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On art and NASCAR

Why do we love cars?

Maybe some of us don’t love cars at all. We have one because we have to, because it performs a function, like a toaster or a microwave.

Some of us, though, love cars because of their machined perfection, because they can go so fast, because there’s something thrilling about the sensation of the human body hurtling through space at high speeds—whether we experience that on an empty desert highway, pressing the foot down hard on the gas pedal when we’re sure there are no cops around; or we go to giant speedway stadia, where we gaze enviously at machines that are permitted, indeed encouraged, to whizz around at nearly 200 miles per hour (all hail fellow car lovers at the Talladega Superspeedway this weekend!).

Some of us love cars because they are simply beautiful objects. Maybe not so much now, when manufacturers have honed and cloned their designs until they all start to look the same, and the minute differences between one model and another are visible only to the true aficionado. But the classic cars, the Ford Model A or the Ford Deluxe Coupe, the Hispano-Suiza (Picasso owned one, though he never learned to drive), the gorgeous gas-guzzling giants of the American 1950s, the Thunderbird, the Impala: these are works of art that an aesthete like me cannot help but fall in love with.

At the beginning of the twentieth century and the dawn of the automobile era, artists, too, responded visually to cars, for similar reasons. The Italian Futurists painters (Balla, Russolo, Severini, Boccioni, Carra) created many paintings and drawings in which they tried to depict the thrill of speed:

'Speeding automobile', 1912, oil on canvas, Giacomo Balla

Leaving aside the links between the Futurists and Fascism (I know, that’s a big omission), what we see in these paintings is the division of space into small shapes, repeated across the picture plane in sweeping rhythms that draw the eye to and fro in a swirling motion. Bits of cars are recognizable in some of the paintings. In pictorial terms, they recognized the potential of abstract painting to suggest movement on a two-dimensional surface. They united this with their worship of the car as the object that most perfectly represented the coming machine age: an age of scientific progress, of “hygienic violence”, of the beauty of perpetual motion, all concepts that made a decisive break from the hidebound traditions of the nineteenth century (particularly in Italy).

It’s interesting how, even though these paintings were made nearly a century ago, the rippling patterns look like that special effect in ‘The Matrix’ films used to suggest bullets flying and bending through the air. Perhaps it shows how they were on to something.

This identification with the car, though, changed over the course of the twentieth century, in ways that mirrored the changes in major twentieth century art movements. In future posts in this series, I’ll look at how other important artists used cars in their art—from Picasso to Philip Guston and beyond. And if anyone reading this happens to like art AND owns a well-kept classic car, please email me a picture and I’ll publish it here on this blog along with a drooling appreciation.

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