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American modernism


American modernism

American modernism, like modernism in general, is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation, and is thus in its essence both progressive and optimistic. American modernism is an artistic and cultural movement in the United States starting at the turn of the 20th century with its core period between World War I and World War II and continuing into the 21st century.


  • Background 1
  • History 2
  • Jazz 3
    • Jazz – music of integration 3.1
    • Jazz as American 3.2
    • Jazz as modern 3.3
  • Visual arts 4
    • American modernist painting 4.1
    • Main schools and movements of American modernism 4.2
      • Modernist painting 4.2.1
      • Modernist photography 4.2.2
  • Feminism, gender, and sexuality 5
    • Development of feminism 5.1
    • Gender and sexuality 5.2
  • American icons in the European mind 6
    • Definition of "American icon" 6.1
    • New York City 6.2
      • Charlie Chaplin 6.2.1
    • The Model-T Ford 6.3
  • Everyday life and culture 7
    • Fashion 7.1
  • American modernist literature 8
    • The new criticism in America 8.1
  • Architecture and space 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
    • Arts references 11.1
    • American icons in the European mind references 11.2
    • Feminism, gender, and sexuality references 11.3
    • Jazz references 11.4
    • Everyday life and culture references 11.5
  • External links 12


The idea that individual human beings can define themselves through their own inner resources and create their own vision of existence without help from family, fellow citizens, or tradition is a large trend. The general term covers many political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

David Harvey’s definition of modernism, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity,[1] is grounded in and evolves from Baudelaire’s essay, The Painter of Modern Life, as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one-half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable,”. He draws attention to the “paradoxical unity” in this definition; the American modernist movement expressed the short-lived and the unchanging aspects of a cultural and political upheaval from the late 19th to the better part of the 20th century. Most modernist works were publicized before 1914, which made it a pre-war movement; however, America along with the countries involved in world wars, modernism "needed the desperate convulsions of the great struggle, the crashing of regimes it precipitated, to give [it] the radical political dimension it had hitherto lacked."[2] Within the context of America's involvement in two world wars, its economic depression, the rise of socialism and the threat of democratic capitalism, “intellectual and aesthetic” modernism presented a philosophy to break free from. In the 1960s, people grew “antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality....”.[1] Modernism—in general—evolved from Enlightenment philosophies, yet rejected all historical reference. “Modernity”, writes Harvey, “can have no respect even for its own past...”, it must embrace a meaning collected and defined “within the maelstrom of change”.[1] Enlightenment thinkers collectively gathered the individual efforts working “freely and creatively for the pursuit of human emancipation and the enrichment of daily life”.[1] Early modernists married to the Enlightenment ideal—the progressiveness, the break with history, the embrace of the “transitory”, the “fleeting”, and the “maelstrom of change”—yet, with the lacuna of war, these optimistic views were abandoned. Out of the vestiges of war-times, modernism became wary of the “relation between means and ends”[1] as socialist governments began to take form. With ties to the rejection of history, modernists attached to the idea of “creative destruction”. In order to make something new, the old must be abandoned and/or dissembled. Much of this concept of “creative destruction” is mirrored in the cubist movement. The historical contexts of reality as a basis for idealism (as apparent in Enlightenment thinking), becomes a blurring of the lines and angles of reality, and the rejection of idealism. Modernists embraced machinery, language as a mechanism for communication, as the bastion of political and cultural rationality. From this evolved definition, “It meant that, for the first time in the history of modernism, artistic and cultural, as well as ‘progressive’ political revolt had to be directed at a powerful version of modernism itself.”[1]

Art became as established elite and modernist philosophy seeped into the institutionalized aspects of life that modernists had initially breaking from. Needless to say, modernism “lost its appeal as a revolutionary antidote”.[1] It was in these contexts that the anti-modernist movements of the 1960s began to take shape and pave the way for the emergence of postmodernism in America.


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 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 other, such as Fitzgerald, challenge how alluring but destructively false the values of the privileged 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 is emphasized; the truly limited nature of the human experience forms 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 is termed Late Modernism. The Postmodernist era is generally considered characteristic of the art of the late 20th century beginning in the 1980s.


For a wider, more formal account, please see Jazz and Jazz Age.

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.[3] 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.[4]

Jazz – music of integration

Jazz music, as a central element of American culture, has its roots in Black slave culture. The music combined elements from African call and response patterns into its instrumentation and riffs.[5] In its beginnings jazz was looked critically upon by parts of the white population, who thought that jazz and ragtime rhythms were "savage crash and bang,"[6] and denigrated the genre as a product "not of innovators, but of incompetents."[7] Its expressive and pulsating style initially served racial stereotypes in the public mind and was widely encountered with skeptical rejection. Despite this phenomenon of animosity towards a rising Black cultural significance, American writer Lawrence W. Levine interprets the role of jazz as a catalyst of a shifting national consciousness:

Culturally, we remained to a much larger extent than we have yet recognized, a colonized people attempting to define itself in the shadow of the former imperial power. Jazz was an expression of that other side of ourselves that strove to recognize the positive aspects of our newness and our heterogeneity; that learned to be comfortable with the fact that a significant part of our heritage derived from Africa and other non-European sources; and that recognized in the various syncretized cultures that became so characteristic of the United States an embarrassing weakness but a dynamic source of strength.[8]

After all, it was in the nature of jazz to strive for cultural convergence between blacks and whites; according to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, "Jazz has always been a music of integration."[9] During the 1920s and 1930s jazz gained considerably in popularity and aroused increasing interest in young whites who were attracted by the artistic, personal as well as cultural freedom of expression this new musical form had to offer. Well-known white musicians such as Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Milton Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier or Joe Sullivan were inspired by Afro-American icons like Louis Armstrong. The acceptance of jazz soon spread across the Atlantic and, by the mid-20th century, made it international. Today, jazz music is regarded as an integral and vibrant part of American culture, the unique native music of America, a worldwide representative of Afro-American culture.

Jazz as American

A compilation article appearing in The New York Times in 1923 proclaimed jazz, "...a contribution of America to the arts. It is recognized the world over as part of a musical folk lore of this country: it is as thoroughly and typically American as the Monroe Doctrine or the Fourth of July, or baseball."[10]

Jazz's American-ness begins with its roots. Jazz was a product of the African Americans, a cultural group distinct to America. Though the early blues sang distinctly of the sorrows of a displaced people, jazz was something else. The African American labor class who gave birth to jazz were not subject to the education of other white musicians; black minstrels were able to escape the pressure to "Europeanize" their art. Culture (with a capital C) essentially demanded that Americans prefer, commend, and reiterate all things European. Free from these constraints, jazz progressed in an uncharted manner.[11] In 1925, Irving Berlin called jazz "American folk music" and cited influences ranging from "old Southern Songs" and the "Negro spirituals", to a "tinge of the Russian and Italian folk songs", but Berlin concluded that it was "typically American above all."[12] Like the nation where it was created, jazz blended separate ethnic and cultural influences into a new and different product, combining elements from Black identity with other immigrant influences. It incorporated the sounds of the South and the modern, and adapted elements from urban skylines.[13] Jazz was distinctly American in that it blended the character of different peoples, but still let the individual have his chance to express himself in an improvisational solo,[14] and therefore asserted the "rugged individualism"[15] that already characterized the nation. Furthermore, jazz began to break down the barrier between performer and audience. It "democratized" culture, making it accessible to the common person.[16]

Jazz as modern

Jazz is distinctly modern in sound and manner. According to Lawrence Levine, "Jazz was, or seemed to be the product of a new age...raucous, discordant...accessible, spontaneous...openly an interactive, participatory music."[16] Daniel Gregory Mason charged that jazz "is so perfectly adapted to robots that the one could be deduced from the other. Jazz is thus the exact musical reflection of modernist industrial capitalism", and jazz has also been likened to the sound of riveting.[17] Irving Berlin called jazz the "music of the machine age."[18] Players drew influences from everyday street talk in Harlem, as well as from French Impressionist paintings.[19] The improvised nature begs the player to dismantle and examine pre-existing structure within the music.[20] As tribute to the modernity of jazz, one only needs to examine the various media that drew influences from the music. The musical Shuffle Along is one of the earliest and most successful jazz adaptation to the stage,[21] jazz ballets appeared in New York City's Metropolitan Theatre, Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown drew poetry from the Jazz music they experienced,[22] and jazz music colored the paintings of Aaron Douglas, Miguel Covarrubias, and many others.

Visual arts

American modernist painting

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.

The modernist movement during the formative years was also becoming popular in New York City by 1913 at the popular Manhattan studio gallery of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong (1878–1962) and through the work of the Whitney Studio Cub in 1918. [23][24] According to Davidson, the beginning of American modernist painting can be dated to the 1910s. The early part of the period lasted 25 years and ended around 1935, when modern art was referred to as, what Greenberg called the avant-garde.

The 1913 Armory Show in New York City displayed the contemporary work of European artists, as well as Americans. The Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist paintings startled many American viewers who were accustomed to more conventional art. However, inspired by what they saw, many American artists were influenced by the radical and new ideas.

The early 20th century was marked by the exploration of different techniques and ways of artistic expressiveness. Many American artists like John Marin, Arthur Beecher Carles, Alfred Henry Maurer, Andrew Dasburg, James Daugherty, John Covert, Henrietta Shore, William Zorach, Marguerite Thompson (Zorach), Manierre Dawson, Arnold Friedman and Oscar Bluemner ushered in the era of Modernism to the New York School.

Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors – 7th Avenue Style, 1940

The shift of focus and multiplicity of subjects in the visual arts is also a hallmark of American modernist art. Thus, for example, the group The Eight brought the focus on the modern city, and placed emphasis on the diversity of different classes of citizens. Two of the most significant representatives of The Eight, Robert Henri and John Sloan made paintings about social diversity, often taking as a main subject the slum dwellers of industrialized cities. The late 1920s and the 1930s belonged (among many others) to two movements in American painting, Regionalism and Social Realism. The regionalists focused on the colorfulness of the American landscape and the complexities of country life, whereas the social realists went into the subjects of the Great Depression, poverty, and social injustice. The social realists protested against the government and the establishment that appeared hypocritical, biased, and indifferent to the matters of human inequalities. Abstraction, landscape and music were popular modernist themes during the first half of the 20th century. Artists like Charles Demuth who created his masterpiece I Saw The Figure Five in Gold in 1928, Morton Schamberg (1881–1918) and Charles Sheeler were closely related to the Precisionist movement as well. Sheeler typically painted cityscapes and industrial architecture as exemplified by his painting Amoskeag Canal 1948. Jazz and music were improvisationally represented by Stuart Davis, as exemplified by Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors – 7th Avenue Style, from 1940.

Modernism bridged the gap between the art and a socially diverse audience in the U.S. A growing number of museums and galleries aimed at bringing modernity to the general public. Despite initial resistance to the celebration of progress, technology, and urban life, the visual arts contributed enormously to the self-consciousness and awareness of the American people. New modernist painting shined a light on the emotional and psychic states of the audience, which was fundamental to the formation of an American identity.

Numerous directions of American "modernism" did not result in one coherent style, but evoked the desire for experiments and challenges. It proved that modern art goes beyond fixed principles.

Main schools and movements of American modernism

  • the Stieglitz group
  • the Arensberg circle
  • color painters
  • Precisionism
  • the Independents
  • the Philadelphia school
  • New York independents
  • Chicago and westward

Modernist painting

Arthur Dove, Me and the Moon 1937

Arthur Dove used a wide range of media, sometimes in unconventional combinations to produce his abstractions and his abstract landscapes. Me and the Moon from 1937 is a good example of an Arthur Dove abstract landscape and has been referred to as one of the culminating works of his career. [25] Dove did a series of experimental collage works in the 1920s. He also experimented with techniques, combining paints like hand mixed oil or tempera over a wax emulsion.

African-American painter Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) is one of the best-known and most influential African-American modernist painters. His works contributed strongly to the development of an aesthetic movement that is closely related to distinct features of African-American heritage and culture. Douglas influenced African-American visual arts especially during the Harlem Renaissance.

One of Douglas' most popular paintings is The Crucifixion. It was published in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones in 1927. The crucifixion scene that is depicted in the painting shows several elements that constitute Douglas' art: clear-cut delineation, change of shadows and light, stylized human bodies and geometric figures as concentric circles in contrast to linear forms. The painting's theme resembles not only the biblical scene but can also be seen as an allusion to African-American religious tradition: the oversized, dark Jesus is bearing his cross, his eyes directed to heaven from which light is cast down onto his followers. Stylized Roman soldiers are flanking the scene with their pointed spears. As a result the observer is reminded for instance of the African-American gospel tradition but also of a history of suppression. Beauford Delaney, Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were also important African-American Modernist painters that inspired generations of artists that followed them.

Modernist photography

Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp). 1921. Photograph by Man Ray. Art Direction by Marcel Duchamp.

At the beginning of American modernism, photography still struggled to be recognized as a form of art. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz described it as: "Artists who saw my earlier photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that they felt my photographs were superior to their paintings, but that, unfortunately, photography was not an art. I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet, in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made." (Stieglitz:8). In 1902, Stieglitz founded the Photo-Secession group with members such as Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence Hudson White, which had the objective of raising the standard and increasing the awareness of art photography. At that point, their main style was pictorialist, which was known for modifying photos through soft focus, special filters or exotic printing processes, to imitate the style of paintings and etchings of that time. For means of publication, Stieglitz, as the driving force of the movement, started the magazine Camera Work, in which he published artists he felt represented the movement. He also ran three galleries one after another, namely "291" (1905–1917), "The Intimate Gallery" (1925–1929) and "An American Place" (1929–1947). Especially 291 served as a meeting point for artists and writers and was the first to exhibit the early modernist art works of European artists, such as Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso, in the United States. A further link to the European avant-garde was established by Man Ray. Born in America and inspired by the work he saw in Stieglitz’ galleries, Ray emigrated to Paris in 1921 and together with artists of the European Dada and Surrealist movements created new photographic techniques such as rayographs (placing objects directly on photosensitive paper).

In the early 1920s, photographers moved towards what they called straight photography. In contrast to the pictorialist style, they now rejected any kind of manipulation in the photographic process (e.g., soft lens, special developing or printing methods) and tried to use the advantages of the camera as a unique medium for capturing reality. Their motifs were supposed to look as objective as possible. Turning the focus away from classic portraiture and the pictorialist style, the photographers started using their pictures as means for representing the harsh realities of every day life, but at the same time tried to search for the beauty in the detail or the overall aesthetical structure. Machines and factory work, sky scrapers and technical innovations became prominent motifs. In 1932 some younger photographers (e.g. Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Edward Weston) started Group f/64 based on the ideals of straight photography, which became the most progressive association of its time.

Feminism, gender, and sexuality

Development of 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 Emma Goldman proclaimed, "true liberation begins neither at the polls nor in courts [but rather] in a woman's soul" (qtd. in Lyon 223).

Gender and sexuality

The roles of gender and sexuality in American modernism were elaborated through studies of national identity and citizenship, racial identity and race politics, queer identity and aesthetics, magazine culture, visual culture, market economies, and historical accounts of 20th century political modernity. Immense work done by scholars of feminism, gender, and sexuality helped to restructure the field of American modernist scholarship. Women writers have become the subjects of extensive literary study. Gay and lesbian communities have been revalued as patterns of modern aesthetic experimentation, and sexual identity and gender formation were interpreted in a new way.

The turn of the 20th century cultural life saw a shift to a dichotomy of mass culture versus high culture, with the former generally thought feminine, and high culture thought male-oriented. Formerly denounced popular fiction now served the feminist purpose. "It formed the bedrock for defenses of a new phase of free love and the concomitant promotion of birth control." (Lyon 225)

The upcoming interest in popular psychology, especially Freudian theories, encouraged this new approach to gender roles and sexuality in the arts. Sexual difference was portrayed by women themselves with the help of the media available to them. This manifested itself for example in Mina Loy's "sex-talk" which is "stunning both for the focus it places on a woman's sexual disappointment and for the balance it strikes between clinical frankness and poetic indirection" (Lyon 225). It also entailed the breaking up of traditional gender roles. They were no longer exclusively male or female but there was also an acknowledgment of homosexuality, feminine men, and masculine women. Thus the concept of sexuality became multi-layered, as in Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood (1936) in which she obliterates all established ideas of gender and sexuality. This early debate dealing with these issues cleared the way for contemporary approaches to gender, for instance that of Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble (1990).

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

To read more about New York City, please see 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

For extensive reading on Charlie Chaplin, please go to 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".[26] 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[27] 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)[28]

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 the their advertisements of personal computers[28]

"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"[27]

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. 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[29] 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,[30] 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.


For a further, more formal account, please see 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.

1. Costumes

In the early 1920s, the ready-to-wear fashion began to spread America. More women earned their own wages and didn’t want to spend time on fittings. Fashion as the status symbol was no more important as class distinctions were becoming blurred. People especially women called for inexpensive fashion. In the aspect of mass production of contemporary style clothing for women, America went ahead of other countries. Several designers of this fashion including Jane Derby made a stage pose.

Women: By 1921 the longer skirt, which was usually long and uneven at the bottom was out of date. The short skirt became popular by 1925. No bosom, no waistline, and hair nearly hidden under a cloche hat. The manufacturing of cosmetics also began from this decade. Powder, lipstick, rouge, eyebrow pencil, eye shadow, colored nails, women had them all. Moreover, pearls came in fashion as well.

Men: In this period, clothing for men was more conservative. Trousers widened to 24 inches at the bottoms. Knickers, increased the width and length, were called plus fours. In summer, white linen was popular, while in the winter an American coat—the raccoon coat—was in fashion. The slouch hat, made of felt, could be rolled up and packed into a suitcase. These were very popular with college men.

2. Furniture There's no pure American modern style in the designing world. The American modern artists inherited the style characterized by simplicity of form, absence of decorative ornament, and focused on functional concerns from their precedents. At the same time, the American designers blended the wild style of Parisian painting, as well as the features of modern architecture in their works, such as Art Deco. Moreover, the designers also placed much emphasis on the materials, especially those invented in the modern age.

American modernist literature

American Modernism covered a wide variety of topics including race relations, gender roles, and sexuality. It reached its peak in America in the 1920s up to the 1940s. Celebrated Modernists include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and while largely regarded as a romantic poet, Walt Whitman is sometimes regarded as a pioneer of the modernist era in America.

Influenced by the first World War, many American modernist writers explored the psychological wounds and spiritual scars of the war experience. The economic crisis in America at the beginning of the 1930s also left a mark on literature, such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. A related issue is the loss of self and need for self-definition, as workers faded into the background of city life, unnoticed cogs within a machine yearning for self-definition. American modernists echoed the mid-19th-century focus on the attempt to "build a self"—a theme illustrated by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Madness and its manifestations seems to be another favorite modernist theme, as seen in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, Hemingway's The Battler and Faulkner's That Evening Sun. Nevertheless, all these negative aspects led to new hopes and aspirations, and to the search for a new beginning, not only for the contemporary individuals, but also for the fictional characters in American modernist literature.

The modernist period also brought changes to the portrayal of gender roles and especially to women's role in society, and the literature reflects the emancipation and societal change of the era. Gatsby, for example, deals with such topics as gender interaction in a mundane society.

Race relations between blacks and whites, the gap between what was expected of each of the two and what the facts were, or, better said, prejudice in the society of the time are themes dealt with in most of the modernist American literature, whether we speak about prose (Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Faulkner, Hemingway), or about drama (O'Neill). For instance, stereotypes such as the lack of education, dialectical English and portrayals of blacks as dangerous are not done away with in modernist literature, but remain present. However, stories such as Hemingway's The Battler seem to reverse stereotypes. The African-American character in this short story is a kind, calculated, and polite man, whose good manners and carefully chosen vocabulary are easily noticeable from the moment he appears.

Black writers must be mentioned when talking about modernism in America, as they seem to have brought a breakthrough in literature and mentality as far as the self-esteem of African-Americans is concerned. The folk-oriented poetry of Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes, for example, written in a rhythm fit to be either sung or told as a story, melancholically describes the joyful attitude of Afro-Americans towards life, in spite of all the hardships they were confronted with. The protagonists of these poems are shown in such a light which offers insight into their cultural identity and folklore. An insight into culture and folklore is also a topic that prose deals with, such as, for example, Toomer's Blood-Burning Moon and Faulkner's That Evening Sun.

The new criticism in America

From the 1930s to the 1960s, New Criticism became a critical force in the United States. It was the most powerful perspective in American literary criticism. The representatives were John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren. "The influential critical methods these poet-professors developed emphasized the sharpening of close reading skills. New Criticism privileged the evaluation of poetry as the justification of literary scholarship". Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry (1938) became one of the most influential college poetry textbooks of the 1930s and was revised and reprinted well into the 1970s. (Morrisson: 29).

New criticism showed itself in such works as Eliot's and Yeats’ poems. "Poetry that best fit the aesthetic criteria of the New Critics was emphasized in important classroom teaching anthologies" (Morrisson: 29). T. S. Eliot redefined tradition in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent". He formulated such critical concepts as "objective correlative", and rethought the literary canon in his elevation of Jacobean drama and metaphysical poetry. His work had a fundamental influence on New Criticism in America.

Architecture and space

The United States played a great role in the modernism movement concerning new advanced building and construction technologies. Among construction innovations there are such materials as iron, steel and reinforced concrete. Brooklyn Bridge by John and Washington Roebling (1869–1883) (for more details see John Roebling/Washington Roebling)

In his works Wright moved closer and closer to an earth-bound sense of natural form, using rough-hewn stone and timber and aiming always in his houses to achieve an effect of intimate and protective shelter.

Foreign-born architects as Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, and William Lescaze during the 1920s played a great role in development of American architecture performing later a style, which got the name of international style and was reflected in the design of corporate office buildings after World War II. Such buildings as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Lever House (1952) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1956–58) in New York City are the examples of this new style. When such famous Europeans as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe immigrated to the United States, many American architectural schools went under the influence of the traditions of the Bauhaus in Germany.

See also


Arts references

  • Leja, M. (1996): "Modernism's Subjects in the United States". In: Modernism's subjects in the United States Art Journal – Find Articles.[31]
  • Davidson, A. (1981): Early American Modernist Painting 1930–1935. New York: Harper And Row Publishers.
  • McDonnell, P. (1998): Concerning Expressionism: American Modernism and the German Avant-Garde. New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries.
  • Morrison, M.: Nationalism and the Modern American Canon in Reader Revisiting Modernism: Gender and Ethnicity. Bielefeld.
  • Stieglitz, A. (1997): Camera Work. The Complete Illustrations 1903–1917. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag.
  • Tylor, J. (1979): The Fine Arts in America. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Wilk, Ch (ed.). (2006): Modernism: Designing a New World 1914–1939. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • The Biography of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong: The Treasured Collection of Golden Heart Farm by Clint B. Weber, ISBN 0-9851601-0-1ISBN 978-0-9851601-0-4
  • Professor Emeritus James K. Kettlewell: Harvard,Skidmore College,Curator The Hyde Collection. Foreword to The Treasured Collection of Golden Heart Farm: ISBN 0-9851601-0-1ISBN 978-0-9851601-0-4

American icons in the European mind references

  • Czech, A. (2006): "Bildkanon im Spannungsverhältnis zwischen individuellem und kollektivem Bildgedächtnis." In: J. Kirschenmann & E. Wagner: Bilder, die die Welt bedeuten: "Ikonen" des Bildgedächtnisses und ihre Vermittlung über Datenbanken. München: kopaed, pp. 27–28.
  • Douglas, A. (1998): "Charlie Chaplin". In: New York Times (June 6),[32]
  • Ikonothek. URL: (accessed February 2, 2007).
  • Kouwenhoven, J.A. (1998): "What's American about America." In: R. O'Modly (ed.) The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. NY: Columbia UP, pp. 123–136.
  • Meyer, S. (1998): "Efforts at Americanization in the Industrial Workplace, 1914–1921." In: J. Gjerde: Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Strasser, S. (1989): Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Volkmann, L. (2006): "Ikonen des neuen Weiblichen: Madonna und Britney Spears" In: J. Kirschenmann & E. Wagner: Bilder, die die Welt bedeuten: "Ikonen" des Bildgedächtnisses und ihre Vermittlung über Datenbanken. München: kopaed pp. 94–96.
  • Wagner, E. (2006): "Blue Jeans – eine andere 'Ikone'". In: ibid, pp. 121.
  • Wilk, Ch. (2006): "What was Modernism? Introduction". In: Ch. Wilk (ed.): Modernism: Designing a New World 1914–1939. London: V&A Publications, pp. 2–11.

Feminism, gender, and sexuality references

  • Lyon, J.: (2000): "Gender and Sexuality." In: Walter B. Kalaidjian (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 221–241.
  • O'Kelly, Ch. G. (1980): Women and Men in Society. New York: Van. Nostrand.
  • Stieglitz, A. (1997): Alfred Stieglitz. Cologne: Könemann.

Jazz references

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.
  2. ^ Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York City, NY: Harper Perennial,1992.
  3. ^ Miller, John. Blues and jazz in American Culture. Bielefeld University, Bielefeld (Germany). 2 February 2007
  4. ^ Salamon, Frank A. "Expatriate Jazz Musicians in Europe." Ed. William Boelhower, et al. Sites of Ethnicity: Europe and the Americas. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH, 2004. 258.
  5. ^ Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971. 229.
  6. ^ Levine, Lawrence W. "Jazz and American Culture." Ed. Robert O'Meally. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  7. ^ Levine 437, NY Times, 1924
  8. ^ Levine 434
  9. ^ Levine 440
  10. ^ "Say Jazz Will Live." The New York Times. 23 December 1923: Page XX4
  11. ^ Huggins 60
  12. ^ "Berlin Calls Jazz American Folk Music." The New York Times. 10 January 1925. pg 2.
  13. ^ Kouwenhoven, John A. "What's 'American' About America." Ed. Robert O'Meally. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 128.
  14. ^ Kouwenhoven 128
  15. ^ Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Cultural Geography of the United States. Trenton: Prentice Hall. 1973.
  16. ^ a b Levine 433
  17. ^ Levine 437
  18. ^ Whiteman, Paul. "In Defense of Jazz and its Makers." The New York Times. 13 March 1927. pg. SM4.
  19. ^ Salamon 256
  20. ^ Kouwenhoven 127–130
  21. ^ Huggins 291
  22. ^ Huggins 223
  23. ^ The Biography of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong: The Treasured Collection of Golden Heart Farm by Clint B. Weber, ISBN 0-9851601-0-1ISBN 978-0-9851601-0-4
  24. ^ Professor Emeritus James K. Kettlewell: Harvard,Skidmore College,Curator The Hyde Collection. Foreword to The Treasured Collection of Golden Heart Farm: ISBN 0-9851601-0-1ISBN 978-0-9851601-0-4
  25. ^ Archives of American Art
  26. ^ (Douglas 1998)
  27. ^ a b (ibid.).
  28. ^ a b (cf. ibid.).
  29. ^ "A Revolution in Transportation for Agriculture during the 1940s". Retrieved 2011-11-17. 
  30. ^ "Bringing Electricity in Rural America". Retrieved 2011-11-17. 
  31. ^
  32. ^

Everyday life and culture references

  • REA Changes Rural Homes
  • Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
  • Having Fun–Radio
  • Troy, N. J. (2003): Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • American Antiquities Journal
  • The Making of the Modern Kitchen: A Cultural HistoryFreeman, J.:

External links

  • American Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fully digitized 3 volume exhibition catalog
  • interviewConversations from Penn StateAmerican modernist painters discussed in
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