Elon Musk made history launching a car into space. Did he make art too?

There was no shortage of media from Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch this week. A computer-rendered animation prepared us all for the spectacle, set to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” as a kind of galactic music video. Everything was live-streamed as it happened. Then afterward, the viral video clip of the two booster rockets landing in tandem after the successful launch was certainly impressive, even if the third booster missed its mark. But the real iconic image from the launch, the one most likely to stand the test of time, is of the cherry-red Tesla Roadster that Musk embedded in the capsule of the payload rocket. A gleaming convertible floating through (actual, real) space, its wheels not spinning at all, an astronaut-suited mannequin posed, unperturbed, with its arm hanging out the side. The Earth eventually looms in the background, incomprehensibly large, seen through the windshield.

It’s a staggering image — the first car ever in space, moving seven miles per second toward the asteroid belt — and so impressive that the video seems somehow unreal. It’s the greatest car ad of all time. What makes the image so compelling is in part its casualness, a feat carried off jauntily and successfully, with the added joke of the posed mannequin and a dashboard screen displaying “DON’T PANIC.” The human-manufactured car, with its elongated curves and aerodynamic, semi-organic shape, contrasts completely with the inhuman vastness of space, the gleaming red of the car against utter black. Actual spaceships are unwieldy, temperamental machines; this is one craft we can all understand, even if it’s not exactly functional.

But a bigger question rose on Twitter soon after the launch: Is Musk’s space car art? It’s a problem that faces any gesture absurd or excessive enough. The car doesn’t fulfill a coherent function (besides marketing), it’s a creative gesture driven by an individual’s vision, and it’s a primarily visual phenomenon: ipso facto. My answer to the question is that yes, the car is art, of a sort, but with a caveat. I’ll repeat an art-world maxim: Anything can be art if someone wants it to be, but few things are good art.

So is it any good? First we have to decide to interpret the space car as art. Okay, that’s done! Now, let’s judge it as a piece in terms of its precedents and possible influences in turn.


SpaceX

Photography (Rating: 9/10)

The image of the car gliding past Earth is the primary visual artifact of the launch. Capturing that view had to be carefully orchestrated: posing the mannequin, deciding where to install the camera, and positioning it to get the ideal effortless angles. Everything about it is intentional, a decisive factor of art-making. The image’s saturated color and simple palette — red, black, white, and blue-green — also somehow reminds me of William Eggleston’s pioneering color photo of a lightbulb standing out against a blood-red ceiling.

Verdict: A very successful photograph.

Modernism (Rating: 6/10)

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp put a urinal on a pedestal, titled it “Fountain,” signed it R. Mutt, and called it art. It was what the French artist called a readymade, his word for a combination of everyday objects reassembled or re-contextualized by an artist. The sheer act of the artist was enough to make anything a sculpture. My favorite readymade is “Prelude to a Broken Arm”, from 1915. It’s a shovel hanging above the ground — the object is the joke. Names were important to Duchamp; the name of a piece “instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal,” he wrote in 1961.

Back to Musk — if his car was meant as a readymade, then it’s art. “Don’t Panic” could be the piece’s Duchampian title, meant to evoke our own mortality, the imminent disaster of climate change, or the dominant mood of the 21st century. Another thought came to mind. Is the space car really a functional car? The Tesla Roadster Model 3 is suffering from constant production delays, after all. Maybe they just sent a shell of the convertible up, well aware that no one could ever prove it. This would make the artwork even more Duchampian: just like the urinal or the shovel, it is a man-made machine removed from its purpose and made useless, like all art.

Verdict: Pretty good readymade!


SpaceX

Pop Art (Rating: 10/10)

Or maybe the roadster is Pop art. James Rosenquist, an American painter, made vast murals of glossy American machines flying through space, including car parts and military jets. John Chamberlain created sculptures from crumpled car bodies, twisted into abstract monuments. Musk’s car fits comfortably here, as well as in the context of Andy Warhol’s repeated screen prints — it’s an image designed for the profusion of mass media. The luxury car against the blackness of space is a perfect representation of the banality of human culture. We get to space, and this is what we do with it?

A convertible is, I think, one of modern humanity’s more complete aesthetic achievements. It’s a technological form shaped by mining, industrialization, highway construction, fossil fuels, and finally, with Tesla, Silicon Valley venture capital derived from the digital internet. Let its eternal presence in space and the viral documentation of its trip be a monument to our time, excessive, self-obsessed, and delusional as it is. It seems perfect.

Verdict: I’d believe it if a particularly obnoxious post-Pop artist had already launched a car into space.

Land Art (Rating: 8/10)

A movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Land artists simply moved earth around to make sculptures, oftentimes in the middle of a desert where few people would ever see their work, as with Michael Heizer’s “City” in Nevada or Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah. “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future,” Smithson wrote in 1966. “They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages.” The space car is a kind of “instant monument,” as Smithson might have described it — a memorialization of 2018, forever. It doesn’t matter that it’ll never come back to us and no one can go see it.

Verdict: Definitely monumental, but lacking in some of the gravitas of the movement’s originators.


SpaceX

Postmodernism (Rating: 4/10)

There’s a whole genre of art shot into space in the contemporary era. The Japanese artist Azuma Makoto launches bonsai and flower arrangements into space and photographs them, experimenting with how they might look with Earth as a background. John Chamberlain and Andy Warhol both contributed to “Moon Museum,” a ceramic wafer with tiny artist drawings that was left in the Apollo 12 moon-landing module in 1969 (Warhol drew his initials, he says, but it really looks like a penis). The 1977 Golden Record on the Voyager probes was a kind of multimedia sculpture, too, embedded with text, images, sounds, and diagrams that were intended as baseline information about the human species, culture, and our location in the universe for any aliens who might come upon it. In 2012, the artist Trevor Paglen updated the Golden Record with an archival disc of images meant to last billions of years, launched via a television satellite.

But extraterrestrial communication doesn’t seem to explain Musk’s purpose with the car. It makes a simpler statement, befitting the ultimate tech bro: I am here.

Verdict: Even for postmodernism, it’s a shallow and ridiculous gesture without an ounce of self-awareness.

Final Judgement (Average: 7.4/10)

If we were to take an average, the car would be somewhere around a C. But really, you can’t apply all these categories at once. Success in is plenty, if it qualifies. The Tesla space car could make great art, if that’s what it was intended as. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Art has to be part of a prolonged practice, with each successive project from an individual artist building on or creating context for the previous. But the roadster was a one-off stunt, sent up purely as a show of dominance — or a way to placate shareholders and those still waiting on their personal cars. Elon Musk can be an artist if he wants to. But so far, he just isn’t a good one.

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