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.
ANYTHING CAN BE ART IF SOMEONE WANTS IT TO BE, BUT FEW THINGS ARE GOOD ART
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.