San Francisco, CA. STEM and the humanities often seem to be at odds, which doesn’t bode well for either, as I have previously reported. Rather than presenting a dichotomy between engineering and art, looking at overlap and synergies may be beneficial, particularly as engineering and artistic design are both increasingly important to the success of a product, from a watch to an automobile. An exploration of the interaction of art and technology is one goal of a special exhibit at the de Young Museum titled “Cult of the Machine.”
Machinery served as both inspiration for and subject matter for the art on display. In the early 20th century, many artists began leaving behind the French Impressionism style of the late 19th century and the style of New York’s Ashcan School of the early 20th century. With the advent of the “Machine Age,” the de Young curators write, “…artists produced compositions with a ‘machined’ quality—incorporating smooth surfaces and geometric forms—which conveyed the beauty, coldness, and impersonality of this mechanized world.” These artists’ style took on the term “Precisionism.”
The works—paintings, photographs, artifacts, and films (including a famous clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times)—span 1910 to 1950, but the curators have interspersed 21st century commentary to demonstrate ongoing interrelationships between technology and art. For example, in 1936, industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague said, “We are coming to appreciate beauty as a revelation of problems rightly solved, a sign of success, a proof of value, a visible rightness.” In 2003, Steve Jobs explained that design is not just making something look good. “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like,” he said. “Design is how it works.” One example on display at the de Young is Gordon Buehrig’s 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton, one of the first American-designed and built front-wheel-drive cars with independent front suspension.
Some of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit don’t depict machinery—just the “smooth surfaces and geometric forms”—Georgia O’Keeffe’s City Night (1926), an oil painting that depicts skyscrapers visible from her window, for example, or Margaret Bourke-White’s 1930 photograph Chrysler Building: Tower.
But many do: Edmund Lewandowski’s Dynamo (1948), Gerald Murphy’s Watch (1925), Elsie Driggs’s Aeroplane (1928), and Charles Sheeler’s Rolling Power (1939), for example. (Some of these works are depicted in the online introduction to the exhibit and accompanying “Digital Stories.”)
Also depicted are the factories in which the machines may be housed: Sheeler’s Classic Landscape (1931), based on photographs of a Ford plant, for example, or Charles Demuth’s Incense of a New Church (1921). Still other works illustrate the infrastructure of an increasingly technological country: Lewandowski’s Circuit Breakers (1947), for example, or Sheeler’s Conversation—Sky and Earth (1940), which depicts power-transmission equipment against a background of sky, a mountain, and the Hoover Dam.
Few of the Precisionists’ works depict people. An exception is Clarence Holbrook Carter’s War Bride (1940). In the foreground of the painting is a woman in a bridal gown with her back to the viewer. She appears about to proceed down an aisle bordered not by pews but industrial rollers. Awaiting her is not a groom but a foreboding steel press against a red background. Carter has said the painting was inspired by a dream after a visit to a Pittsburgh steel mill.
The Precisionists were not totally preoccupied with machines. The exhibit includes rural scenes such as George Copland Ault’s January Full Moon (1941) and Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946). In also includes a 1937 painting by Sheeler of an antique-filled kitchen in Colonial Williamsburg. But Sheeler expressed some ambivalence. “I don’t like these things because they are old, but in spite of it,” he said in 1938. “I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday, because then they could afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”
The exhibit curators note that many of the ambivalent attitudes toward industrialization in the early 20th century reverberate today with the arrival of Industry 4.0 and as human factory and office workers are replaced by computers and robots.
In a review of the exhibit at Tech Crunch, Anna Escher quotes curator Emma Acker as saying, “We can relate to [the Machine Age] now as we enter this 4th industrial revolution. We’re looking forward with excitement and some trepidation toward disruption, displacement, and changes on the horizon.”
Closing the exhibit are two word clouds that indicate shifting views of technology. One is drawn from American periodicals from the 1920s and 1930s, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Forum, and The Literary Digest. Predominant in the early 20th century version are the words “machines” and “unemployment.” In a regularly updated contemporary version, the words “creative,” “innovative,” “revolutionary,” “progress,” and “exciting” stand out (at least on the day I visited)—as does the word “inevitable.”
The exhibit runs through August 12.