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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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Chapter One: We Have Good News and Bad News: Fascist Contagion and American Antibodies 19


• 1 • We Have Good News and Bad News: Fascist Contagion and American Antibodies At the New York World’s Fair of 1939, phallic towers and womb–like pavilions (Figure 8) translated primal desires for protection, shelter, and health into the design language of the Machine Age. Most of the exposition structures were clean and uncluttered and fairgoers moved easily through the buildings. The narratives spooling out in these spaces, in which the “world of tomorrow” permitted no contagion or disruption, aligned with the priorities of the Fair’s organizers, many of whom supported eugenicist research and publishing in Europe and the United States.1 The urban theorist and cultural critic Lewis Mumford was among those who took note of the body implied in the structures, declaring the Perisphere to be “the great egg out of which civilization is to be born.”2 From an informed visitor such as Mumford, who was deeply suspicious of the overweening rhetoric of progress, such a statement carried with it a sizable grain of salt. The Trylon and Perisphere were best photographed at night or rendered as such, bathed in the glow of colored lights; the forms were considerably less visionary in the harsh light of day, which exposed a lumpy, conventional girder structure unconvincingly overlaid with lathe and plaster. The fairgrounds at Flushing Meadows, a Machine–Age Brigadoon destined to vanish within a year, amounted to a landscape of persuasion in which exhib- its sponsored by General Motors, Ford, General Electric, and other corporations sought to reassure...

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