We were somewhere north of Phoenix on the edge of the desert when the aesthetics of the highway began to take hold. This came as a surprise, at least to me. My friend, who was doing most of the driving that day, is the open-minded, take-what-comes-at-you sort, but I’m much more suggestible—when I go to parties, I usually end up having as good or bad a time as I suspect I’m going to have; when I do drugs, I have whatever kind of experience I think I’m going to have, etc. I’d agreed to fly to Arizona and go on this road trip partly because Covid- 19 had made living in New York a highly expensive waiting game, but also because I’d read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and watched Two-Lane Blacktop. I thought I knew what a road trip was like, and I approved. In other words, I assumed I would be taking in lots of beautiful mountains, hoodoos, cacti, and canyons, and metabolizing their beauty into life experience. I did, too: in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas.
Looking back on our road trip through the desert, though, it’s the road, not the desert, that has stuck with me. In a sense, the highway is desert—the concrete is made from the rocks lying around it and the asphalt from the petroleum flowing underneath—but its presence in the Southwest is a point-by-point rebuttal to the desert’s ways of being: the highway is artificial where the desert is natural, smooth where the desert is jagged, predictable where the desert is volatile. For more than a century, highways have survived rain, snow, fires, hurricanes, and tornados, but when the city shrinks in the rearview mirror and the desert takes its place, the highway seems frail, always on the verge of thinning to nothingness—or so it struck us that day. Because we’d both grown up in Arizona, we tended to take the desert for granted, just as we took shade and air- conditioning for granted. But the highway helped us see what was always hidden in plain view: the open road brought civilization into focus by reducing it to a thin line, made civilization’s persistence at once more absurd and more heroic than it had ever seemed to me before.
More than 164,000 miles long; begun in 1921; expanded in 1956 to the tune of 26 billion tax dollars, in part for the purpose of national defense—the National Highway System is the biggest and most elaborate art project in American history. It has thousands of creators, most of whom never thought of themselves as artists, though if professional plagiarist Richard Prince gets to call himself one, I must insist that the engineers and designers behind the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway also deserve the title. Half a century ago, artist Tony Smith (in a 1966 Artforum interview) and critic Reyner Banham (in his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971) waxed poetic about the art-like effects that expressways can produce on landscapes and within drivers and passengers. But these days nobody really thinks of highways as art, which is fine by me—I am neither clever nor stupid enough to believe I can settle the “what is art?” debate, but I will say (borrowing from Georgia O’Keeffe, a Southwestern resident who knew a thing or two about such matters) that a highway is art because it is space filled beautifully. The highest compliment I can give, however, is that the highway doesn’t care what I name it—it benefits not one iota from my naming and, if anything, might be hurt by it. The federal government spends hundreds of millions a year on military marching bands, but other than those and the occasional monument, it’s highly suspicious of big, elaborate artworks, which by default become the responsibility of a private sector that barely cares about them at all. Which is to say: if politicians will vote to fund art only when they’re convinced the art in question is really a way of shipping troops from point A to point B or evacuating cities in nuclear war, so be it.
It is strange that the late Dave Hickey, who rarely missed a chance to say that something that didn’t seem like art actually was, never published an essay about highways. The closest he came is probably “Earthscapes, Landworks and Oz,” which appeared in this magazine in 1971. Hickey’s subject was a bumper crop of Land art that included Michael Heizer’s Black Dye and Powder Dispersal (1968) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970): eloquently mute sculptures of dirt and rock that struck some as alternatives to mainstream art but, as Hickey pretty definitively showed, were anything but. The last time I read this essay, the memory of road tripping was still fresh enough to make me wonder if Smithson, Heizer, and the other Land art pioneers were latecomers, doing the same things the Federal Highway Administration had been doing for the previous decade; rearranging earth into rectangles and spirals that accentuated the desolation of the West yet could be traced back to most decadent coastal cities. Highways confirm Hickey’s argument with a point-by-point neatness that’s almost eerie, e.g., his paradoxical claim that Land art is Pop art’s secret sibling. The highway is Land and Pop art at the same time, offering both a Smithson-esque solidity and the Warholian deadpan of a caution sign by a canyon. It has more in common with the creative mainstream than one would think, though I prefer highways—aesthetic marvels wrapped in Cold War politics—to the progressive politics clumsily disguised as art that one now finds in most galleries.
Driving on I-10 as we did for 700-some miles of our trip, inspires a queasy mixture of feelings: you’re alert yet spacey, half-awake and half-asleep. The whole thing is reminiscent of gallery-going in Chelsea in February, when you shake with the cold and caffeine but the white walls lull you into a trancelike calm. Except that on the 10, the stakes are higher: surrender unconditionally to highway hypnosis and you could end up a statistic, commemorated by a pile of white pebbles. In the interest of keeping body counts low, highway design seems to split the difference between alertness and numbness. A well-built highway is just unpredictable enough to keep drivers vigilant but just predictable enough to spare them from losing their minds or straining their eyes. Hence the highway’s typical shape—straight lines joined by spiral exchange curves, which force the driver to make small, steady adjustments to the steering wheel—as well as its typical ornamentation: regularly spaced signs, lights, and dotted white lines, which remain soothingly, monotonously uniform, no matter how fast or far a driver goes.
When you have no better way of assessing your progress than in tiny shifts in the relative positions of mountains, speed registers as a question of inches per hour, not miles. Progress in general takes on a lightly ironic flavor: the faster you drive, the slower and more futile driving comes to seem, until you feel like the arrow from Zeno’s paradox, motionless in midflight. “The great visions of art, no matter how difficult they may be to express or to comprehend,” Jed Perl wrote in a 2004 New Republic piece called “Beyond Belief,” “are always fundamentally simple.” Vision-wise, the highway is more a reminder than a revelation—but, as Perl clearly knows, some reminders have the force of revelations. In A.D. 2020, mid-pandemic, neither I nor my friend needed to be reminded that existence can feel futile. As we drove east on the 10, however, we remembered that futility can be fun, as long as the scenery is sublime and the curves are smooth.
By connecting America’s cities, claims an enduring critique of the 1956 Highway Act, highways turned the country into one big mall. Regionalism dissolved in the acid of nationalism; the dullest parts of the culture metastasized and killed almost everything else. This might be a fair summary of postwar American social history, though it would be obtuse to put too much blame on highways themselves—had the Act never passed, I have to imagine, the corporate caste would have mall-ified America by some other means. Better to think of the highway system as a neutral multiplier of whatever it’s fed, which explains why you cannot drive from Arizona to Texas without encountering and reencountering a funhouse mirror version of all that is cheesy and evil and creepy about our society: the same restaurants selling heart attacks; the same gas stations selling environmental ruin; the same billboards selling disposable razors and eternal salvation.
I was well and truly tired of these things by the time we made it to East Texas. But I also think they failed—gloriously failed—to represent what the powers that be intended them to represent. As the church steeple in Starry Night is dwarfed by the cypress tree yet makes the tree’s splendor comprehensible, the billboards we passed posed a challenge to the sky and the mountains, lost their bid, and in losing, revealed the sky and mountains for what they really are: protagonists of a timeless story in which the billboards get only a few lines. Nature defeats American mass culture on the highway—for that matter, American mass culture defeats itself on the highway, as it does not in a city or on the Internet. Standing alone by the asphalt, whether as a billboard or a building or a neon sign, it can’t help but confess its most embarrassing secret, that it needs us far more than we need it.
Good triumphed over evil, nature triumphed over consumerism, my friend and I drove off into the landscape—basically, the highway had told us a story with a happy ending. But I think I would have enjoyed myself even if the story had ended some other way. I loved having my expectations twisted more than I loved the story itself, and I love that if I went on another road trip tomorrow the story would be at least slightly different, maybe completely so. The same themes would be there (Land art and Pop art, alertness and numbness, nature and civilization, the absurd and the aimless and the ironic), but I imagine they’d mix some other way, depending on who I was with and where we felt like going. It’s odd to consider how few contemporary artworks one can truly say this about: how few are truly open- ended enough to allow their viewers to make choice after choice and discovery after discovery.
Creating that kind of art, critic Fintan O’Toole wrote in the New York Review of Books this past July, was one of the most dazzling dreams of the midcentury American avant-garde. By assembling objects or images, or by introducing a measure of randomness into their work, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, et al. seemed to question the act of artistic production and trust their audience to make (and do) the work themselves. “The great irony of this period,” O’Toole tartly notes, “is that not only do radical artists not disappear into their works—they become stars. In the very act of abdication, they are enthroned.” Here’s an even greater irony: at the same time that American avant-gardists were trying to rewrite the definition of art without sacrificing their own livelihoods, the highway emerged as an American spectacle more anonymous, more open-ended, and more committed to its audience’s freedom than the avant-garde could afford to be—and because it was so successful in all these respects, nobody in the art world noticed. This was probably for the best. Decades later, while gallery art, anti-art, and anti-anti-art burrow further into themselves, the neutral multiplier goes on multiplying.