In Form We Trust: Neoplatonism, the Gold Standard, and the Machine Art Show, 1934

By Marshall, Jennifer Jane | The Art Bulletin, December 2008 | Go to article overview

In Form We Trust: Neoplatonism, the Gold Standard, and the Machine Art Show, 1934


Marshall, Jennifer Jane, The Art Bulletin


In the spring of 1934, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of New York's new Museum of Modern Art, saw one of his primary goals for the museum fulfilled: the incorporation of everyday objects of industrial design into the institution's exhibition program. The result of a collaborative effort between Barr and his good friend Philip Johnson, Machine Art displayed some six hundred artifacts of mechanized mass production like so much modern sculpture, hoisted on top of pedestals, set low on the floor, and arranged along gallery walls like factory-inspired bas-reliefs (Fig. 1). The show, which easily could have included the sort of mural-sized photographs already common in the Museum of Modern Art's display practice, was instead thoroughly three dimensional. Every gallery in all four stories of the museum's brownstone quarters featured things: things with heft, shape, texture, and substance, displayed in the fullness of their materiality, and available for artistic contemplation on all sides and in the round.

Machine Art served a number of purposes for the fledgling art museum. At the most basic level, the show generated good publicity. Calling ball bearings, airplane propellers, and kitchen sinks "art" was just the sort of irreverent stunt that the public had come to expect of modernism. In this case, it proved to be a remarkably successful stunt, as the show continued to draw copious visitors and journalistic comment both during its six-week run in New York and throughout its lengthy nationwide tour, lasting until December 1938. As an exhibit of ordinary objects, Machine Art also drew praise for its apparent populism. A show of shop tools and dinnerware perhaps by its nature appealed to a broader authence than the recent experiments in Dadaism and Surrealism or functionalist architecture, movements that had also been the subjects of Barr's and Johnson's respective curatorial efforts during these years. What's more, the relative affordability of the show's many dime-store pieces (their low prices were listed in the catalog) served as a reminder that artistic beauty was not dependent on price (Fig. 2).1 Cheap things could have value, too, and this was no small comfort during what proved to be one of the lowest points of the American Great Depression. Indeed, Machine Art 'was in many ways the quintessential example of Depression-era modernism: inexpensive to mount, sensibly functionalist, and a boosterish endorsement of both American industry and tasteful consumerism. Accordingly, the show also bore the reactionary hallmarks of what might be called "late Machine Age" anxiety. In its installation, catalog, and extensive publicity texts, the show emphasized timelessness and transcendence to a public that had grown wary of technological change. Machine Art embraced the machine, sure enough, but in the conservative language of Plato and Saint Thomas Aquinas (both prominently quoted in wall texts and the catalog), rather than in the iconoclastic terms of Dada or Futurism. All of these aspects of the show have been duly noted by art historians and, in fact, amount to the basis for its increasingly canonical place in American art history.2 Underlying all this, however, was a rather ambitious commentary on the nature of abstraction in modern life, and not just the sort of abstraction usually on view in the Museum of Modern Art's painting and sculpture exhibitions. At base, Machine Art was first and foremost a treatise on meaning and materiality: two terms in dire need of redefinition in the early 1930s, both in everyday life and in modern art.

During the interwar decades of the twentieth century, value itself came under new investigation, specifically, as a troubled category of material existence. The mass production of commodities introduced new factors into the arbitration of their worth, from massive economies of scale, to style fads and planned obsolescence. No longer could scarcity or uniqueness serve as the primary determinants of a commodity's value. …

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