It is curious, is it not, that the bodies of cars are not seen as pieces of sculpture by the art world. Architecture is ok, and features regularly in establishments like the Royal Academy, but for a car to find a place in a gallery it has to be squashed into a rectangular lump, flattened as if run over by a steamroller of form the framework of an installation.
Architects have empathy with cars, probably because, in addition to their aesthetic quality, they also have to meet functional requirements related to people. But for a wider public, cars are an art they understand better than any other. You can’t sell an ugly car these days – but an indifferent building is fine. If one wanted to instigate a discussion about the relative merits of Ghery v Hadid in the average pub, one will not get very far. But the mention of cars – Focus v Astra, or Ferrari v Porsche – is very likely to start a lively exchange.
The creation of an elegant vehicle is a huge challenge. Unlike the freedom a sculptor enjoys, the car designer must work within severe constraints: there is the ‘package’, accommodating passengers and mechanical components; there is legislation dictating vision angles, the location of lights, bumper heights; the choice of materials is restricted; the body is made up of parts (doors, bonnets, boots and other bits), and the joint lines between them must be pleasing; the overall form must have good aerodynamics (low drag, low lift stability in cross wind) which needs to be manipulated to flatter the car.
All of this has to be capable of being manufactured efficiently in very large numbers at a very low price, and please millions of customers.
Why is the massive skill requited to put all this together, using techniques similar to a sculptor’s, not properly recognised? In the case of the art establishment it may be a form of snobbery – cars have been around for little more than one hundred years, and lacking gravitas.
But the biggest culprits are the media dealing with motoring subjects: 0 to 60 mph is important to them and they love cars that exceed 200mph, but any well informed discussion of design and form is almost invariably absent.
Does this matter? Perhaps not. But it would be fun to test it: maybe we could see it discussed on BB4 as an arts subject, like a painting or sculpture, since it will never be discussed on Top Gear. Or we could get a panel of designers to select the most beautiful cars, display them in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and see what kind of crowd it would draw. My guess is huge.