Topics in American Art since 1945

By Lawrence Alloway | Go to book overview
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(with Notes on Alan D'Arcangelo)


Highway culture is the hardware and sociology generated by automotive transport and the road system. In a sense, highwaymen who held up English stagecoaches were symptoms of such a sub-culture, and so were the inns where long-distance coaches stopped, as in The Pickwick Papers. However, it is not the early forms that I mean by the term which is more usefully reserved for the later specialization and proliferation on and off the road. We can now speak of a specific culture of the highway, compounded of traffic laws and speed, adaptive commerce and technology.

Highway culture is invisible because it's taken for granted, except by those who don't like it. Present campaigns against accidents on the roads, automobile-made smog, and roadside advertising have coalesced into a single anti-highway package. (Accident and smog reduction are, clearly, legitimate targets, but advertising is not a problem in the same sense.) Led by the President's wife, who jumped on an already moving wagon of anti-billboard Woman's Club opinion, with Robert Osborne as official artist, it is the embodiment of pastoral nostalgia and suburban reformism. Some of the ways in which highway culture is in sight are folkloric, which presents a difficulty in defining it. Folklore is usually regarded as a body of archaic inherited lore (such as when it's O.K. for a pregnant woman to pick radishes by the full moon); but there is another folklore which is a constellation of topical attitudes and ideas, responsive to current, rather than rustic, situations. For the present we could call it urban folklore (as a continually updated snowball of styles, images, facts) compared to rural folklore (essentially a static repository).

The highways are, as nearly as anything built for human use, new

SOURCE: From Arts Magazine, XLI/4 (February, 1967), 28-33.


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