147: Terry Smith’s Making the Modern

Terry Smith is an art historian, and Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America is a study of the relationship between the visual imagery of the 1920s and 1930s and the era’s cultural, economic, and industrial configurations.  Far from focusing on high modern art and design, Smith studies modern architecture, painting, photography, design, advertising as gleaned from sources as varied as Ford Motor Company photos of plants and work processes, architectural plans for office buildings, and documentation of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  Methodologically, Smith deconstructs each work or artifact via a rigorous investigation of its historical setting for signs that the work documents conflict or social change.  Working across disciplinary boundaries, the book draws together a “visual regime” or “ensemble of processes of visualization and representation” of modernity, where visual representation and sociocultural processes work together to create a uniquely modern worldview called the “iconology of modernity.”

The body of the book is organized around case studies that trace the emergence of this new way of seeing.  Topics include the modernization of work in the Ford Highland Park plant, where the moving assembly line provided a new way to frame space and inspired a new “industrial-functional” architecture; a new modern business aesthetic along these Fordist lines that was celebrated by Life, Time, and Fortune, resisted by Rivera and Kahlo, and complicated by New Deal Social Realist photographers Lewis Hyne and Roy Stryker; and an extension of the “aestheticization of American industry” to the increasingly commercial industrial design profession, MOMA’s purist modernism, and Futurism at the 1939 World’s Fair. Throughout, Smith also investigates three conceptual pairs that seem to be at the core of the modernist worldview: cities/crowds, industry/workers, and products/consumers.

Slippage between industry and culture aside, Making the Modern is pretty effective at showing how culture and technology intertwined to create a worldview from a particular way of life – to the extent that aesthetics can speak for culture, anyway.  However, it’s debatable whether cultural production is still this tightly connected to the means of production.

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