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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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Prologue 1


Prologue Winslow Homer’s The Morning Bell (Figure 1) from 1866 records the dutiful journey of a factory girl from the light and warmth of the out– of–doors to the confinement of a New England mill. This canvas and Homer’s Veteran in a New Field of 1865 (Figure 2) evoke a return to work and to the ordinary after the Civil War. The overt symbolism of the dark, hulking structure echoes in more subtle details: The young woman appears right of center, not fully committed to that half of the painting dominated by the mill; the tilt of her bonnet directs the viewer’s eye up and away from the mill, as if to suggest a reluctance, an inward drawing back from her destination. The roughly con- structed boardwalk evokes a gangplank or a seesaw that threatens to spill her into the airless, noisy factory as she reaches the tipping point. At the particular moment Homer has pictured, the girl might decide to turn truant, veering left, down the slatted ramp and into the grass and flowers. Fig.1 Winslow Homer, Old Mill (The Morning Bell), 1866, o/c But the tipping point is not just hers; this painting reflects a mo- ment when the nation was on the brink of redefining itself as a mod- ern, industrialized state very different from the agrarian, individualis- tic America of Veteran in a New Field.1 In the earlier work, Homer posi- tioned the returned soldier at the very center of the image, in the heart...

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