There is an age old debate about whether art imitates life or whether life imitates art. Based on what you’ve read this week, where do you weigh in on the debate? Is art simply a reflection of the world as the artist sees it, or can art actually work to shape the world in which we live? Explain your answer in detail.
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The Gilded Age
This week we will begin our studies exploring the changing nature of art. The United States of America is not static, and broadening our understanding of the complex combination of traditions that make up this country’s culture will reveal a richer understanding of the forms of expression created. During the 20th century, art in the United States changes dramatically and represents the cultural changes in economics, social concerns, and political issues. Part of the challenge is that often it is not only the objects themselves that must be analyzed, but also the processes by which they were created and acquired. A key to interpreting art is to understand these cultural forces and historical contexts.
Our focus this week will set the stage at the end of the 19th century in the US, which brought about many dynamic changes.
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition which celebrated the country’s progress and also looked forward to the new century. This was the Gilded Age, a time of materialism, wealth and prestige. The art and architecture created during this time reflected this: showy, extravagant and splendid. The exposition was meant to help restore faith in national pride, which was being eroded by labor unrest and the economic crises. While the fair idealized the country’s unity, the reality was that there were many fissures beneath the surface. The dividing lines were not only along economic classes, but also along gender and racial divides. There was a mass migration from rural to urban areas, which led to class separations with the cities. In cities such as New York and Boston, the number of poor arriving from rural areas and also Europe contributed to the harsh conditions created by tenement housing. Immigrants faced prejudice and bigotry, and the use of slave labor in the South was an issue that eventually brought about the temporary splitting of the nation and forced its reconstruction at the end of the century. Women also faced obstacles in seeking equality – the standard of white male superiority was the prominent attitude of the era.
At times, it seemed the art was disconnected from the nation’s social upheavals and did not accurately reflect the divided environment. Our reading this week ends with a quote by the lawyer Clarence Darrow:
“Not all the world is beautiful, and not all of life is good. The true artist has not right to choose only the lovely sports, and make us think that this is life. He must bring the world before our eyes… He must tell the truth.” (Doss, 33)
Next week, we will see how a group of artists sought to revolutionize the art world by portraying an honest and unflinching representation of the America around them.
Doss, E. (2004). Twentieth-century American art. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press