Or is it fear of more flying? I promise to get off this topic after today, but in anticipation of a return flight tomorrow that will take off in bad weather, I found myself thinking more about something I blogged about yesterday, how rarely you find contemporary art that’s concerned with the mundane experience of flying and airports. What occurred to me today is that because we don’t get much from artists about the banality of flying, we’re also spared the spectacle of disaster that lurks in the back of everybody’s mind. Meaning the plane crash.
This is not as morbid as it sounds. (Actually, it is, but it’s morbidity with a high minded educational purpose, so keep going.) Artists didn’t used to be so squeamish. By the 18th century shipwreck scenes were an established subgenre of maritime painting. In an age of expanding colonialism, which meant expanded sea travel, they gave even stay-at-homes a picture of an ever more common fate. Claude Joseph Vernet, one of the most successful seascape painters of his day, returned to the subject again and again.
By the 19th century, after the Romantic taste for emotional extremity had taken hold, and when the ocean voyage had become an increasingly common but no less hazardous experience, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa could become a sensation when it was first exhibited in 1819, just three years after the shipwreck it described. (Meaning when it was, by 19th century terms, practically a news event. Keep that in mind the next time you hear that the movie United 93, which came out five years after 9/11, was — gasp — “too soon”.)
Movies have never shied away from imagining plane crashes, partly of course for the same reason that painters once loved shipwrecks — they’re the last word in action sequences. In the last ten years film makers have gotten all too good at picturing how a crash would look from inside, in Scorsese’s The Aviator, in the Jeff Bridges movie Fearless and in Alive the adaptation of Piers Paul Read’s book about a real world plane crash in the Andes, one that fascinated people because, just like the Medusa incident, it ended in episodes of cannibalism. (Will Ethan Hawke end up as a carnivore or a canape?) With it’s loving attention to the cabin experience of a semi-controlled crash, that movie in particular fulfills your worst imaginings. How the wings would go flying off, the fusilage would fracture and the seats right behind you — or worse, your seat — shear away.
Yet where movies go, art doesn’t, even when artists have no problems appreciating car crashes. Was Warhol the first to turn crack-ups into a legitimate subject for art? What I’ve always liked about his disaster series from the early 1960s was that the car wrecks that this most celebrity-obsessed artist decided to silk screen weren’t the well known celebrity crashes. No James Dean or Jayne Mansfield. (And for that matter no Jackson Pollock, whose impassioned Action Painting Warhol’s deadpan Pop was laying to rest.) The crash victims in Warhol were nobodies — meaning you and me — from the tabloids.
And one of my favorite works from the ’90s is Unpainted Sculpture, Charles Ray’s meticulous fiberglass recreation of a totalled sedan.
It’s a screw you to whatever was left of Minimalism, an R.I.P. to California car culture and a low minded renunciation of John Chamberlain’s candy colored (and hey, also wonderful) crushed car-parts sculptures.
And while we’re at it, Ray’s tangled remnant of a car is a momento mori — that means “reminder of death”, class– one that’s more riveting than Nicole Ritchie at her skinniest. It’s a Raft of the Medusa with nobody on it.
It’s true that automobile fatalities are much more common than deaths in plane crashes. All the same, who gets into a car and thinks every time about death? And who gets into a plane and doesn’t? Meanwhile, the plane crash remains a rare subject in art, though in some corner of our unconscious every 747 looks like Melville’s White Whale. And you know what that stood for.