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Things of the Spirit

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

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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 Four: ‘Good Art is Life–Giving’: Activism, Abstraction, and the Sociality of Art 167

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• 4 • ‘Good Art is Life–Giving’: Activism, Abstraction, and the Sociality of Art Many Americans wading through the artistic and political currents of the Left in the 1930s came to activism through a desire to experience life to a heightened degree and to feel, however briefly, a part of a larger community. Aesthetic expression and political activism worked symbiotically to restore optimism among the Party’s fellow travelers, at least until events in the Soviet Union made such optimism difficult to sustain. Warren Susman has written that Americans joined the Communist Party or affiliated themselves with leftist political senti- ments out of a kind of religious hunger that mitigated the sense of marginality and anonymity experienced by those disenfranchised during the Great Depression. Artists in the United States sought to establish an artistic or aesthetic sphere that would speak to the American worker, to the “proletariat,” sometimes simply to “the peo- ple.” At the heart of this aesthetic was an insistence on the “life” or “vitality” of a new art that would stand in contrast to older, discred- ited forms.1 As Stalin’s excesses became more evident and the position of Marxist Americans grew more difficult to defend, a number of these people negotiated ideological commitments around the question of the form of revolutionary art. Those aligned with the policies of the Communist International insisted on a legible, representational art that conveyed the conditions of the modern worker and the militant urgency of the class struggle. The “socialist realism” mandated by the...

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