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14: The Arts and the City, 1913-1940

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    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, new technologies radically reshaped space and time for urban Americans. Steel frame construction-along with the invention of the elevator-allowed buildings to soar to unprecedented heights. Since a grid of steel did the work of holding up the building, the exterior was left free for any decorative program. At first tall buildings were sheathed in stone, replicating familiar classical or Gothic forms from the past. Eventually, however, architectural modernism transformed the look of the tall office building, sheathing it in curtain walls of glass that imparted weightlessness and the crystaline luminosity of incandescence and reflection. The skyscraper imposed new perspectives that blasted apart older ways of understanding the city. From painting and sculpture to film, animation, and the decorative arts, the skyscraper came to symbolize modernity in all its anxious promise.

    A new consumer culture arose, enshrined in department stores and store window displays, and tantalized by new leisure industries such as amusement parks and cinema that accelerated the pursuit of pleasure and private fantasy. Fueling consumer fantasies was a landscape of visual signage-billboards, electric lighting, and neon- that enlarged the scale and the intensity of commercial messages, injecting private needs and desires into the public landscape of the city.

    In Chicago and New York, the elevated railroad, or El, sped urban dwellers across the city. The effect was to compress time and space. Not only did distances appear shorter, but the sustained experience of walking was now displaced by a discontinuous montage of rapid-fire impressions. As travelers saw the urban landscape flash by, they glimpsed into apartment interiors, further collapsing the distinction between public and private. The condensation of time and space was intensified by the use of telephones. Instantaneous communication with people on the other side of the city, or the country, created a new experience of simultaneity. This effect was enhanced by the motion picture, which carried "live" images of people and places removed in time and space. An awareness of simultaneity was distinctly modern, liberating the imagination to radically recompose the spatial and temporal continuities of older experience. Reality itself appeared to be newly malleable, as the natural laws of the past were reconfigured by new technologies.

    All these features of urban modernity made a profound mark on the arts. Modernism-itself a response to city life-furnished an awareness with which to apprehend the fractured perceptual and physical environment of the modern city. While artists had embraced these new urban energies in the 1910s, by the 1920s they were more cautious. Some tried to stabilize these energies by locking them into place with hard-edged forms that eliminated the human dimension. Other artists, still attached to the figure and to the public and private search for human meaning, turned to the streets and sidewalks, the tawdry and the worn underbelly of the city, for inspiration. They also explored the excitements of a new urban identity. There, at the margins of the modern, they reimagined a city of layered memories and an expanded sense of time.

    Thumbnail: WILLIAM VAN ALEN, Chrysler Building, New York City, 1928-32.

    This page titled 14: The Arts and the City, 1913-1940 is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.