Academic journal article The Space Between

Casting Doubts: Cultural Overproduction at the National Sculpture Society Exhibition, San Francisco, 1929

Academic journal article The Space Between

Casting Doubts: Cultural Overproduction at the National Sculpture Society Exhibition, San Francisco, 1929

Article excerpt

"the better we do things, the worse offwe are" (Chase 642)

"comfort to the nth degree equals discomfort" (Littell 431)

"we eat too much and a loss of appetite follows" ("Facing" 46)

Dating to the American Great Depression, these quotations reflect on one of its most disturbing ironies: the problem of overproduction. Described in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx and Engels as "an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity" (48), overproduction can be summarized as the manufacture of goods in excess of demand. According to the theory, once producers produce too much, an economically devastating chain of events is set into motion: the market becomes saturated, demand dwindles, prices fall, and profits plummet. An elegant, but perhaps oversimplified, account of causal boom-to-bust, the concept has always carried more cultural cachet than scholarly seriousness. In 1892, Thorstein Veblen examined the "overproduction fallacy" at length; and, in 1898, John B. Clark considered the divergence between scholarly and popular perceptions of market fluctuations, acknowledging that people tend to make fetishes out of "vaguely expressed single terms" (1). "Overproduction," in particular, he noted, was a well-worn favorite. But such intellection mattered little after 1929. By then, overproduction emerged as the most common-sensical way to account for the catastrophic downturn.

It is this popular use of "overproduction" that occupies my attention in the following essay: a cultural historical account of a "crisis" perceived in American sculpture, precisely during that tipping-point year of 1929. It was during that spring that the National Sculpture Society (NSS) held its survey show in San Francisco, a comprehensive exhibition representing the contemporary state of American sculpture. Optimistically promoted as the biggest exhibition of its kind, the show drew nearly unanimous rebuke-and for exactly the reason of scale. There were too many works that critics had already seen, too many tabletop reproductions of familiar monuments, too many ornate objets d'art, and, above all else, just too many pieces. This line of criticism was aimed squarely, if mostly tacitly, at overproduction.

As an art historian, I do not share the concerns of Veblen and others who would interrogate the economic legitimacy of the overproduction conceit. Instead, I am interested in its cultural function as a symbolic scapegoat. I am keen to interrogate its currency, in other words, as a moral, even aesthetic explanatory device; its reprisal of a certain millenarian outlook, keeping watch for symptoms of decadence and decline; and its suitability as a rationale not just for the Great Depression, but also for its perceived attendant crises, including those in the arts. Indeed, it is its symbolic, moral, and aesthetic valences, I believe, that primed overproduction for easy transference to the art-world and its press. This essay is sustained by this very premise. So, to state it again, I maintain: symbolic appeals to overproduction in popular-press coverage of finance carried over to symbolic appeals to cultural overproduction in popular-press coverage of the arts. From this foundational premise, I argue also that this scenario yielded specific results for American sculpture, a medium especially vulnerable to marketplace comparisons (as I'll discuss), and one I think decisively re-shaped by the overproduction critique. Looking carefully at a moment of critical failure-namely, the National Sculpture Society's flop in San Francisco in 1929-certain discursive patterns become apparent. Examining these patterns offers an opportunity to emphasize the cultural and social contexts of American twentieth-century sculptural modernism, especially as this would develop into an aesthetic protocol of simplification and subtraction during the volatile years of the Machine Age.

In view of the many failures they perceived in the NSS exhibition, critics repeatedly prescribed a common cure, one that would parallel those pursued by American business leaders and the U. …

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