propensities make more sense!
It always amazes me that some people spend significant chunks of their lives studying art and manage to miss what the whole point of art actually is.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had conversations with people who made bold statements about how they don’t consider something art or how they don’t consider a particular artist as being genuine. These are simply personal opinions, but these people seem to think that having taken an art course or two means they can have the final judgment on whether a particular object is a piece of art or not.
Of course, appliances can be art. Cars, timepieces, clothing, furniture, etc., all have specific purposes they fill. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be media for art. The world would be a very boring place if we all had the same car, watch, shirt, and couch.
Torch can we see some of the art installations you’ve had?
Having been involved in the Hot Rod and Street Rod hobby for years and attending shows all over the country, I’ve found that some cars are built as true art, where all of the aesthetics are taken into account and everything looks right. There are many others where they just buy parts or throw whatever at the car but it to get a complete car but things don’t blend well. On my builds, I want everything to look like it was made that way. I spend the time roaming swap meets to find the right vintage elements to go together.
So much this. On some of those custom car shows the owner of the shop calls himself a designer and it gives me an aneurysm. The put zero thought into the overall look and feel of a car and it ends up a no doubt expensive collection of off the shelf billet parts and shiny pieces that just don’t go together. Too many muscle car restomods are over wheeled, because those cars were never designed on 21″ low profiles. And they never bother to correct half assed sixties build quality, with it’s attendant shitty panel gaps and fit. Trust me, real car designers in a studio spend years sweating that stuff.
Ring Brothers are one of the few companies I’ve seen doing custom builds right.
I was thinking the art snobs dismiss cars as art because you can’t look down your nose at other people. Then it occurred to me Porsche! Yes they are out all about looking down their noses at others, so art. LOL
I generally find both artists and engineers to be irritating. Both Torch and David are exceptions to that rule, because they don’t take themselves too seriously and both clearly have a passion for what they do.
Consider the beauty of the Toyota Camry…
And the artistry of the Bumper Bash.
Sigh. I remember when a college classmate who became CEO of a Texas construction company called me to chat and started mentioning that his wine collection had been feature in Wine Spectator magazine. In fact, he said he had a bottle of wine that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. I told him that was fascinating, but that in our household wine was for consumption and not so much for collecting. For some reason my friend thought I read Wine Spectator. I see this often in second generation wealthies. They inherited a lot of dough and then used that to make even more money. Eventually, your basic material needs are met and then it’s time to plunge some dough into wine, art, real estate, or opera tickets. I like wine and am still fascinated by dogs around a table playing cards on velvet. To each his/her own, I guess.
Art, like wine, is meant for consumption. And whether it has any value, beyond the joy it gave the artist who created it, depends on the consumer. I’ve had $10 bottles of wine that paired perfectly with my meal and left me totally satisfied. I’ve also had overpriced, trendy wines at restaurants that simply didn’t impress me.
It’s the same with art. Take Jackson Pollock for example. Most people either shrug and admit they don’t get it, or “ooh and ahh” because they think they’re expected to. Personally, I get what he was doing.
It helps if you know his history and can see his early works to put them in context, but it’s not essential to see the emotion he was putting on his canvas. The bottom line is that I like his work and it doesn’t matter to me if other people don’t.
To me, if you’re buying a bottle of wine or a painting to impress people, then you’re missing the point. My advice is to go with what you like.
I mean this site has already had an excellent presentation about the intersection of cars and art:
Good article Torch!
I would go on to add that, in my opinion, art is merely the recognition / installation of beauty in an object.
And my favorite form of art (outside of cars) is probably vintage machinery. Think turn of the century 1800-1900’s stuff. The old cast/wrought iron forms have some much beauty deliberately engineered into them and we miss this with current machines. Modern machines, whether consumer grade or industrial, seem to ascribe to function above all else (unless you look at power tools, in which case they’re designed to look like toys). Which is honorable in itself but it misses a lot of beauty that could be in our day to day lives.
I think cars are one of the few machines/tools remaining where designers deliberately try to make them beautiful (despite GM & BMW’s best efforts).
The company I work at has a machine from 1956 and a later one from the 70s I think. There is next to no sheet metal on the first, even access panels are cast. there are very few hard angles on it.
the later one is mostly covered in sheet metal and bent to shape. they’re a good example of even industrial machinery becoming more utilitarian over time. Compared to our modern equipment which are all boxes they’re both art.
And wildly unsafe.
The danger adds to the excitement!
“But what about the idea that cars are “products” or things designed for non-artistic use?”
Hell, they want to argue that, how about the fact that so much of modern art (and even non-modern art) is a money laundering scheme and a tool used to invest money?
If a painting is bought for $15 million and then immediately put in a vault and never looked at, is it actually a painting or is it a score card?
Agreed. Most “art”, particularly sculpture, is useless crap.
Wine is rotten grape juice.
Opera is a huge waste of time, boring, sounds awful, and tries your patience.
They are the tokens of wealth, pretentious status symbols, if you will.
Automobiles are useful, interesting, often mundane and/or lousy, but sometimes beautiful and bring joy to the driver and passengers’ lives.
You could have just mentioned lowriders and the Beatnik Bandit and left it at that. Anyone who can’t see the art in those probably thinks Picasso just couldn’t draw.
Car is art.
Source: me, artist.
There are some aspects of motor culture, that attract stupidity. So some snobby people, who has no interest in cars, can’t see the difference between a concuors exhibition and an illegal street race gathering. They just see it all as rather stupid.
At our local art exhibitions, I mean classic car gatherings, we experience problems with muscle/”super” car owners showing off their cars’ superior power with burnouts and loud exhausts, which annoys neighbors and could lead to the whole thing getting shut down by authorities.
The fine game of football/soccer experience some of the same issues: Ball handling and team tactics connaiseurs just want to enjoy the game, but hoards of beer spilling shouting short fused crowds see it as their place too.
I guess you could make some pie charts or graphs to show, when something is no longer generally percieved as art. If the potential content pile gets low some day, do an article on that 🙂