Volume 17, Number 52 | May 20 - 26, 2005

The Penny Post

Cars as art

By Andrei Codrescu

What is a car? What is the difference between a car and an orange? Years ago, the newly elected governor of California, Jerry Brown, asked during his first legislative session: What is a governor? What is the difference between a governor and a shoe? Nobody knew the answer to that, but we know the answer to the car question. A car is not like an orange when it’s a sunflower, a boat, a closet, a dragon, a Rubik’s cube, or a political statement. At the Orange Show Art Car competition in Houston, more than 200 cars pretended to be things nobody saw before. They moved past crowds hooting and hollering. Some of them were the work of artists who spent months if not years making utilitarian vehicles into objects of stylish meditation. The biggest object in the parade was something called W.M.D., which stands for either Weapon of Mass Destruction or Warehouse of Mass Distribution. It was a huge I.C.B.M. (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) built by students of sculptor Mel Chin to the exact dimensions of a real I.C.B.M., only instead of a nuclear warhead capable of destroying millions of people in an instant, it was intended to carry food to distribute freely to hungry people across the country. There was a car who wasn’t a car at all, but a young woman who used parts of a car to transmute herself into one: her brassiere, for instance, was made from hubcaps. Another woman, dressed in a Victorian costume that would have been an exact contemporary of one worn by the first female rider of a horseless vehicle, rode by on a long motorized scooter that was more of an idea of a car. Whole art classes from schools in the Houston area collectively reshaped old jalopies to bring out their inner dragons and suggested shapes. Judging by the ecstasy of the crowds, Texans, who love their cars more than most Americans, who love their cars more than most Europeans, and whose love surpasses by far that of natives of the Solomon Islands, the artistic maiming of cars is an activity that is both popular and necessary. The majority of people don’t get to be creative: they would never dream of taking a familiar object, such as a lawn or a spouse, and turning them into a colorful fantasy. Lawns are guarded by neighborhood regulations and spouses usually object. That leaves only the television set and the car, the two ritual and practical objects of American life that provoke the average American brain to thoughts other than work and dinner. Television sets are hardly worth transforming because they don’t move and their content is always the same. The most one can do with a television set is to festoon it with plastic flowers and doilies and set the photographs of grandchildren on them. Cars are a different matter. They move and, inside them, Americans have their most subversive thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts become art. If there is a place, officially, where one’s art car is rewarded by a cheering mob, the whole affair becomes rather satisfying. Good work, Houston.


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