Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In his new book Autophobia, Brian Ladd examines the history of our hostility to automobiles, balanced against the long history of the undeniable triumph of cars, from the Model T to the SUV.
Cars are the scourge of civilization, responsible for everything from suburban sprawl and urban decay to environmental devastation and rampant climate change—not to mention our slavish dependence on foreign oil from dubious sources abroad. Add the astonishing price in human lives that we pay for our automobility—they kill the equivalent of a dozen jumbo-jet crashes every day—plus the countless number of hours we waste in gridlock traffic commuting to work, running errands, picking up our kids, and searching for parking, and we can't help but ask: Haven't we had enough already? After a century behind the wheel, could we be reaching the end of the automotive age?
Do we hate cars more than we love them? Here's a test: Next time you go on a gallery crawl, count the number of car-free paintings you have to walk by before you see a canvas that features an automobile.
NY Times book review of Autophobia, link


Sakievich said...

That may well be, but it could also be due to the fact that most cars create two sets of aesthetic challenges for artists. They're hard to draw since it requires some perspective and non organic development and and secondly, generally they're ugly and poorly designed, at least as far as design that painters appreciate. If people really are interested in contemporary naturalism then there ought to be a lot more effort to develop imagery with cars because they are so central to our lives and in many ways represent the freedoms we enjoy. I think too, that many people and artists don't appreciate the aesthetic opportunities of their own time and prefer their invented nostalgia to their own real personal experience.

Dan Gurney said...

Interesting point, but I'm not sure about the logic. In any event, I'd agree that cars have done a lot to rip apart community as it had been known until about 1930, as have three other new technologies: television, computers, and cell phones.

Do we hate television more than we love it? Here's a test: Next time you go on a gallery crawl, count the number of television-free paintings you have to walk by before you see a canvas that features a television.


Do we hate computers more than we love them? Here's a test: Next time you go on a gallery crawl, count the number of computer-free paintings you have to walk by before you see a canvas that features a computer.


Do we hate cell phones more than we love them? Here's a test: Next time you go on a gallery crawl, count the number of cell phone-free paintings you have to walk by before you see a canvas that features a cell phone.

Dan Gurney said...


What a vivid way to express the cost of cars in terms of lives.

Yikes! Where is my street car system?

Tell everybody you know.

Pete said...

That's an interesting take on automobiles...both a blessing and a scourge. I've always thought it a little ironic that in our government's unending effort to pass laws that protect us from ourselves, they would never ban the car.

Oh, and I don't draw or paint auto subjects because they are just too darn hard!

Andrew said...

Sakievich and Pete hit the nail on the head at least for me regarding cars in art: It's hard to fake 'em. Nature is easy to fake or at least look convincing enough since people don't see as much wildlife as they should anymore...and people are easy enough to get to look "just right" since we stare at one whenever we look at a mirror or talk to somebody. Cars are in a weird habitat of seeing them enough to know what they should look like, but not enough to easily replicate or fake the look of one convincingly.

On a slightly unrelated note, some people have adverse reactions to how cars look depending on how far they stray from a "face." There's been a couple of car designs that eschew the normal look and aesthetic for them, and critics often call them ugly designs, mostly because they have some feature that resembles two sets of eyes, a jaw full of sharp teeth, bug eyes, swollen forehead...the list goes on.

Erik Bongers said...

Interesting topic and same for the comments.
Not much I can add, except perhaps 1 thing.
Our clothing, our cellphones, our big flatscreen TV sets they all look fancy and modern - even futuristic.
But our cars somehow always look outdated, even the latest models.

What could be the reason?
Because we keep our car for many years, while we update our clothing more regularly?
Car design too constraint by security issues?

I've always thought (well, for many years now) that the next big thing in car design would be...pattern printing.
Still waiting...

And I avoid cars in drawings too.
Mea culpa.

Anonymous said...

It may be one of those things where you see it so often every day that it doesn't occur to you to put it down on paper.

You forget that they're there, really.

James Gurney said...

All great points, well taken. The scarcity of car paintings in galleries relative to their ubiquity in our world is bound up in all sorts of aesthetic concerns, not just how we feel about cars in general.

Maybe a better question would be: "How do we portray cars in contemporary painting and cartoons, and what does it say about the way we feel about them?" The author of Autophobia includes a lot of gag cartoons going way back to the 1920s or so.

A friend of mine liked painting gas stations at paint-outs, and he was good at them. But it was during the time gas prices were skyrocketing, and he had to lay off the subject because the paintings made people mad and the art wouldn't sell.

Daroo said...

I agree with Sakievich except that I think cars have a weird combination of hard angles and organic lines all held in near perfect symmetry. Its that symmetry that is hard for me to deal with (in perspective) and makes it easy for the non artist to see when its wrong.

I think I disagree with the premise of the book (albeit without actually reading it)-- America is a car culture -- our society is built around cars. We can even eat and watch TV in cars. Look at the recent government bailouts: Congress was quick to give the banks all the money they wanted because they were told the situation was dire and they really didn't understand what was going on. When it came to giving a loan to the car companies the situation was totally different, in part, because all the members of Congress own cars and hence, feel qualified to have an opinion on cars and car makers.

Here's a painter I really like:

and a young painter I know:

Super Villain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Super Villain said...

i think it is less phobia and more escapism,

people want to get away from the real world as much as possible i think when viewing art.

they want wide open landscapes, far off, distant places, fantasy,

i think this is also why people love the dinotopia books, they are about as far off and beautiful a place anyone could imagine. i love those books for that reason. however, the first flight book in the series, that took on more of the real current world, i found myself less interested and less excited about viewing it...

we want to be away from cars, and gas stations, cubicals, laundry rooms, grocery stores, fast food reastruants, big coperate buildings, hotels....i think we want to escape, even for just a second and go to a far off place.....seeing a car in an image, and smack, your right back to reality...

Nick said...

We think of cars as aesthetic objects because that is the way they are sold to us. In fact they are simply consumables, expensive consumables. A rusted relic overgrown with weeds may acquire some easthetic qualities. A car on the street has no more charm that a burger carton.

jeff said...

All this happened just after WW2 with the explosion of the suburbs.

I once read the John Cheever story about a family vacationing in Maine for the summer. The father would come up on some weekends, long ones but he would take the train to Portland then a trolley. I do think he had to get a taxi out to his home but that was only for a short distance. They did not have a car at the vacation home.

There was a time when we did without. LA used have an extensive trolley car system.

You could get a train to any rural area of the North East, New England is dotted with disused tracks.

There used to be mail trains and this is how people went from town to town if it was to far for the horse and buggy.

Jen Z said...

Everyone here has made interesting points of argument here. I think we also have to look at the artist genotype here too though. A lot of artists are people who think differently, take public transport, bikes. Perhaps they're not so concentrated on status symbols, things they like -ie. cars, computers etc... Although looking at digital artists, computers, televisions and mobile/cell phones do make an appearance. I don't mind painting old timer cars as a hommage to the "golden years" and it's about as challenging to me as it would be to James to paint an awesome landscape.
Perhaps we're hunted by the principals of the classic painters who had no idea about cars. We've got that subliminal (or maybe not so subliminal) message that a great painter paints people and animals and scenery, fine fabrics and furniture.
I also find the idea interesting, that we could be approaching the end of the automobile era - whereby countries like Australia rely heavily upon this form of transport. Who knows? What's the difference between an object and a subject? It's a personal answer, one that depends on the artist's taste.