Life in the Roaring Twenties

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How did the arts develop in the 1920s?

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In the aftermath of the horrors of World War I, there was a sense of disillusionment. For European painters, there was a return to the neoclassical style; in fact, many of Picasso's paintings of this period recall the works of Ingres and Raphael. Later, in 1925 Andre Breton, the Surrealist poet, declared that Picasso was aligned with Surrealism, but Picasso continued his mode of Cubism. Nevertheless, Surrealism affected Picasso as he began "releasing the violence, the psychic fears and the eroticism that had been largely contained or sublimated since 1909", writes art historian Melissa McQuillan.

On the literary front, the Irish author James Joyce broke new ground with his novel Ulysses with his stream-of-consciousness narration. Also, writing in this mode was Virginia Woolf, who added feminism to the genre, as well. Other authors representative of the post-war period are T.S.Eliot, who achieved fame with his poem The Waste-Land, a poem which placed him as a key figure in the literary movement of Modernism. Of course, Wiliam Faulkner, who novel The Sound and the Fury contains stream-of-consciousness, and Ernest Hemingway figure largely in this period with his nihilism and disillusion. Thus, for Hemingway’s characters, particularly those in his early works, it is necessary to establish a code by which they can live and create their own meaning in a meaningless world. 

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Supposing American Art in the 1920 is your interest, this broad topic encompasses European influence and American material while spanning from short stories and movies to mass media and includes two renaissances. While American artists who went to Europe before the 1920s most often absorbed European influence, even becoming expatriates, like T.S. Eliot and James Whistler, some, most notably Mark Twain, nonetheless pursued American modes of expression describing American experiences. This pattern reversed in the 1920s and Americanism, rather than Europeanism, became the dominant force in art.

World War I is attributed as one of the critical turning points in American Art of the 1920s since all had interest in Europe and Europe's recovery following the devastation of war. Artists in various genres of art, like Earnest Hemingway (literature), Ezra Pound (literature), Man Ray (painting) and Aaron Copland (music), took time to visit, study in or repatriate to Europe or England. However the influence of Europeanization in this decade was weaker than for previous decades, like that of Henry James, and the artists of this decade retained their hold on American material and expression even though their stories, like those of Hemingway, took place in European settings, often settings depicting events of World War I or other European wars. Thus the tone of American Art in the 1920s was distinctly American, especially since the majority of literary trends that sprang up in Europe, like Vorticism and Expressionism, did not have significant influence on American artists. The exceptions to this is Cubism, which is said to have begun American Modern Art following a New York exhibition of French Cubism at the Armory in 1933.

This decade emphasized and enlarged upon "vernacular" art: art that depicted American material through American manners of expression, expression that fit the American language. Examples of American material are lighthouses of the Maine coast, grain elevators and hay rolls of Nebraska, skyscrapers of New York City. Examples of American expression of language are iconic Hemingway's short, plain, simple sentences (which hide much symbolism and foreshadowing) and Faulkner's unending sentences, as in "The Bear" in Go Down Moses. Faulkner was one of the few Americans to experiment with Modernist stream-of-consciousness as introduced by James Joyce in Ulysses and with time fragmentation as introduced by Proust in the multivolume work Remembrance of Things Past.

Within the vernacular emphasis, the 1920s ushered in two American art renaissance movements one of which began with music but spread to all art forms and one of which began in regionally. Black American musicians popularized music with roots in African music traditions and the blues, jazz (which later became swing) and rhythm and blues took dominant and influential positions in music America and abroad. This started the renaissance for black American artists in all genres, among whom writer Langston Hughes is a well-loved example. This renaissance was known as the Harlem Renaissance, named after a borough in New York, and included artists in all art forms. Southern writers had been largely silent following the Civil War right up until World War I but afterward Southern writers began to give voice to views of life from the Southern perspective.

Southern renaissance writers' efforts were broadened by the expansion in the 1920s of mass media and broader publishing markets. Mass circulating magazines became strong encouragers of Southern writers by paying large fees for short stories and by giving broad audiences to writers--Northern, Western Eastern and Southern--who would otherwise have been restricted to regional publication, like Southern short story and novel writer Eudora Welty, whose most famous short story is "A Worn Path." Because the enlarging mass media paid generously for stories to publish in the 1920s, writers could publish half a dozen short stories for living expenses and otherwise devote their energies to writing novels, which was particularly significant for the Southern Renaissance.

While black Americans were instrumental in revolutionizing American music--white musicians took up the black music modes and developed them with their own variations leading to the swing sound of musicians like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Kay Kaiser and the much later rock 'n' roll sound that came from black American rhythm and blues--Jewish Americans were instrumental in building the American movie industry. Giants like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer built the American studio system (a system that depended upon high-paid writers who could write dialog for the films they produced) that employed the talents of great directors, like Cecil B. DeMille, and great actors and actresses, like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In the 1920s, Fairbanks dazzled the silver screen by playing "swashbucklers" who always won the heart of the fair heroine (always wife and co-star Mary Pickford), as he did, for example, in auteur director D.W. Griffith's Robin Hood and Zorro.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of America's most loved 1920s literary novelists, described the 1920s in his essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," borrowing from Dickens, as being "an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire." He omitted that the 1920s were also an age of innovation, of genius, of Americanism in expression and material, of new American heroes and celebrities, of new opportunities for the arts and for American artists, as proven by the Harlem and Southern renaissances and by the achievements of Pulitzer Prize winners like Langston Hughes and William Faulkner.

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