ReadymadeI CAN PICTURE ARTIST-PROVOCATEUR MARCEL DUCHAMP—had he time traveled forward—spray-painting his name, or a clever variant, on a qualifying “Cash for Clunkers” car and declaring it ART (much like he did in 1914 with a commonplace cast-iron bottle-drying rack; “I purchased this as a sculpture already made,” he later explained in a letter to his sister). But art signifying what? Art making what kind of statement in our troubled times of meltdowns both financial and environmental? Remember, the mischievous Duchamp also turned a urinal into readymade art (Fountain), signing it “R. Mutt.”

I LIKE THIS QUERY from an eco-perspective, and the phrase “clunker readymades” as a double-entendre indictment of the auto industry, our over-reliance on automobiles for everyday conveyance, the built-in obsolescence and disposable nature of manufactured things (no “cradle to cradle” at work here) and the ramrodding of highly dubious means to an end—incentivizing the purchase of new cars as short-term economic stimulant and propping up of the auto industry is going to help us how exactly in the long term? Looks like, yet again, a short-shrift backseat position for environmental concerns.

U2_TrabantArt cars, anyone? I remember a U2 tour (“Zoo TV”) I was fortunate enough to attend in the early ’90s and its hanging Trabant cars for stage lighting and “decorative” art (the East German Trabant was symbolic of the failure of communism), and thinking, Now there’s an admirable use of decrepit cars! It sounded more reasonable than sending them south of the border to clog the streets and pollute the skies (remember all those American tail-finned classics chugging around Havana in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club).

(E Magazine recently ran a short, sharp piece on “re-tired” school buses being sent to developing countries, reporting how this is not an “environmental victory”: “[T]hough the external transformation is dazzling, the internal machinery of these buses remains the same. As heavy black smoke blows from tailpipes—filled not only with global-warming pollution but also soot and other contaminants that cause more immediate health problems—it becomes clear that this form of reuse and recycling has a dark side.”)

Let’s get back to CARS (Car Allowance Rebate System), aka “Cash for Clunkers.” So what really happens to cars that qualify for the program? Are they turned over to Habitat for Humanity and welded into Hooverville-like modular Habitrails for Humanity? Are they turned into towering stacked sculptures or unholy mountain monuments to the folly of Ford et al.? Well, that would be worthy of Mad Max if we lived “Beyond Thunderdome,” but what actually happens is this (as mandated by the program): bits and pieces are salvaged where possible after the car is turned over by the dealer to a certified disposal facility (CDF), and is then crushed or shredded (see this Christian Science Monitor story for more details). Crushed and shredded metal, undoubtedly toxic—just what the world needs more of.

OzymandiasI think we know what Duchamp would do. I can see a gargantuan chain of ancient Caddys spray-painted pink forming a heart shape visible from space—WE {HEART} THE EARTH—oh yes indeed! I’m also reminded of good ol’ Shelley’s ever-handy-to-tote-out “Ozymandias”:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It’s time we ratchet up further exploring and building those electric cars, better hybrids, alternative forms of fuel and transportation, and sink a whole bunch of money into getting people out of clunker readymades for good. Otherwise—dare I say it?—we’re all headed for a certified disposal facility.

Addendum
Considering this just-released White House announcement a positive and welcome rebuttal/counterpoint—please keep ’em coming:

President Obama Announces $2.4 Billion in Grants to Accelerate the Manufacturing and Deployment of the Next Generation of U.S. Batteries and Electric Vehicles: Recovery Act will fund 48 new advanced battery and electric drive components manufacturing and electric drive vehicle deployment projects in over 20 states

And since this is an addendum, let me add a stellar bio of Duchamp to the mix: Calvin Tomkins’ Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996). Though currently out of print, it’s well worth seeking out.

Update 9.02.09
Cash for Clunkers Upgrades Fuel Efficiency 58 Percent (from Environmental Leader): Vehicles upgraded through Cash for Clunkers gained 9.1 mpg on average, the goverment reports upon the conclusion of the Cash for Clunkers program. Read the complete story.

—Allen

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