Is a Fighter Plane a Work of Art?

My family has a serious divergence of opinion over what tourist attractions to see. We invariably find a compromise, but this is followed by a lot of mostly good-natured bickering over why the other side’s idea of a hot ticket sounds totally silly. For example, as a member of my family you may enjoy/grumble about:

– notable historic sites / piles of old rocks
– fascinatingly recreated Georgian homes / dingy places with faded furniture
– flying-condition World War II aircraft / rusted old death-hulks
– cute medieval village shops / sterile, dead staging grounds for tourists
– a legendary author’s home and office / some random dude’s house
– delicately-wrought studies in painted color / smudgy paintings that don’t look real
– old locomotives / giant train things that look the same
– museum of valuable connections with our past / you mean there’s another room of Assyrian people’s heads?

To be fair, this is really impressive when it's not the five gazillionth statue you've seen in one museum.

Broadly speaking, the divisions can be oversimplified as follows: my mother and I are artsy types who go in for old homes and painting and rural scenery, and my brother and father are mechanical types who go in for railroad and airplane museums, weaponry exhibits, and engineering feats. We agree on architectural wonders, generally, and there is a subdivision wherein my father and I enjoy stern, serious Art Music. And, of course, there are exceptions to every generalization. But the family joke is that two of us would rather figure out how ridiculously complicated battleships work, and two of us would prefer to wander around looking at paintings all day.

I think this is a really interesting divergence. It also makes a great deal of sense. My father is an engineer; he finds inspiration in the ingenuity of his predecessors’ solutions to practical problems. He finds great beauty in mechanical creations–his favorite room in the British Museum is the one with all the clocks. I love the clock room, too, but that’s mostly because I enjoy seeing how all the tiny little bits and gears and widgets fit together into a seamless whole. So fragile, so reliable: there’s something aesthetically thrilling about it. Dad and Alex prefer trying to figure out how they actually work, and there is a thrill (I’m sure) to that too.

A small clock by the incomparable Thomas Mudge

We’re less fortunate with things like old fighter planes, which have little to no pure aesthetic value. Then we part ways; my mother and I dash off to some gallery full of boring stuff that’s not very useful while my father and brother gaze at boring stuff that’s not very pretty.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. (And there is, I think, a truth to root out here.) Old locomotives and Brahms symphonies are both human creations. They reach across time; they continue to affect us; they, in a sense, immortalize their creators. They are expressions of what we humans can do. As such they are spiritual objects, potentially: by that, I mean to advance a definition of “spiritual object” as an item, invented or natural, which can give us hope. Obviously, they function in that capacity very differently.

Art, great art, can be artists saying, “this is how I feel, this is what worries me, this is what gives me comfort,” and the audience can reply, “I disagree/me too!” Inventions can be artists, of a sort, saying, “this is how I solved a problem,” or, “hey, look, I made something and it works!” They’re different paths from the same starting point. What my mother and I intuit, but don’t feel, is the actual joy, the thrill, of seeing rusty metal and knowing humans poured hundreds of hours into creating this artificial made-up thing and can you believe it flies? To us, eh, flying, whatever. What my brother doesn’t get is the actual joy, the thrill, of picking up a great novel and seeing it is nothing more than an author shouting out to you saying, “Listen! This is what it’s like to be inside my soul!” and to realize, hey, we’re not so different. To him, eh, phony metaphors, someone dies at the end, whatever.

"If Othello had just acted rationally and gathered the facts, everything would be fine. Oh wait, if he was smart then there'd be no tragedy. Shakespeare was out to sell more tickets, that's all."

There’s nothing wrong with either point of view, that’s the thing. They’re different routes to the same place, different ways of relating to others and being human. My dad might wish I cared more about the workings of a diesel engine; I might wish my brother read Nabokov instead of Clancy; my mom might wish we three would pause and observe the riot of smell in a garden bed. But that’s natural. There are so many different ways to creativity that nobody can do or live them all.

So, sure, it might be difficult for us to agree on stuff to do, and we might spend some quality vacation time split into pairs as a result. But the people we should really worry about aren’t the people who hate dead composers or travel to airbases to see Spitfires or think poetry is airy fluff or obsess over old piles of rocks. The people we should really worry about are those who never do, or never get to do, creative things themselves, who never identify one of any of these means which can help make them happier, wiser, more fulfilled. Because, no matter what function a creative object serves or a creator seeks (and Shakespeare was in it for the money), creativity is there to build up the human spirit–painted canvases and rusty metal too.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Ill-Informed Opinion

One response to “Is a Fighter Plane a Work of Art?

  1. The subtext of this is that your family, like everyone else’s, got on each others’ nerves re: travel decisions. How nice that you turned it into a lovely and thoughtful post! Ha ha.

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