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Art of the Automobile: Subjectivity in Motion

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Mitsubishi Lancer
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Art of the Automobile: Subjectivity in Motion

Bill Crittenden
August 21, 2013


My wife is back in college and one of her classes is art history, and of course that has me thinking of the topic of subjectivity.

So, to begin, there's an analysis of what constitutes something aesthetically pleasing. Form, taken alone, obviously is aesthetics in more pure form, but function and evoked memory can result in something being even more aesthetically pleasing. This is an important concept in understanding why we love the cars we do.

For a comparison, I bring up a very different machine: the airplane. I step outside the realm of the automobile because it makes such a great comparison and explanation, and because it's probably a little more objective to an audience with preexisting strong feelings about certain cars.

It's long been held by so many people I've seen interviewed on the Military Channel that the Supermarine Spitfire is the most beautiful plane of the propeller era. The elliptical wing, streamlined body, it looked graceful soaring across the English skies. But looking graceful wasn't it's purpose.

The Yankees I hang with tend to like the P-51D Mustang quite a bit more. The graceful lines of the era's planes were broken up by the gangly assortment of protrusions: the bubble top, air intake below the fuselage, the twin drop tanks. We put it on posters, build models of it, we love the thing. Are we blind? Hell no. We're just looking at it differently.

Aesthetically pleasing can have as much to do with comfort, pride, and cherished memories than solely aesthetics. I wouldn't expect more than a very small minority (after all, nothing is truly universal in the wildly subjective realm of aesthetics) to love the Mustang if a poll was taken of people with no knowledge of history. But we see it and remember the ingenuity behind those drop tanks taking the Mustang all the way to Berlin, the four generations of tenacious refinement that took it from mediocre to masterpiece, the brave pilots that sometimes had to fight their own army for the right to risk their lives in the air, and our emotions are much more strongly positive than they are for the Spitfire.

But on the British side of the pond they have their own national pride for the Spitfire, of course leading them to emphasize the grace of the plane and making them quick to point out the thin line of brave pilots that stood between the good people of England and the Nazi menace, and their own ingenuity in deploying them by radar, a new concept at the time.

Perhaps the features we each emphasize as important in our heads in functional aesthetics is determined by justifying the answer we come up in our hearts. That's why it's so hard to rationalize no matter how hard we try. Rationalization is an attempt to bring objectivity to a completely subjective judgement. Our rationalization a themselves are subjective.

If I may wander a little farther down this side road, since I don't know when i might ever be down it again, with a name of British descent I personally appreciate the combination of the Spitfire's Merlin engine and North American Aviation's bodywork. The P-51 was unimpressive with the American Allison engine and the Merlin engine needed the Mustang's laminar flow wings and drop tanks to take the fight to Germany. Only the combination of the two was awesome, apart they were only good. Obviously, something that means a good deal more to someone raised in Illinois with a name from Kent. Again, subjective, not objective.

Art: the depiction or display of something intended to evoke emotion. Emotion is completely internal. So national pride, comfort, cherished memories, these are just as valid in the viewer's mind as, "hey, that's pretty." So what we see as aesthetically pleasing in art can be determined by our upbringing, the stories we've been told, the memories we've made, or our own internal biases.

Back to Cars...

Because, switching back over to cars, I can't think of anything that is the polar opposite of pretty (without really being ugly) as the mustachioed mug of Dale Earnhardt and his black Chevrolet. Yet it is such a common art theme here, depicted on posters, beer steins, little plastic figurines, computer backgrounds and mousepads. Certainly Danica Patrick and the sleek IndyCar she used to drive were easier on the eyes. But she didn't pull herself by her bootstraps up out of the towel plant in Kannapolis and into seven NASCAR championships all while remaining the same down-home country guy that America could relate to.

It's no Mona Lisa to an art "critic," but a Sam Bass print of Earnhardt is art to many millions of Americans for the fond memories they have of The Man in Black. I have a similar print on the wall in my office, an AC Spark Plug print with several old NASCAR cars of the era on it.

In racing art, the pedigree of the subject is most often the reason it was selected, not the pure aesthetics of the car or scene or person depicted, just as the combat record of an airplane determined its appeal.

As cars themselves can be art, or at least artistic, the principle of function's memories evoking a positive emotional response to an otherwise unremarkable form is evident in how much of a role badging plays a role in muscle car artwork. SS454, Hemi, 5.0, 442, GTO. Little more than stylized words, they immediately evoke the emotions of the cars they represent, and all refer not to the body design but the mechanical components under the hoods.

To a generation the cars represent so much of their past, the "glory years" of not only their own lives but of the American auto industry. Diner food and young love and "simpler times." But to a "gearhead," someone with a love of horsepower and more than a passing familiarity with the engines, the badges themselves can be enough to evoke memories of the drag strip, hearing that perfect rumble, or the thrill of being thrown back in the seat, right foot planted to the floorboards with the gas pedal pinned underneath. This is why they feature prominently in artwork of the genre.

The Subjectivity of Automotive Aesthetics

Taken on pure aesthetics, the classic Jaguar is a beautiful car and a fitting automotive equivalent of the Spitfire. Perfectly curved bodywork from every angle, streamlined, aerodynamic, gracefully shaped. On aesthetics alone, it is the more artistic car and the one that lends itself better to works of art depicting it.

But it doesn't evoke the same emotional response in some people as, say, the 1978 Pontiac Trans Am, with all sorts of vents and body panels, gold striping on black with that enormous flaming bird spread across the hood, it is a thoroughly hideous car by most measures of aesthetics alone. But people fucking love those Firebirds! Smokey & the Bandit and six liters of American iron under the hood are enough for a lot of people to love the car, but for me it's memories of my brother-in-law trying to restore one in the driveway, marveling at his ability to bring something I didn't yet understand back to life. That car was one of the stepping stones along the path that led me to who I am today, and despite my almost Scandinavian sense of design I'd rather have a picture of an old 1978 Trans Am like it on my wall than a classic XK-E.

As emotional responses depend on perspective, and no two perspectives are exactly the same, there can be a huge variety in what people find aesthetically pleasing based on memory. Some people might think that Smokey & the Bandit was a shitty movie and the Trans Am just looks ridiculous. But that's okay, there are just so many perspectives possible.

Come to think of it, I've never actually seen Smokey & the Bandit. Ever.

Anyway, just off the top of my head, there are people who love high-tech European super cars, luxury SUVs, low-tech American hot rods, low riders, brass era cars, pickup trucks, off road vehicles, Anglophiles, environmentalists, people who love American cars of the fifties, people who love drag racing, rallying, drifting, Italy, Germany, JDM, and so on and so forth. And they're all going to have very different ideas of what makes an appealing car...and what makes an appealing piece of automotive art.

Just as Americans and Brits emphasize the functions that lend themselves well to their case for aesthetics in the comparison of Spitfire and Mustang, so too do fans of certain automobiles emphasize their favorite features that rationalize the purely emotional. But the emotional response is not rational by its very definition.

I hope you're thoroughly confused by all this, because the most important idea I can convey is that what someone sees as art won't always make sense to the someone else. That is the very definition of subjective: it's all in our heads. The Dictionary.com official definition is more eloquently stated, "existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought." We are the "subject" in subjective, the art being the "object" in "objective." The entire idea of what good art is exists solely in the mind of the observer, and as minds differ from one person to the next so does the definition of "good art."

This still isn't going to stop Formula 1 fans from making fun of Dale Earnhardt's mustache or NASCAR fans from mocking Formula 1 engine sounds, but at least we all might understand each other a little better.



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