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Things of the Spirit

Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941


George Van Cleve Speer

In the 1930s, the crises brought about by the Depression, climatic devastation, and the rearmament of Europe led Americans from all walks of life to believe that capitalism and technology had synthesized into a monstrous force that threatened the human race. And yet, this chaotic decade also witnessed an unprecedented level of support, both rhetorical and institutional, for the importance of art in the lives of everyday Americans. This book investigates that paradox, asking why, when simple survival presented its own obstacles, our historically pragmatic culture began to define art as a necessity rather than a luxury. To answer this question, the book traces the symbolism of the embattled and recuperative body across a broad spectrum of American culture in the Machine Age. The book situates this symbolism within the commentary of artists, novelists, critics, and educators who trusted in the power of artistic expression and the experience of art to restore the health of the body politic.


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Dedication v


Dedication This book represents the contributions and unflagging support of many individuals. I am very grateful to Caitlin Lavelle and Sarah Stack at Peter Lang Publishing for their support of this project and for patiently shepherding me through the process of bringing the manuscript to press. ! I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to two stalwart friends and mentors, Dr. Eleanor Harvey of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Dr. Angela Miller of Washington University in St. Louis. For technical help, hand–holding and dark humor, I thank my friends Patricia Lynagh (former Research Librarian at SAAM) and Andrew Thomas at the National Gallery of Art. I would like to recognize Dr. Alexander Nemerov of Yale University, whose work has taught me that art history must be eloquent and imaginative as well as archival. This project would not have got off the ground without the generous suggestions of Dr. Casey Blake, Columbia University, and Dr. Howard Brick, University of Michigan, both of whom helped to define this book as an exercise in American culture studies. Early and much–appreciated support for the book came from the Patricia and Phillip Frost Fellowship in American art and visual culture at SAAM. I take this opportunity, as well, to offer profound thanks to my colleagues in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University for their enthusiasm and encouragement over the last five years. And, I express my deepest gratitude to Dean Michael Vincent and the College of Arts and Letters...

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