Art Cars!

Prelude: A friend–and faithful supporter of this blog–recently told me to consider taking more risks online. So, following this piece of advice, I offer you an essay about cars, hoping not to step on fellow blogger and serious car enthusiast Chris Birt‘s toes. A disclaimer: apart from driving them, I am not "into" cars. I think of them as gas-guzzling necessities that get me from point A to point B in case those two points are too far apart to bike. Still, I can’t help feeling curious about cars, the ways they enthrall people’s imaginations, their cultural significance, the changes their–for lack of a better word–mystique is currently undergoing as a result of the economy, oil prices, etc., and their relationship to art.

The other day–to use that aristocratically vague and suggestively intimate phrase the New Yorker Magazine‘s Talk of the Town is so excessively fond of–I attended a workshop on professional development for artists, sponsored by the Tremaine Foundation and capably organized by the College Art Association and Springboard for the Arts. The insights offered up for grabs were many, ranging from "New York is no longer number one in the art world" to "networking is out." Instead of networking, a rapt audience was told, we are supposed to build community, to share authentic relationships with one another–relationships whose authenticity ideally blossoms–for artists, that is–into inclusion in a show or, even better, a solo show. Community, from this rather jaded point of view, becomes a tool for allowing us all to do business together more pleasantly, to feign friendliness when truly we all understand whose eye we need to catch and whose verdict on whose work will make a difference in the long run.

Do I sound suspicious of this vision of community? I am. Community, any decent dictionary will reveal, is based on the notion of a shared vision or shared interest. Sharing this interest, or passion, or vision does not require us to act the same, speak the same, pretend to be the same–but it requires sharing, that is, a common goal rather than pure and unadulterated self-interest. For those involved in the arts, the greater, shared, common goal could translate into advocacy for the arts in general and ingratiating self-interested authenticity in particular. A devoutly capitalist compromise seems entirely possible. But what this vision of art as community still leaves out are those who may share the interest in art and yet feel excluded and alienated from this community.

Of course, some communities thrive on precisely their exclusivity. Consider, for instance, the commerce-driven kind of tribes who are drawn together by their shared attraction to a carefully designed brand and, equally important, their ability to afford said brand. Economic resources function as gatekeepers, and entry is allowed only to those who demonstrate they can afford to belong. Other communities rely not on economic but cultural capital to police their boundaries. Money won’t fail to impress but the hushed tone of expertise, the authoritative whisper that requires you to lean forward and crane your neck in order to absorb the proverbial pearl of wisdom should not be underestimated.

When it comes to art and the community gathered in its name, where are the boundaries drawn? Who is allowed in, and who, in turn, is alienated and excluded? Who is art for? The self-proclaimed connoisseurs who come–if not with a background in art history or a degree in art school–with money or the amateur’s literal love for oil paint and creative expression? Is it for those who make art, regardless of whether anyone will ever see it? And what is the role of community in these complicated cultural negotiations of who gets to count, who is allowed in, and who has to remain on the outside?

In creative circles, invoking and, in some way, shape, or form, involving community seems to serve a specific function: "Community"–it does not seem to matter much which one–has the power to give even the most reactionary body of work a dull cutting edge and, of course, that most sought after commodity–"street cred." But even the most well-meaning artists seem to stop short of actually bringing these communities whose experiences they mine in workshops, or visually, in photographs, to the galleries and museums. So yes to the quasi-anthropological appropriation of others’ stories and images, a welcome spice to invigorate a possibly languishing artistic practice–but no, we won’t go as far as inviting them–those eternal others–into our hallowed halls, become part of our community, our creative club. (I recognize and apologize for my over-simplification here for the sake of argument.)

The annual Art Car Parade in South Minneapolis offers a welcome reprieve from the air-conditioned, educated exclusivity of the conventional art space: cars, fashioned from the quirky to the outrageous, cruise through the streets–around Lake of the Isles this year–to finally assemble at Intermedia Arts on Lyndale Avenue, where the artists and the curious get to mix and mingle, chat and laugh, wonder and enjoy the general outrageousness of the objects on display. Here is individuality whose expression does not exhaust itself in pricy customization; here is community, too, because the people who make these cars share a passion, a vision, and they are all too happy to talk about it.

 

Polar Bear Car, July 19, 2008

Art cars, then, circumvent the typical self-selective audience of gallery goers and connoisseurs. They make art accessible in the most basic, democratic sense: on the street, to everyone who happens to pass by. They are fun, too, frivolous at times, and nonetheless cannot help being political: either overtly–this year’s polar bear car drew attention to the threat of that species’ extinction–with strategically placed bumper stickers–"I want an electric car"–or indirectly, by rejecting the conformist, conventional avenues for expressing individuality on wheels.

Intermedia’s showing of Harrod Blank’s 1992 documentary Wild Wheels added even more depth to the experience of appreciating the art cars, their makers, and the community that forms around the shared impulse to create this iconic American object anew. (A case in point: the 1960s Cadillac, chosen for its cultural significance, with ornaments that include a plastic Snow White figurine and pink flamingos on elongated fins, speaks to the opulence of American culture, as its creator proudly explains on screen.) The motivations of the artists interviewed in the film range widely, from the sentimental to the pathologically religious, from a keen understanding of audience–and wanting to appeal to a broader audience than your typical gallery crowd–to a tentative understanding of class politics in the art world and the viable alternative community these cars create.

 

Art Car Detail, July 19, 2008

Yet unlike most art objects, these cars are functional, which ironically hampers their status as art: in Wild Wheels, the driver of a Volkswagen Beetle, covered with small, oscillating light bulbs, recounts that no one, not even Lloyd’s of London, is willing to insure this work of art. "If it is worth as much as you value it at, you should not be driving it,&quot
; is–loosely paraphrased–the insurance company’s stance. Do art cars belong in museums, then? Interestingly, visitors to both the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art can encounter cars–or parts of them–in the galleries, safely housed in the white-walled spaces designated to hold what’s precious and dear to the experts of the art community.

The MIA’s car, a 1936 Czech Tatra T87, is housed in its 20th-century design area. In a 2006 article in the Star Tribune, William Griswold, the then director of MIA, described the car as "a great access point for the infrequent museum visitor." Visitors, said Griswold, will "see and understand this object, which will lead to understanding others." So apart from the artistic and historical value of the car’s design itself, what makes this art object compelling is its familiarity and accessibility.

 

Hans Ledwinka’s 1936 Tatra T87 at the MIA

Dave Hickey, who, somehow, despite his MacArthur genius grant, still manages to pull off the enfant terrible shtick of art criticism–quite convincingly, too–makes a similar point in his memorable essay, "The Birth of the Big Beautiful Art Market." Cars–customized and pin-striped and hopped up–served as the lingua franca of his American boondock education (Hickey’s terms, not mine). Cars offered a universal language, accessible to anyone who cared to look and listen to the roar of the engine. Entering the art world with its putatively refined aesthetics and insider mentality felt "just like coming home," says Hickey. His conclusion? The two markets–or communities, or culture clubs–aren’t that different, once you start peeling back and sanding off the layers of lacquer. Or are they?

While car culture not only offered cool rides, it also provided young Hickey with an education in aesthetics and meaning making–and I quote: "We knew these cars and knew what they meant; and what they meant, over and above everything, was freedom." These cars, then, were a means to voice dissent from the factory models, a way to let loose and re-imagine what a vehicle could look like, could signify, could be. This culture club was not limited to art galleries; instead, cars cruised the main drag, raced on the highways, and generally served as the embodiment of their owner’s particular brand of cool. "Not limited to galleries" also meant no self-selecting audiences, no institutionalized spaces for display, and no exclusivity based on social class or education or any other of those markers we rely on to claim and bestow cultural capital. Finally, an obvious point: these cars worked.

While both Griswold and Hickey see car culture as immediately accessible to the American collective consciousness, the meanings these cars transport for each of them are ultimately quite different: the cars of Hickey’s reminiscences mean freedom, speed, the open road–that old American dream. Griswold would probably not object to such associations either but he wants the Tatra’s audience to appreciate the lines, the design, the details, too–in order to move on to more complex and more sophisticated objects. The Tatra, while a gorgeous object in its own right, becomes a lure for the "NASCAR crowd," as the Star Tribune puts it, not shying away from cliché. Thus the Tatra comes to serve as a stepping stone to higher distinction and sophistication, an entry point into a different, perhaps more exclusive kind of community.

A few steps closer to downtown Minneapolis, Richard Prince’s muscle-car hoods grace the walls of the Walker. As Nancy Spector astutely observes in her essay on Richard Prince, entitled "Nowhere Man," "the car offers testosterone-ridden dreams fueled by a desire for escape, pure velocity, and the romance of the road." All of Hickey’s ingredients for attraction are here: the speed, the romantic dream, and, curiously, the desire for escape. From what? Prince himself explains his choice of painting substrate like this: "It was the perfect thing to paint. Great size. Great subtext. Great reality. Great thing that actually got painted out there, out there in real life. I mean I didn’t have to make this shit up. It was there. Teenagers know it. It got ‘teen-aged.’ Primed. Flaked, Stripped. Bondo-ed. Lacquered. Nine coats. Sprayed. Numbered. Advertised on. Raced. Fucking Steve McQueened."

As an appropriation artist (and I define "appropriation" as taking and using something as if it was yours–even when it’s not), Prince likes the previous life of the object. It offers him a handy subtext to work with, fodder for presumably potent allusions. But isn’t there a difference in appropriating from other artists–fine artists, such as De Kooning, in Prince’s latest work, or commercial artists, who produce the ads and fashion shots Prince recycles in his earlier work–and from the shared obsession of a community of outsiders to the art world? And who gave the object "life" in the first place? Again, we encounter the discomfiting quasi-anthropological mining of others’ experiences, passions, and visions for an ultimately self-interested artistic goal. When Spector describes Prince’s Hoods as revealing "the poetry of process" in ever increasing levels of abstraction and applauds his mastery of Bondo as an aesthetic element–does anyone else wonder why we do not appreciate the original as much as the derivative, appropriated work? Could it be because there is no original to appreciate? Is it because the whole point of appropriation art is to topple the reign of originality? Or because those kids who played so shrewdly with the meanings of their cars do not fit into the art community easily–despite the affinities between car culture and the art world that Hickey diagnoses?

 

Art Car, Missile Launcher, July 19, 2008

Back to Intermedia, where the ingenious makers of their art cars spent Saturday evening hanging out with their rides. Ostensibly less concerned with the slick version of cool that Hickey’s buddies bought into, these art cars are funky, quirky, expressive. Some of them are classics–the bone car, the astro-turf car, the car that’s covered in CD’s–and some of past years’ favorites were sorely missed. (But does anyone remember the lobster car? I believe it came from Texas-schools of fish and lobsters lip-synching and shaking their stuff to Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody"?) This year’s favorite: a patriotic missile launcher with a fabulous crew, clad in red-white-and-blue, outfitted with missile-shaped dildos to match the giant "Number One" missile on the van… ready to roll down Nicollet Avenue this fall in the Liberty Parade.

Crew Member of the Missile Launcher Art Car, July 19, 2008

What these speculations about cars, communities, and connoisseurs boil down to is one final question: What kind of community do we want art to inspire and to foster? An exclusive, snooty one, where only certain people are made to feel welcome and whoever does not fit the mold exactly is shamelessly condescended to? Or a space where we encounter not only the work on display with open eyes
and minds–but each other as well? If we want art to be socially significant and accessible, is it not of paramount importance to build community across the divides of class differences? Kudos to Intermedia Arts for hosting this event, and giving this colorful, funky community a place to meet, celebrate, and cherish the wonderfully strange things people do to their cars.