Skip to main content

Art and the machined world

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | January 24, 2014

Much of early 20th-century art in the West was commentary on the massive technological developments of the late 19th century. Where, 100 years later, is the comparable 21st-century artistic response to the technological developments of the late 20th century?


American artists a few generations ago, especially painters and photographers, portrayed the massive structures, machined objects, and rationalized, sharp edges of the industrial world. (They were, of course, responding to other things, as well, such as new techniques and European challengers like Picasso.) Many took the rapidly growing cities, New York most of all, as emblematic of the coming future, so urban scenes often serve to represent the modern, mechanical world. What in art is similar today?

Warning to readers: Follow this post at your own risk; I am not an art historian. But, heck, it’s my personal blog. (BTW, I use illustrations here from stamps, so as, hopefully, not to infringe reproduction rights.)


Hine photo of workerThe Brooklyn Bridge (1883) was a major technical achievement of its time (as told by David McCullough). Imagined in the Stella painting of the bridge above (1919; he did other versions, too), it became a central icon of aesthetic modernism. The Stella rendering captures not only the looming power of the new, built object, but at the same time the city’s energy – the bridge is an entryway from what was then bucolic Brooklyn to New York. The painting also asserts a Manhattan state of mind: quivering nervousness and excitement.

Alfred Steiglitz’s classic photograph of the Flatiron Building (1903; more images were to come) in lower Manhattan provides another example. He described his inspiration this way: “It looked, from where I stood, as if it were moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer, a picture of the new America that was still in the making.”

Lewis Hine’s classic image, above, of the “powerhouse mechanic” (1920) also captures the dominion of the modern machine to which the mere human bows.

The Man Ray image (1926) to the right suggests that industrial metal can mimic, perhaps replace, the flower.Man Ray photo of flower


The city was not only the setting of the modern for American artists, it was for them an agent of the modern. Images of skyscrapers, rooftop water towers, and other architectures of the city rise above the viewer. The cityscape, often without any people to humanize it, pulsates at the viewer, as in a Stuart Davis painting.

Daivs cityscapeContrast these images with, say, Grant Wood’s picture of Iowa’s Young Corn (1931), all curves and soft edges and viewed from above – a statement about modernity by indirection. (Soon after, a new school of rural icongraphy, the Depression-era photographers, imprinted much less happy visions of country life on American viewers.)

Wood's rural scene


Hopper's 'Nighthawks'In the end, the artists of the day shared a perspective not only about modernity’s things and places, but about its meaning to the moderns themselves: isolation and alienation (not than many of them chose to leave New York, by the way). I am skeptical of their social psychology (see Ch. 6 ofMade in America), but impressed by their renderings of this idea.

Hopper of woman looking out window

No American’s paintings of the era seemed to express that subjectivity more – or at least, more popularly – than those of Edward Hopper. His urban spaces are often empty of people and when characters do appear they are typically empty of human connection, as in his classic Nighthawks, 1942. (Then there is the recent New Yorker comment on Hopper: A woman leans out of a first-floor window, speaks to the back of a man who is sitting in a chair and staring into the distance, and asks, “How much is this joker paying us to look ‘estranged’ for his dumb painting?”)


Whatever our verdict on American artists’ interpretation of the last industrial revolution, it is a rich and stimulating one. Where is the comparable art that addresses the information revolution age? And I do not mean using television simply to deliver images, nor computers to sync mobiles, nor David Hockney finger-painting Yosemite National Park on his iPad. Maybe the art in question is in totally different media – video, music (sampling?), soundscapes, performance, sculpture – and I, cultural dinosaur, have totally missed it.

Perhaps the art of this age has left the building — the museums and the galleries. Maybe it’s to be found, as Warhol may have foretold, in our commercial products — the sleek surfaces of Apple products, the faux minimalism of Google search pages, and the like.

Or perhaps the cultural changes of our era are just not as deep and profound as we imagine, and they have failed to grab artists’ attention the way those of the young 20th century did.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.