On Cars as Art The perceptual processes of how design becomes art and how objects become interesting.

The classic UK 1961 Jaguar E sports car, known in the United States as the XKE, designed by Malcolm Sayer. (Image: Shutterstock)

In 1961, the Jaguar E-type sports car (called the XKE in the United States), designed by Malcolm Sayer, premiered at a major auto show in Geneva Switzerland. Enzo Ferrari declared it to be the most beautiful car ever made. Ferrari himself is, of course, a legendary figure in the history of car design. Ferrari’s judgment was thus stunning in a certain respect. It is very common for cars to be put into stereotypical national, cultural, or ethnic categories. So, for example, there are sleek Italian sports cars, elegant but staid British sedans, and powerful American “muscle” cars. Ferrari’s assessment unsettled these standard categories. This was an Italian expert heaping praise on the beauty of a British car.

About 35 years later, Ferrari’s assessment would seem to have been vindicated. A version of the original Jaguar E-type was put on display in the Museum of Modern Art. It could be argued then that what Ferrari called the most beautiful car ever made—a functional design object—had finally come to be seen as a work of art.

We can understand the placement of the Jaguar E-type sports car (XKE) in MOMA in terms of a standard historical pattern that applies to the ways that both utilitarian design objects, such as cars, and works of “fine” art are evaluated by experts and everyday viewers over time. This is a pattern that can be understood to some extent in terms of how our minds work.

However, this raises a number of philosophical questions. What are the connections between art and beauty? What is the relation of art to design? And how might our understanding of art or design depend on narratives of cultural history? I am not going to address these questions directly, although they will figure to some extent in the point that I want to make. The point is that we can understand the placement of the XKE in MOMA in terms of a standard historical pattern that applies to the ways that both utilitarian design objects, such as cars, and works of “fine” art are evaluated by experts and everyday viewers over time. This is a pattern that can be understood to some extent in terms of how our minds work.

In the case of cars, the basic pattern is this: A certain style of car is introduced to the public and seen as something new and interesting. Over time, it comes to be viewed as familiar and old-fashioned. Then (and this is true of many types of car), it becomes a “classic” with value as a collectible design object. Going beyond the basic, three-stage pattern, a very few classic styles then end up in art museums. (Call these super classics.) I want to consider how this pattern can be explained.

Regarding the question of beauty as an aesthetic dimension of art and design, I would simply say that I take Ferrari’s use of the term “beautiful” to be only a manner of speaking. He could have just as easily said that the XKE was the most stylish or visually well-designed car ever made. To be sure, there is a reference to beauty in MOMA’s press release when the car was put on display, but there are other design factors that are cited as well: “Because of the E-type’s beauty and sculptural quality, its functionality, and its seminal impact on overall car design, it perfectly suits the criteria of a landmark design object.” In any case, beauty is not the hallmark of either design objects or artworks and so the recognition of it cannot be what explains the evolution of our perception of art and design.

Regarding the relation of artworks to design objects, it is sometimes said that the latter have functions in everyday life, a kind of utility that the former lack. This may often be true, but I do not think that a clear distinction can be made. It is pretty hard (impossible, I would say) to draw a firm line between the aesthetics of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Usonian’ house in Kirkwood, Missouri, in which there are no right angles anywhere, and Mondrian’s art, which reflects his expressed hatred of diagonal lines. To be sure, much art is representational, whereas, on the face of it at least, the XKE does not represent anything. I think that the history of representational art does, in fact, have to be understood in terms of how we learn to sort out the relation between representational content and stylistic devices. Still, there is an analogous point to be made in the case of design. While design objects do not represent objects, they do represent properties; or at least they can be said to refer to types of properties by exemplifying them.  In addition to having to figure out the overall organization of the features that exemplify properties, the perceiver has the task of assessing the valence of the features (the organizational weight they carry in the design) and just which properties the often ambiguous features exemplify within the context of the design. In other words, there is no fundamental difference between artworks—representational or not—and design objects in terms of the dynamics of how our minds come to process them.  In any case, not all artworks are representational.

So it oversimplifies things, at best, to say that when the XKE went into MOMA, by virtue of having been recognized by the art world (critics, curators, and collectors, etc.), it became a work of art.  I think it is true that it came to be seen as having aesthetic properties not previously appreciated. In fact, I think it came to have aesthetic properties it did not previously have.  Thus it moved into the super classic category. But this is as much a matter of perceptual psychological processes in its viewers as it is of the institutional imprimatur of the art experts who attribute the properties to it.

There is no fundamental difference between artworks—representational or not—and design objects in terms of the dynamics of how our minds come to process them. In any case, not all artworks are representational.

This leaves us with the question of how to understand our experience of art and design in terms of cultural narratives or, more broadly, in terms of changes in cultural contexts over time. It cannot be denied that such changes, in a complete analysis, have to be taken into account. With reference to cars in particular, generally speaking, they are typically evaluated aesthetically with reference to variations on certain body types. Most people know that a coupe has a hard top and a convertible does not. But how many people know what a car in the Roi-des-Belges style might be? This was a style popular in the early 1900s. It was a “tulip phaeton,” a phaeton being an open automobile without any fixed weather protection, and a tulip phaeton being such a car with exaggerated body bulges and seats that were shaped to suggest tulips. The point in regard to cultural contexts is that such cars were designed partly to accommodate the very long clothes worn by people at the time. And to appreciate the place of the tulip phaeton in design history, that is a fact that has to be taken into account.

However, what is important here is that an understanding of cultural contexts can take different forms. Of course, the perception of the Roi-de-Belges style may change over time as cultural history unfolds. A tulip phaeton could not have been seen by our ancestors a hundred years ago as we would see it today, nor can our perceptual experience of it be just like the one that they would have been had. But when people at any point in time actually see the car, it is unlikely that they have an explicit grasp of the relevant history, such that it is what explains their perceptual experiences. That is, there may be cultural narratives that are required to account for how artworks and design objects are seen; but it does not follow that an explicit knowledge of the relevant narratives by the perceivers is what explains their experiences themselves. There are more implicit cultural/historical effects.

For example, the transition from the first to the second stage, from the perception of newness to the perception of oldness, so to speak, is caused in part by a style or type of car becoming widely familiar. Familiarity can be the result of many things.  For instance, it may be promoted through pricing strategies as part of the marketing or business culture. The original XKE was priced at around $6,000, making it affordable to many middle-class women and men.

Familiarity can also be a function of exposure through the mass media. About the time that the first series XKE was produced, a television series called Route 66 became popular. This series, which ran from 1960 through 1964, was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s 1957 book, On The Road, a classic of the “beat” generation. (Kerouac later filed a lawsuit regarding property rights, but did not win.) This was a show, not just about adventure and escape, but also about what might be called “Americana”; i.e. the diverse complexities of everyday American life. In the show, the son of a well-to-do father who had fallen on hard times (“Tod”), went on the road with his friend (“Buz”), a man from a working-class family who had been employed by Tod’s father. Over the course of the series, they encountered many types of people across the land with problems of many kinds.

While each episode featured stories about the people who were encountered here and there, there was no central cultural theme. Rather, the series employed an anthology model; i.e., every episode differed in theme and content by way of time and place. There were allusions to the cultural lives of the central characters. However, these were vague and changed during the series. For example, at a certain point, Buz became a Vietnam veteran called “Linc.” But no narrative explanation was given for that switch.

Thus, in this show, the unifying presence was actually a car, which provided the structural center of the series as a work of popular art. The car was what we would now think of as a classic Corvette in the style designed by Harley Earl (with a few changes from year to year). In one review, the car was referred to as the “star” of the show.

The point I want to make is that, while the car became familiar by way of a popular culture medium, and it figured in a series about American culture, familiarity with the car style did not itself depend on acquired knowledge of the culture. Rather, I think it depended on perceptual processes in the minds of viewers of the series.

While the car became familiar by way of a popular culture medium, and it figured in a series about American culture, familiarity with the car style did not itself depend on acquired knowledge of the culture.

The psychological explanation of the nature and significance of familiarity is that it figures dynamically in the formation of, and changes in, aesthetic preferences. Those depend, in part, on cognitive interest, in this case, in the stylistic features of the car.  Interest is a function of the challenges a design presents, in relation to the abilities of the perceiver. The challenges involve sorting out how the parts of an object—its visual shape features, for instance—are supposed to fit together and why. (E.g., why does the XKE have a prominent hood scoop, in terms of both function and the shape of the car?) Sorting things out is rewarding and enjoyable. But when ways of responding to these perceptual challenges are learned and become entrenched through exposure, they lose interest; and when they lose interest, we do not like the design features as much. Thus we move on to preferring new and more challenging styles. After the original style of Corvette featured in Route 66 has been used for two years, it was replaced in 1963 by the radically new Stingray Corvette. Arguably, this was because the old style had become overly familiar.

What happens then when the objects we do not like as much anymore come to be seen as highly prized classics? Here, too, it can be argued that there are market forces at work. As the number of cars in a certain ”old” style diminish, they create investment opportunities. With fewer and fewer of them on the road (because more people are buying cars in new styles while the old style ages, year by year), they can be labeled by collectors as “rare.” Or, it might be said, the mere passage of time gives us a historical perspective on the old cars that we could not have had when they were just seen as old. To return to the 1993 MOMA press release: The car came to be seen as a “landmark design object,” in part, because of its “seminal impact on overall car design.” That is a statement that could not have been made in 1963 when the car was new, or even in 1973 when the style had become a staple in the automotive world but was not yet seen as a classic. But with the further passage of time came a more compelling retrospective. The recognition of landmark status could be due to that.

However, these explanations assume that cars in a certain style retain enough interest to survive old age in stage two, and that they have features that can take on new historical significance when the car moves into the classic stage. Moreover, it is not as if nothing happens perceptually during the years a car spends in stage two. To define the stage generally in terms of familiarity does not mean that there are not perceptual dynamics within the stage.

One aspect of the perceptual dynamics may account for the retention of interest in the old style. This has been called the paradox of familiar surprise. The “paradox” is this: Familiarity results in the creation of a mental type or schema stored in the mind that makes the basic features of a car’s general body type easy to sort out. For instance, with basic schemas stored in memory, it is easy to distinguish a sports car from a limousine. But there will always be odd features in individual variations on the basic type that do not fit it easily, such as exaggerated tail fins on some 1950s American cars. Ostensibly having an aerodynamic function, tail fins have no natural place in the overall flow of the body of a basic sedan. What is interesting is that, with familiarity, we should know that the odd features are there, but our minds are so unconsciously invested in relying on basic schemas that the schemas continue to create expectations that the odd features violate, no matter how many times we have seen the car. So in some sense, the features continue to surprise us and seem novel, even when the overall car type seems old. Because of this phenomenon, we do not lose interest in familiar car types altogether and as time goes on, we begin to see the car in a new light.

What, then causes that change? I have already suggested one answer, which is that the longer a style remains in the “old” stage, the more likely it is to start being called “rare,” perhaps even taken to represent a dying breed. At the same time, the production of more and more new styles over time provides a backdrop, against which the distinctive features of the old style begin to stand out and become the focus of greater attention than they previously received.

However, such factors are partly constitutive of automotive cultural contexts that are limited in scope. That raises the question of how changes in the larger context might impinge on perceptual experience in ways that motivate the transitions of car styles from stage to stage. Nothing can be a classic car unless it is seen as one. How do changes in the cultural landscape have an impact on how we see a car style, over the course of its history?

One possible explanation is that perceptual experience of a car depends on episodic or autobiographical memories; that is, memories of actual previous encounters with the type of car in question. Such memories are susceptible to context effects of a certain kind.

In particular, the influence of the past on present perception can take the form of encoding effects. That is, the ease or difficulty of processing the design features of a car later depends on how similar or different the later context is from one in which we had our first experience of that type of car (the initial encoding context). Encoding effects can often be found in everyday life. If I was first introduced to you at lunch at the faculty club, I may have a hard time recognizing you if the next time we meet is at the gym.  The more the surrounding context is like the one in which we first saw someone or some thing, the less psychological processing effort is required to identify and make sense of it. But the converse is also true. The less similar the two contexts are, the greater the perceptual challenge the second go around.

When the context in which a car is seen is very different from the one in which that type of car was first encountered, the greater the processing challenge it presents. Yet that sort of challenge is what makes a perceived object interesting; and to the perceiver, interesting is good.

And therein lies an irony. When the context in which a car is seen is very different from the one in which that type of car was first encountered, the greater the processing challenge it presents. Yet that sort of challenge is what makes a perceived object interesting; and to the perceiver, interesting is good. Thus, as the cultural surround develops new dimensions over time, cars in an old style are taken out of their original context, in effect. Processing their features becomes more difficult and challenging in a special way. They thereby become interesting and aesthetically desirable again. Thus a classic car is born out of the ashes of old age.

I want to illustrate this idea with three episodic memories of my own. The first memory involves seeing in person what we would now think of as a classic Corvette when I was about 15 years old. One day, two Route 66 emulators rolled into my little town.  That town is a farming community of about 3000 people, the main street of which, in fact, runs right along Route 66. “Tod” and “Buz” (as we might call them) were driving a 1963 Corvette. After stopping at the local Dairy Queen, they booked a bungalow at Ellis Courts. Courts, as distinct from hotels and motels, were part of the highway landscape in those days, emblematic of the experience of going on the road.

The second event occurred a year later, when the owner of the local Ford dealership took me to an old shed on an otherwise empty lot. When he opened the doors to the shed, at first, I could not see anything. The only light filtered through cracks in the roof and walls, reflecting the motes of dust in the air. But then it began to appear: the first Ford Mustang stored here months before Ford allowed its dealers to put it on the showroom floor.

A year after that, I had a third close encounter, when I saw an XKE in the flesh, so to speak. Still in high school, I was invited to my first college party and driven there by a freshman in a very sleek and fast lemon-yellow Jaguar XKE.

What I want to suggest is that, because the world I live in now is very different from the world I lived in then, I cannot now see those three cars in the same way as I did initially. One reason is that the world I live in includes me; and I have changed. I have different mental resources now, and I use them in different ways. This is important because the “context” of a perceptual experience is not just the external surroundings. It also includes the collection of coincidental sensations, thoughts, images, and feelings that are activated inside my head and can involve other parts of my body as well, whenever I process something visually. Which is to say, my perceptual response to an object depends on my larger state of mind. But the dependence is a certain, indirect kind. The mental corollaries that make up my state of mind need not enter into the visual process per se. Rather, they are just part of what is going on in the background when the visual processing occurs.  What is going on when I see a given type of object can be similar or different from one viewing to the next.  Thus my larger state of mind can contribute to encoding effects.

One particularly important aspect of the collective mental context is the emotions and feelings that the perceiver may have on seeing the object for the first time. That is, the perceiver’s affective response can be part of the similarity and difference between the context of perceptual experiences of the same type of object at different times. In the case of all three of my own car first-encounter memories, feelings ran high:  Thrown out of Ellis Courts for various reasons, “Buz” and “Tod” got some of the boys in the town to set fire to a car tire and roll it down main street. The tire came to a standstill and burned for a while, just under the one stoplight in our town. This was, to me, an exciting act of rebellion on Route 66. Seeing the Ford Mustang was a revelation, a kind of apotheosis in American car design, muscular and beautiful at the same time. It involved a heightened sense of anticipation and then satisfaction when the car finally appeared. The ride in the Jaguar was associated in my experience of it with all of the things beyond cars that I thought that going to college might offer me: parties, new people as friends, and parental approval no longer required.

These are feelings that I cannot feel when I see any of these cars now. I can remember that I had such feelings once, but I cannot have them again because the circumstances that caused them can no longer obtain. These differences in the emotional context are part of the reason I see the cars differently than I did fifty years ago and part of what makes them interesting to me.  Sensing that things have changed, knowing that I had seen the cars as having aesthetic value when they were new, but ascribing new aesthetic value to them now, I see them as classic cars.

Going beyond the three-stage model then, the question remains of how a few cars get into museums of art. (This has happened, by the way, to the classic Corvette. In a recent exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum called St. Louis Modern, a 1964 Corvette figured centrally). Part of the answer is the same as the explanation of how old cars become classics. But here I think that knowledge of the relevant contextual history is also required. On one theory, things get into art museums because they are deemed to be important by professional art critics, museum directors, and artists themselves. But the assessment of candidate objects depends on an exchange of ideas. That exchange will be based on knowledge of art and design history, which will affect how the car is seen by those who decide to put it on display. Nonetheless, there are residual effects of the three-stage model here, since how the experts see the object will depend on their own episodic memories as well. Importantly, the decision to display the object will also depend on some judgment or sense of how the car will be seen by museumgoers when it is put in the atypical context of the gallery; and that is a judgment, at least tacitly, about encoding effects.

Sensing that things have changed, knowing that I had seen the cars as having aesthetic value when they were new, but ascribing new aesthetic value to them now, I see them as classic cars.

Putting the XKE on an artworld pedestal revealed differences in perceptual experiences that design objects have as a result of their viewers’ viewing histories. To paraphrase Ferrari, the E-type is thus one of the most interesting cars ever made. If my account is right, the car became more interesting over time and was seen to have the potential, when relocated to the museum, to become more interesting still. And that, I think, is how a Jaguar came to be in the Museum of Modern Art.