The Magazine

MEN AT WAR AND THE PLANES THEY LOVED

May 3, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 31 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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It's past time to consider America's Second World War fighting airplanes as a body of artwork -- one of the most remarkable the world has ever seen. As artworks they are arresting and the best are gorgeous, and they have the overwhelming importance, here and now, of Banquo's ghost. They represent the lingering remains of an idea that was easily murdered but is not so easily disposed of.


To treat some object as "art" is to consider its emotional versus its practical significance -- its subjective effect on the world inside your mind as opposed to its objective significance for the world at large. To look at a Second World War airplane in this way is to consider its physical beauty and the emotional significance (positive or negative) of its history.


Throughout this century the public has felt, in mind and gut, the emotional pull of beautiful machines. The art world oscillates between fascination and revulsion. Last year, the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan held a hugely popular exhibit of motorcycles. Some critics attacked the museum for pandering, but the average motorcycle is far better art than the average minimalist abstraction by Ellsworth Kelly. The only outrageousness on display was the Guggenheim's claim (in the exhibit catalog) that it was challenging "the conventional notion of the art museum." Philip Johnson might have made that claim when he mounted the famous "Machine Art" show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1934. But to approach machinery as art has become one of the twentieth century's most characteristic maneuvers. The Guggenheim's show was deeply traditional.


You see the public's artistic predilections reflected (as if in a chrome bumper, darkly) by the ad industry in its push to sell everything from a fifty-thousand-dollar car to a fifty-cent bar of soap on the basis not of how it works but of how it makes you feel. ("There's only one Jeep," says a billboard near my office. Next to the words is a beaming smiley-face, and that's the whole ad.) Such ads might be crude or silly, but they reflect our longstanding tendency to respond emotionally to machines. You see a different and deeper aspect of the same thing in the attachment of Second World War flyers to their planes. "Her engines quickly took on a special sound unlike all other engines," writes a navigator about the day his crew picked up its own B-17. "We admired her gleaming flanks. . . . One B-17 is not like another." "Pilots," says a pilot, "come as close as anyone can to love and affection for an inanimate machine." (Jerome Klinkowitz cites these statements in his 1996 study, Yanks Over Europe.)


You can approach any machine as art, but obviously they are not all equally significant. Second World War aircraft sound a consistent emotional note; they have a theme. The theme is manliness. In America today this theme is critically important, because we are just starting to grasp (in slow nightmare horror, with a sense of gathering insanity) that we are losing our understanding of what "manliness" means.


You can't miss the theme. It permeates these airplanes like the smell of wet leaves and sweaters on a rainy spring night. A training film introduces pilots to the P-38 fighter: "It's a man's airplane." A recruiting film describes flight cadet school: "It's a man's world." A bomber pilot mentions the Distinguished Flying Cross: "In those days a pilot with a DFC was quite a man." A mechanic describes an American fighter pilot's latest exploit: "Lieutenant Hoelle is a real man." In discussing his ten-man crew, a pilot arrives at Henry V, more or less: "We had shared a unique and special brotherhood." To get men to risk everything and fly repeatedly into deadly combat, the nation advanced many powerful arguments. The clincher was: This is a manly thing to do.