Cars and America: End of the Affair

by Marilu Knode

It’s unmistakable: across the United States you can hear the last, dying gasp of one significant element of the industrial revolution that made America a powerhouse in the 20th century. The moans emanate from Detroit, home of mass-produced automobiles, with echoing wheezes coming from other parts of the rust belt, the industrial northeast and even the southwest. The car is so entwined with Americans’ sense of self that, despite the dire financial circumstances of the auto industry, a huge life raft has been thrown out to that drowning industry. Even in the face of Detroit’s resistance to change – refusing to institute better gas mileage or develop green technologies – politicians, financiers, feeder supply companies and ordinary Americans don’t want to see the companies fail in the face of capitalist competition. At stake: the American way of life that includes frequent little errands, too-long commutes and living in islands of house surrounded by seas of cement.

Today, because of the conflagration of social and environmental issues, society as a whole (not just activists, or artists) is forced to step back to see the full impact of cars on the culture and our landscape. Los Angeles continues to be mocked as the “car city”, but virtually every city on earth has become, or is becoming, a car city. Phoenix, Arizona, is a test case for the impact cars have had on urban development due to a general lack of historical spaces or too many significant natural features to impede the building of roads. Phoenix is the ür city of isolated suburbs, class division, environmental degradation and, perhaps, irreversible economic problems.

But before examining, briefly, some of the toxic indicators of the car’s impact on place, we must understand the underlying meaning of cars to Americans, and thus, why we have been loathe to recognize the problems borne of the car.

How the U.S. was Won: From Manifest Destiny to Chrysler and GM

Phoenix is where many of the American settler social experiments of the past 300 years live in its most naked form. When Europeans first made contact with Native Americans in the 15th century, the North American continent was estimated to have 20 – 35 millions inhabitants. Because of an imperialistic desire for land and wealth, and a religious zeal to find the new “paradise on earth”, these inhabitants were slowly scoured from the land. Manifest Destiny was the political treatise that justified the white appropriation of lands across the continent, the frontier conquered from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

The American southwest, in particular, was considered a cultural wasteland, bereft of the normal markers of agricultural soil and Christian zeal. The complex desert climates of the region resisted the conquering ways of adventurers, schemers, land speculators and farmers, and thus, was greatly feared and reviled in the American imagination of the 19th century.

The myth of the rugged American individual was forged in this westward expansion, although pioneers were often considered no more than lowly-criminals and the great unwashed of Europe, unable to adapt to the new urban centers of the east coast. Americans held onto land only in clusters, and sometimes just barely; military resistance to conquest from Native American tribes continued through the end of the 19th century, and legal resistance continues to this day. Yet, for these settlers, there was always a sense of not belonging, of unease about the ways they sat upon the earth.1

In his introduction to Playing Indian, Philip J. Deloria writes about D.H. Lawrence’s analysis of this American unease. Lawrence understood how, when European settlers arrived, they were caught between a desire for the structural stability of the Old World (read: land to call their own), and the uncontrollable freedom of the New World (as lived by half-clothed Native Americans). Because these settlers would have neither stability nor freedom, Americans found it hard to truly become of their place.2

Hummer (2006) Margarita Cabrera Cortesy: Sarah Meltzer Gallery, Nueva York
Margarita Cabrera Cortesy: Sarah Meltzer Gallery, Nueva York
Until the arrival of the automobile. Finally, the myth of the rugged American individual was fully embodied in the freedoms afforded by the car, and Americans were finally able to solidify their conquest of the land through the car’s mobility. The landscape could be apportioned, scored and scarred by the infrastructure needed to support it. The great works of the Great Depression, the products of the military-industrial complex during World War II, and the great economic boom of the country in the 1950s and 1960s allowed for a rapid urban expansion never before seen on earth.

While cars had a tangible benefit for social control, and allowed for a display of conspicuous wealth by the elite, mass production and broader availability of cars and trucks slowly began to expand the social and economic opportunities of the rest of the country. Farmers were able to expand into new markets for their produce by truck delivery; women and teenagers were able to achieve some measure of escape through the car’s capacity to connect them to others.3 The battle between electric and internal combustion was fought through advertising campaigns that painted electric cars as daintier, with less horse power, and therefore more feminine, than the gas-fired cars; we know which machine won this battle. With a business and baby boom of the 1950s, suburbs bloomed into the final frontier, the “frontier of leisure”, where car was King.4

This brings us to Phoenix.

Any aerial view of Phoenix reveals all: its strict urban grid is only rarely interrupted by natural features like mountains, or canals (built on those dug by the Hohokam nearly a thousand years ago). The explosion of Phoenix coincides with the post-war irrational exuberance of the car era. While the “swamp cooler” (the precursor of air conditioning) allowed mass migration to Phoenix in the 1950s, the car was the driver of the urban landscape of this “frontier of leisure.” Now, each city across the country is ringed by layers of suburbs, each one pushing out past the other, residents wanting to live “aspirationally” (beyond their means), wanting a lifestyle of the rich and famous, the car being the most visible sign of success.

Rotations: Moore Estates 5 (2006) Matthew Moore Courtesy: Lisa Sette Gallery
Matthew Moore Courtesy: the artist & Lisa Sette Gallery

Yet mounting evidence has shown that these suburbs are less and less sustainable, that adults and kids are not engaged in communities of real people and are becoming obese due to lack of exercise, that pollution and environmental degradation caused by unrelenting development had created dirty, isolated places. (The earth strikes back in interesting ways, however; Phoenicians are worried about “Valley Fever”, an occasionally lethal fungus caused by spores released when

desert land is dug up). What is worse, of course, is that this form of American suburban lifestyle has been much copied in many of the world’s developing nations, notably India and China. The demand for private cars has skyrocketed in these countries to the point where pollution there is worse than in the United States.

With the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market, however, these suburban developments threaten to become ghettos, whole blocks abandoned by residents who can no longer afford the mortgages and have fled back into town. The headline of a February 15 article in the Arizona Republic stated “Growth pattern crippled Phoenix".5 Cars that allowed for the existence of these suburbs are now fully blamed for the negative role they have played in encouraging bad behavior. The automobile, tire, cement and other freeway-building industries have effectively blocked public transportation; there is no way out of these suburbs.

Trans-Am Dream Car (2005) Andrew Phelps Courtesy:the artist
Andrew Phelps Courtesy:the artist

The Down Side to Utopia

During the first part of the 20th century, artists celebrated the role of the automobile in shaping a utopian future. From the early enthusiasms of Henri Toulouse Lautrec and the Italian Futurists, artists described both the freedoms and restrictions of life bound by the movable machine. By mid-century, however, following the devastation of World War II, artists were already depicting the fraying of the myth. Swiss artist Robert Frank’s pictures from across America presage the dispassionate photographs of Stephen Shore, both artists capturing America in inglorious transition. Edward Kienholz’s assemblage Back Seat Dodge ’38, from 1964, caused a furor in Los Angeles; the work scandalized moral leaders who decried the freedom cars allowed teenagers to congregate outside the shadow of their parents. In 1974 Chris Burden was nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle to protest the Vietnam War and to protest cars as well. The transformer movies and toys of the late 20th century showed cars in their real manifestation: as killing machines.6

By the early 21st century, artists continue to see cars as villains in our daily dramas. The soft sculptures by Mexican artist Margarita Cabera harken back to the goofy objects of Claes Oldenburg, but with a

global twist. Cabrera’s soft Humvee was part of an exhibition that remade objects supposedly carried, or encountered, by migrants crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, including backpacks for the parents and kids, soft saguaro cactus and looming military Humvees. Cabrera worked with Mexican seamstresses to create her Humvees in a not-so-sly commentary on the slave-like conditions women face in the border maquilladoras (factories) that feed America’s hunger for cheap goods. Fleeing global capital, minimum wages and militarized daily life are embedded in Cabrera’s work.

During the gas crisis in the summer of 2008, when gas prices were above $4 / gallon in the United States, General Motors announced they would consider discontinuing, or selling, the division that made Humvees. A cry of joy went out across the land; earth-sensitive types thought the days of the Humvee were over. This past January, however, I began taking public transportation in Phoenix to be more environmentally conscious, and my 20-minute commute stretched out into an hour. When looking out the bus window, the cars pushing by at 50 miles per hour on our six-lane surface streets seem insane, deranged, metal rageaholics in thrall to something immaterial. I began counting Humvees, but stopped the day I counted seven. I thought they would have all been burned due to the price of oil, but it turns out they were just hiding in a garage somewhere. Nonetheless, Cabrera’s empty, ineffectual Humvee seems to presage the extinction of cars – or so I hope.

A recent story in the New York Times described how the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is littered with luxury cars abandoned by their owners, crippled by the boom-and-bust cycle of oil and construction in that Kingdom. Is it possible that the most obvious status symbol becomes the first thing jettisoned in an economic crisis?

Until the American car industry contracts, retools and produces owner-occupied vehicles that do not damage the earth, or until public transportation is afforded by everyone in this country, cars will continue to dominate our cultural psyche. Cars have wrought not only social isolation and environmental degradation here, but the ethos of mass production for maximum shareholder benefit has had ramifications well beyond our own borders. It seems the American Manifest Destiny stops at the “frontier of leisure,” with American cultural imperialism spending itself on the hood of a VW Beetle.



  1. I am drawing generally on the variety of facts and interpretations from Patty Limerick’s book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), and the exhibition catalogue The American West, curated by Jimmie Durham and William Hill (Compton Verney, United Kingdom, 2005).
  2. Deloria, Ph. J. 1999. Playing Indian. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Pp. 1-9.
  3. For great background information on the impact of cars in America, see: Wollen, P. (Ed.) 2003. Autopia: Cars and Culture. London: Reaktion Books.
  4. The final chapter of Lawrence Culver’s book forthcoming from Oxford University Press, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America, traces the specific vocabulary of the area’s development of mass housing, which evolved into one of America’s quintessential art forms.
  5. Reagnor, C. “Growth pattern crippled Phoenix.” Arizona Republic, Sunday, February 15. Pp. A 1, 18.
  6. For a broader range of art works, films, architecture and music created under the influence of cars, see the various essays in: Wollen, P. (Ed.) 2003. Autopia: Cars and Culture, 2003. London: Reaktion Books.
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