Taking a look at American labor statistics during the 20
century reveals how the workforce grew by over 115 million people between 1900-1999. Although the work place environment improved drastically during the 20
century, service industries increased the most (almost 40%) but goods production (manufacturing) dropped by over 10% and farms started the century at 38% and dropped to less than 3% by 1999.
Industry is the ground in America’s cultural landscape and the impact it had on visual artists can be seen in the artists choice of subject, the mechanized contours of figures and structures along with the materials and processes that were applied.
People in the work force and the type of work being done was changing. Child labor laws went into effect, women professionals such as doctors and lawyers jumped significantly during the century yet by 1999, our African American population made up only 12% of the labor force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At the onset of the century, African Americans were continuing their push away from the White Supremist South. Eager to escape the inflicting, perpetual cycles of debt, along with an insect blight that had destroyed crops, the pull to the north during the 1920’s, where possibilities for freedom to prosper were thought to be greater, maintained the Great Northern Migration. As African Americans arrived to the northern states, they were greeted with resistance and although it wasn’t as blatant like the south, inequality and racism was still obstructing. Like most settlements and colonizing of new territory, it’s natural for a group of people who share a heritage to gravitate together and live in a supported and familiar community as a new life begins to take root. The area of Harlem in New York City became home for thousands of relocating people who came together in a neighborhood rife with experiences and craft, energy and passion and where employment opportunities presented themselves, giving birth to the Harlem Renaissance. Many women and men musicians and performers found employment in the entertainment and service industry. Aaron Douglas a scholar, educator, social reformer and artist relocated to Harlem from Kansas and continued developing works of art that commented on the experiences of his race in his incredibly distinct style. His compositions represented the struggles and oppression of the past while remarking on hope for a brighter future. The faith and optimism portrayed in his subject matter was a reflection of the spirit that African American artists, entertainers and community believed for a better future. The artistry sustained by writers, performers, painters and sculptors sustained a remarkable momentum that influenced itself, asserted its own genre, grabbed the attention of audiences outside of Harlem, and created history. Verses, lyrics, rhythms and imagery spoke of cultural traditions and heritage. Through FDR’s New Deal, Aaron Douglas was selected and paid a small stipend to create art during the Depression employed under the Works Progress Administration, painting his profound mural,
, expressing African and American heart and soul as subject.
Joseph Stella commented on the entertainment industry and his
Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras
was directly inspired by feats of industrial strength and magnitude that surrounded him. He expressed his point of view by using the engineered structures of modern day with the human experience as subject. He described the thrill and chaos through expressing the psychological sensationalism of it all, comparing it to something equally exciting like Mardi Gras.
Industry influenced Andy Warhol to comment on the mechanization of a subject in his
Campbell Soup Cans
. Conceptualizing the idea of ordinary merchandise or iconic celebrities reflected these industries. Warhol and Douglas both inserted a graphic style into their work. Where Warhol’s repetitive placement was in tandem with his simple contours, Douglas layered imagery in a rhythmically structured way and depicted the human figure in strong silhouette. The unit suggests resources that help students learn the role that industry played for Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas and its influence in motivating the ideas represented in Stella and Warhol’s works. Supplemental material on American culture included in Lesson 2 will start with historic video emphasizing mechanization and repetition of assembly lines in factories. In addition, displaying the stylized figures from the Art Deco movement that was prevalent during the Great Depression will be taken from a variety of resources to further reveal how artists perceived the human figure being strong and powerful like a machine, practically inhuman or robotic. The bold, simple and geometric shapes that made up the human form at that time were reflecting industry and made statement on the human condition, that people were strong and Americans would get through this dark economic period in history. A painting by Earle Richardson showing Negros in Agriculture from 1934, a photograph of male workers carved as giant reliefs on the façade of the Federal Building in New Orleans and an excerpt Martha Graham’s famous choreography of “Steps in the Street” will be used to display how the human form had a similar likeness that Douglas expressed in the figures painted for
. Along with taking a look at the style of figures during that era, playing early American jazz music that was being crafted during the Harlem Renaissance while exploring the use and impact of complementary colors is a fun and stimulating method to motivate students to blend and apply unusual colors. The lessons include a video documentary on YouTube on the story of Harlem’s Cotton Club and the vintage photos of what the stage designs looked like can be seen in Douglas’s style for how he described his subject and the environment surrounding it. Included in the lesson is also the idea of playing an informative clip of what the big events were in the year of 1936, the year that Douglas was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration Project to paint his mural, providing more historical context for students.
Another fast growing industry was leisure and entertainment. Sports and spectators inspired subject for George Bellows painting
Both Members of This Club
. An excerpt by Historian and Author John F. Kasson, “Amusing the Million” talks about Stella’s “Battle of Lights” providing students with perspective on his specific intentions with conceiving and portraying the subject. Also, vintage video of Coney Island describes setting and energy for Stella’s perspective. Activities swept through the mainstream and created cultural phenomena inspiring subject for fine artists. The artists’ abilities to depict unusual subject with incredible vibrancy stimulated accolades among a few and criticism amongst most.
Lastly, Andy Warhol’s genius concept of commenting on the retail and consumer industry is connected through photographs of store aisles filled with organized compartments of merchandise. Helping students understand that Warhol’s concepts of commenting on the mundane in an artistic form of art like his
Campbell Soup Cans
paintings did, were implying how the use of advertising and labeling were forms of art utilized for commercial purposes but could be repurposed as something to make and install as art to give the viewer a fresh perspective. Warhol’s intentions included taking a mundane subject and through repetition, a design principle, created visual interest while simultaneously remarking on our highly mechanical and industrious society.