American modernism 1910 – 1935

As a name for the mainstream tendency in 20th-century abstract art ‘modernism’ came into widespread usage only in the 1960s It was applied to the Abstract Expressionists and to contemporary hard-edge painting, colour field painting and abstract sculpture, most influentially by the American critic Clement Greenberg Its lineage was traced back to Manet as the initiator of a sequence of formal innovations, particularly those that lessened illusionism in painting and mimeticism in sculpture Reflecting the economic and cultural ascendency of the USA and the enormous power of the New York art market, this viewpoint became orthodox internationally It was, however, subject to subversion by Pop and Minimalist artists and to devastating criticism by conceptual, political and feminist artists and commentators By the early 1970s it was displaced as a paradigm for most artists, although it persists in many museums, galleries and educational systems

American modernism, much like the modernism movement in general, is a trend of philosophical thought arising from the widespread changes in culture and society in the age of modernity American modernism is an artistic and cultural movement in the United States beginning at the turn of the 20th century, with a core period between World War I and World War II Like its European counterpart, American modernism stemmed from a rejection of Enlightenment thinking, seeking to better represent reality in a new, more industrialized world

Characteristically, modernist art has a tendency to abstraction, is innovative, aesthetic, futuristic and self-referential It includes visual art, literature, music, film, design, architecture as well as life style It reacts against historicism, artistic conventions and institutionalization of art Art was not only to be dealt with in academies, theaters or concert halls, but to be included in everyday life and accessible for everybody Furthermore, cultural institutions concentrated on fine art and scholars paid little attention to the revolutionary styles of modernism Economic and technological progress in the US during the Roaring Twenties gave rise to widespread utopianism, which influenced some modernist artists, while others were skeptical of the embrace of technology The victory in World War I confirmed the status of the US as an international player and gave the people self-confidence and a feeling of security In this context American modernism marked the beginning of American art as distinct and autonomous from European taste by breaking artistic conventions that had been shaped after European traditions until then

American modernism benefited from the diversity of immigrant cultures Artists were inspired by African, Caribbean, Asian and European folk cultures and embedded these exotic styles in their works

The Modernist American movement is a reflection of American life in the 20th century In this quickly industrializing world and hastened pace of life, it is easy for the individual to be swallowed up by the vastness of things; left wandering, devoid of purpose Social boundaries in race, class, sex, wealth, and religion are all being challenged As the social structure is challenged by new incoming views the bounds of traditional standards and social structure dissolve and a loss of identity is all that remains; translating later into isolation, alienation, and an overall feeling of separateness from any kind of “whole” The unity of a war rallied country was dying, along with it the illusion of the pleasantries it sold to its soldiers and people The world was left violent, vulgar, and spiritually empty

The middle class worker falls into a distinctly unnoticeable position, a cog much too small to hope to find recognition in much greater machine Citizens were overcome with their own futility Youths dreams shatter with failure and a disillusioning disappointment in recognition of limit and loss The lives of the disillusioned and outcasts become more focal Ability to define self through hard work and resourcefulness, to create your own vision of yourself without the help of traditional means becomes prized Some authors endorse this, while others, such as F Scott Fitzgerald, challenged how alluring but destructively false the values of privilege can be

History

Characteristically, modernist art has a tendency to abstraction, is innovative, aesthetic, futuristic and self-referential. It includes visual art, literature, music, film, design, architecture as well as life style. It reacts against historicism, artistic conventions and institutionalization of art. Art was not only to be dealt with in academies, theaters or concert halls, but to be included in everyday life and accessible for everybody. Furthermore, cultural institutions concentrated on fine art and scholars paid little attention to the revolutionary styles of modernism. Economic and technological progress in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties gave rise to widespread utopianism, which influenced some modernist artists, while others were skeptical of the embrace of technology. The victory in World War I confirmed the status of the U.S. as an international player and gave the people self-confidence and a feeling of security. In this context, American modernism marked the beginning of American art as distinct and autonomous from European taste, by breaking artistic conventions that had been shaped after European traditions until then.

American modernism benefited from the diversity of immigrant cultures. Artists were inspired by African, Caribbean, Asian and European folk cultures and embedded these exotic styles in their works.

The Modernist American movement was a reflection of American life in the 20th century. In the quickly industrializing world and hastened pace of life, it was easy for the individual to be swallowed up by the vastness of things, left wandering, devoid of purpose. Social boundaries in race, class, sex, wealth and religion were being challenged. As the social structure was challenged by new incoming views, the bounds of traditional standards and social structure dissolved, and a loss of identity was what remained, translating eventually into isolation, alienation and an overall feeling of separateness from any kind of “whole”. The unity of a war-rallied country was dying, along with it the illusion of the pleasantries it sold to its soldiers and people. The world was left violent, vulgar and spiritually empty.

The middle class worker fell into a distinctly unnoticeable position, a cog much too small to hope to find recognition in a much greater machine. Citizens were overcome with their own futility. Youths’ dreams shattered with failure and a disillusioning disappointment in recognition of limit and loss. The lives of the disillusioned and outcasts became more focal. Ability to define self through hard work and resourcefulness, to create your own vision of yourself without the help of traditional means, became prized. Some authors endorsed this, while others, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, challenged how alluring but destructively false the values of privilege can be.

Modernist America had to find common ground in a world no longer unified in belief. The unity found lay in the common ground of the shared consciousness within all human experience. The importance of the individual was emphasized; the truly limited nature of the human experience formed a bond across all bridges of race, class, sex, wealth or religion. Society, in this way, found shared meaning, even in disarray.

Some see modernism in the tradition of 19th century aestheticism and the “art for art’s sake” movement. Clement Greenberg argues that modernist art excludes “anything outside itself”. Others see modernist art, for example in blues and jazz music, as a medium for emotions and moods, and many works dealt with contemporary issues, like feminism and city life. Some artists and theoreticians even added a political dimension to American modernism.

American modernist design and architecture enabled people to lead a modern life. Work and family life changed radically and rapidly due to the economic upswing during the 1920s. In the U.S., the car became popular and affordable for many, leisure time and entertainment gained importance and the job market opened up for women. In order to make life more efficient, designers and architects aimed at the simplification of housework.

The Great Depression at the end of the ’20s and during the ’30s disillusioned people about the economic stability of the country and eroded utopianist thinking. The outbreak and the terrors of World War II caused further changes in mentality. The Post-war period that followed was termed Late Modernism. The Postmodernist era was generally considered characteristic of the art of the late 20th century beginning in the 1980s.

American icons in the European mind

Definition of “American icon”

This section focuses on people and objects that represent American modernism. Generally speaking, these famous human beings and well-known objects are called icons since, apart from radiating an aura of uniqueness as well as originality (cf. Wagner 2006: 121.), they sparked public interest in this period and have had a lasting influence on future generations (cf. Czech 2006: 27–28). Thus, they serve as focal points for collective memory or identity at present (cf. ibid.). Even some people in Europe still recognize them as symbols of American modernism.

The medial/public depiction lays the foundation stone for the creation of icons. In this way, a certain image of a biological person or a real object (signifier) is produced and becomes the signified (cf. Volkmann 2006: 94–96). The emanated configuration of signs (cf. ibid. 96) helps turn the signified into an icon, if it captures the atmosphere of a particular period/country and is acknowledged by contemporary societies as well as future generations.

New York City

New York City is one of the most iconic cities in the United States and one of the major global cities of the world due to its important business, financial, trading and cultural organizations, such as Wall Street, United Nations, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and Broadway theaters with their (in that time innovative) electric lighting. It is regarded as the birthplace of many American cultural movements, including the Harlem Renaissance in literature and abstract expressionism in visual art.

New York City is iconic not only for Americans, but also for many Europeans as the city of melting pot where many ethnic groups live, often in specific neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, Little Italy. In American modernism, New York became the first stop for immigrants seeking a better life. The city’s population boomed, 5 boroughs were formed, the New York City Subway was opened and became a symbol of progress and innovation. The city saw construction of skyscrapers in the skyline.

“Take New York City skyline, for example – that ragged man-made Sierra at the eastern edge of the continent. Clearly, in the minds of immigrants and returning travelers, in the iconography of the admen who use it as a backdrop for the bourbon and airplane luggage they are selling, the eyes of poets and of military strategies, it is one of the prime symbols” (Kouwenhoven 1998: 124). Iconic is especially the Manhattan skyline and its structural properties. It is regarded as a symbol of American progress and competition in height, creativity of structure, advancement and efficiency. It is considered an icon of “architectural individualism” (cf. ibid. 125). The typical gridiron pattern of the city’s streets is an icon of simplicity (cf. ibid 127), while vertical steel construction of many stories is an icon of progress and innovation.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is regarded as a film icon. Born in London, and while not a U.S. citizen, he had a strong sense of belonging to American society. Chaplin became famous after starring in his first film, Making a Living, (1914). As a 10-year-old boy “he worked as a mime on the British vaudeville circuit”. The fact that he was once very poor inspired his Tramp’s trademark. He created a distorted version of a formal dinner suit (as a symbol of an adult man personified) combined with the attitude of an innocent child.

He was the first and the last person who was in charge of every aspect of making his films. He started his own film studio United Artists; was in charge of directing, writing, editing, producing and casting the films in which he played. It is said that he changed the film industry into an art form in the first decades of the 20th century. It was his personality, and his genius with “expressive grace”, “endless inventiveness” and creativity that made him an American icon He preferred making silent films, (he made more than 75 silent films) setting the acting and the plot in the center of the action. His best known films are The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936)

He was so highly recognizable that a movement of “Chaplinitis” was formed by 1920. There were Chaplin songs, dances, comic books, dolls, and cocktails. Poems were written about him and his pantomime. The Beat Generation (of writers) made him one of its icons. In the ’80s IBM took the Tramp for the logo in their advertisements of personal computers

“Every few weeks, outside the movie theater in virtually any American town in the late 1910s, stood the life-size cardboard figure of a small tramp—outfitted in tattered, baggy pants, a cutaway coat and vest, impossibly large, worn-out shoes and a battered derby hat—bearing the inscription I AM HERE TODAY”. “The endearing figure of his Little Tramp was instantly recognizable around the globe and brought laughter to millions. Still is. Still does”

During the McCarthy era he was attacked and condemned by some for the increasingly politicized messages of his films; and he was accused of “anti-American activities” and of being a suspected communist supporter. He maintained his British citizenship, and after a trip to England in 1952 and for many years he wasn’t allowed to re-enter the U.S. Finally in 1972 he triumphantly returned and was awarded an honorary Oscar. He is perceived today as an American film icon due to the charm and brilliance of his films.

The Model-T Ford

Icons are usually capable of conveying, on the one hand, awareness of tradition and, on the other hand, the notion of progress (cf. www.ikonothek.de). At this point, it is worth mentioning some concepts of modernism in the U.S., namely the sense of forward-looking contemporaneity (Wilk 2006: 2) the be-lief in the power and potential of the machine and industrial technology (ibid. 3) and the emphasis on process (Kouwenhoven 1998: 133–136). All these aspects can be associated with the 1913 Model-T Ford. By using assembly-line systems, Henry Ford and his men applied continuous-process principles (Strasser 1989: 6) during its production. What should be mentioned, in this context, is the fact many unskilled immigrants were employed by the expanded Ford factory in order to meet the increasing demand for this material icon of American modernism on the emerging mass market. In consequence, the foreign workers’ contribution also underscored the myth of The American Melting Pot (see also: Meyer 1998).

Today, the Model-T Ford continues to represent the idea of process and mobility. Therefore, although modernism aimed at rejecting any form of tradition and history, this icon, interestingly, transmits, up to a certain degree, a sense of tradition.

Everyday life and culture

The modernist movement caused vast changes in societies in which it took place. With the introduction of industrial developments, the American people started to enjoy the outcome of the new modernist era. Everyday life and culture are the areas that reflected the social change in the habits of the society. Developments that occurred with modernism influenced American people life standards and gave way to new style of living.

Widespread use of electricity and mass production of technological house appliances like refrigerator brought about the change of eating habits of American people. Use of frozen food became more common. After the war the U.S. government passed new laws concerning food. So some new foods came right out of the ration kits to the stores. “Foods formerly manufactured solely for army use were put on the civilian market”, Frozen and dried food products also became popular after the war. National Research Corporation of Boston introduced frozen orange juice concentrate called “tang.” The company became Minute Maid, and, by 1950, a quarter of Florida’s orange crop was going into concentrates. The frozen product quickly overtook fresh squeezed orange juice in most American homes. Full frozen meals were not far behind. In the 1950s, a Nebraska company Swanson’s brought out their TV Dinners to great success.

These changes in eating habits caused huge changes in appliances, transportation and farming. Since people began buying the new products, new refrigerators were quickly developed with bigger freezer sections Shock resistant refrigerator units for trucks had to be invented and used by the military before frozen products could distributed and marketed around the country and around the world. These developments forced farmers to change what they grew and how they grew their products to meet new consumer demands.

In the following are there a few of the foods that were first produced and sold in the 1940s.

– Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks

– Cheerios (first sold as Cheeri Oats, the first ready-to-eat oat cereal) and Kellogg’s Raisin Bran

– Minute Rice

– Reddi-Whip whipped cream

– Nestles Quick powdered drink mix

– Packaged cake mixes

– M&Ms Chocolate Candies, Peppermint Patty, Junior Mints, Almond Joy, Whoppers malted milk balls, Jolly Rancher Candies

– Deep Dish Pizza (Pizzeria Uno, Chicago)

With the increasing number of automobiles, American people started to get out of their homes and had dinner outside. However, during the war people drove their cars as little as possible. Gas and tires were limited by the government. Car production ceased as factories had to manufacture tanks, Jeeps and other military vehicles. After the war families piled into cars again, as a consequence, new highways were built. The number of drive-ins increased immediately. Drive-ins became part of the social life in America by the end of 1940.

Modernism showed its effects nearly in all areas. One of the immense developments was to supply the rural areas with the electricity. The REA, Rural Electrification Administration, began in the 1930s, however, it took time to build power lines scores of miles into rural areas. Throughout the 1940s, the REA continued to build the electricity lines.

Electricity changed the lives of farm families, from the moment they got up early in the morning, through meals, chores, and work until they went to bed at night. Electricity brought power for lights to work, read, and sew at night; power for appliances like refrigerators and freezers to preserve food; power for small kitchen devices such as mixers and blenders; and power for other labor saving devices such as electric stoves, irons and clothes washers. Electricity brought changes that just made life safer and better – like colored lights instead of dangerous candles on Christmas trees, refrigerators to keep food fresh and electric fans to bring relief on a hot summer day.

In 1930, only 13 percent of farms had electricity.

By the early 1940s, only 33 percent of farms had electricity.

Locally in York, Nebraska, the Perennial Public Power District had strung nearly 250 miles of electric line to more than 500 customers by September 1945.

By 1950 nearly all of Nebraska farms were “hooked up”, and electricity replaced kerosene lanterns in homes and barns.

There were some crucial steps taken in the communication and media devices like the invention of radio and television.

Radio was the nation’s first mass medium, linking the country and ending the isolation of rural residents. Radio was so important that the 1930 Census asked if the household had a radio. Radio provided free entertainment (after you bought the radio) and connected country people to world events. Walter Winchell and Lowell Thomas were popular news commentators on the radio.

Families laughed at comedians Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Amos and Andy, and Fibber McGee and Molly.

Radio featured daytime soap operas.

In the evening, people listened to the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, The Shadow, and Jack Armstrong.

Singers Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers, as well as Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and the Grand Ole Opry were popular.

Families listened to baseball, cheering for stars like Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. Nearly 40 million people listened to the horserace between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in Maryland.

In news coverage, the German airship Hindenburg caught fire in 1937 as it landed in New Jersey. Thousands of people across the country heard Herb Morrison describe the terrifying scene on live radio, saying “Oh the humanity!”

The first practical TV sets were demonstrated and sold to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The sets were very expensive and New York City had the only broadcast station. When World War II started, all commercial production of television equipment was banned. Production of the cathode ray tubes that produced the pictures was redirected to radar and other high tech war uses. After the war television was something few had heard of. That changed quickly. In 1945, a poll asked Americans, “Do you know what television is?” Most didn’t. But four years later, most Americans had heard of television and wanted one! According to one survey in 1950, before they got a TV, people listened to radio an average of nearly five hours a day. Within nine months after they bought a TV they listened to radio, but only for two hours a day. They watched TV for five hours a day. The 1940s TVs didn’t look like today’s televisions. Most had picture screens between 10 and 15 inches wide diagonally, inside large, heavy cabinets. And, of course, color broadcasts and sets didn’t arrive until much later, in 1954.

Jazz

Early in the 20th century, jazz evolved from the blues tradition, but also incorporated many other musical and cultural elements. In New Orleans, often considered the birthplace of jazz, musicians benefited from the influx of Spanish and French colonial influences. In this city, a unique ethnic cultural mix and looser racial prohibitions allowed African Americans more influence than in other regions of the South. The Spanish–American War brought Northern soldiers to the region with their bands. The resulting music adopted sounds from the new brass instruments. During the Great Migration, jazz spread from New Orleans to New York, Chicago, and other cities, incorporating new sounds along the way. Harlem, New York City, became the new center for the jazz age.

Visual arts

There is no single date for the beginning of the modern era in America, as dozens of painters were active at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the time when the first cubist landscapes, still-life and portraits appeared; bright colors entered the palettes of painters, and the first non-objective paintings were displayed in the galleries.

Feminism

Starting from the early 19th century, some women used the doctrines of the ideal femaleness to avoid the isolation of the domestic sphere. By the 1830s, women were openly challenging the women’s sphere and demanding greater political, economic and social rights. They formed women’s clubs and benevolent societies all over the U.S. Male domination of the public arena was no longer within acceptable limits to many of these middle-class activist women. Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, American feminists held state and national conventions until the early 20th century. Some spokeswomen of the feminist movement connected the feminist cause with free love and the sexual revolution, which were the taboo issues of the Victorian Age. Therefore, feminists in both Britain and the United States concentrated on political and legal issues, the vote in particular, and other important women’s issues regarding the domestic roles of women and the organization of domestic life in general. Eventually, after a long and hard struggle that included massive, sometimes violent protests, the imprisonment of many women, and even some deaths, the battle for women’s suffrage was won. The suffrage law was passed in the United States in 1920 for women who were householders or wives of householders and in 1928 for all adult women. (African-American women were not included. They only received the right to vote in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.) The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 by a group of feminists. The largest women’s rights group in the U.S. NOW aimed to end sexual discrimination, especially in the workplace, by means of legislative lobbying, litigation, and public demonstrations. The following years of the late 20th century witnessed a great expansion of women’s rights in all areas of the modern society. Modernist artists had an ambivalent attitude towards feminism: on the one hand they opted for equal treatment of men and women with regard to law, franchise, and professions; on the other hand they still had the perceived female inadequacies in terms of biology, culture, and transcendence in mind. As the radical feminist Emma Goldman proclaimed, “true liberation begins neither at the polls nor in courts [but rather] in a woman’s soul”。

Fashion

Referring to fashion, usually one would think of dressing styles or costumes. Of course, dressing style is a very important category of the word “fashion”. On the other hand, “fashion” has more meanings and could be explained and found in many other fields, such as architecture, body type, dance and music, and even forms of speech, etc.

Literature

American modernist literature was a dominant trend in American literature between World War I and World War II. The modernist era highlighted innovation in the form and language of poetry and prose, as well as addressing numerous contemporary topics, such as race relations, gender and the human condition. Many American modernists became expatriated in Europe during this time, often becoming stalwarts in the European movement, as was the case for T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. These writers were often known as The Lost Generation.

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