Jmarsh machine art show.pdf

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In Form We Trust: Neoplatonism, the Gold Standard, and the Machine Art Show, 1934Jennifer Jane MarshallIn the spring of 1934, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Krst director of New York's new Museum of Modern Ait, saw one of his primary goals for the museum fulfilled: the incorporation of everyday objects of industrial design into the institution's exhibition program. The result of a collaborative effort between Barr and his good friend Philip Johnson, Marhine Art displayed some six hundred artifacts of mechanized mass production like so much modern sculpture, hoisted on top of pedestals, .set low on the floor, and arranged along galleiy walls like factory-inspired bas-reliefs (Fig. 1). The show, which easily could have included the sort of mural-sized photographs already common in the Museum of Modern Art's display practice, was instead thoroughly three dimensional. Eveiy galler\' in all four stories of the museimi's brownstone quarters featured things: things with heft, shape, texture, and substance, displayed in the fullness of their materiality, and available for artistic contemplation on all sides and in the lound. Machine Art served a number of purposes for the fledgling art museum. At the most basic level, the show generated good publicity. Calling ball bearings, airplane propellers, and kitchen sinks "art" was just the sort of irreverent stunt that the public had come to expect of modernism. In this case, it proved to be a remarkably successful stunt, as the show continued to draw copious visitors and journalistic comment both duiing its six-week run in New York and throughout its lengthy nationwide tour, lasting und! December 1938. As an exhibit of ordinaiy objects, Machi?ie Art zho drew praise for its apparent poptilism. A show of shop tools and dinnerware perhaps by its nature appealed to a broader audience than the recent experiments in Dadaism and Surrealism or functionalist architecture, movements that had also been the subjects of Barr's and Johnson's respective curatorial efforts during these years. Wliat's more, the relative affordability of the show's many dime-store pieces (their low prices were listed in the catalog) served as a reminder that artistic beauty was not dependent on price (Fig. 2).' Cheap things could have value, too, and this was no small comfort duiing what proved to be one of the lowest points of the American Great Depression. Indeed, MackineAr was in many ways the quintessential example of Depression-era modernism: inexpensive to mount, sensibly functionalist, and a boosterish endorsement of both AiTierican industiy and tasteful consiunerism. Accordingly, the show also bore the reactionaiy hallmaiks of what might be called "late Machine Age" anxiety. In its installation, catalog, and extensive publicity texts, the show emphasized timelessness and transcendence to a public that had grown wary of technological change. Machine An embraced the machine, sure enotigh. but in the consenative language of Plato and Saint Thomas Aquinas (both prominently quoted in wall texts and the catalog), rather than in the iconoclastic terms of Dada or Futurism. .\11 of these aspects of the show have been duly noted by art historians and, in fact, amount to the basis for its increasingly canonical place in American art histoiy." Underlying all this, however, was a rather ambitious commentary on the nature of abstraction in modern life, and not just the sort of abstraction usually on view in the Museum of Modern Art's painting and sculpture exhibitions. At base. Machine Art was first and foremost a treatise on meaning and materiality: two terms in dire need of redefinition in the early 1930s, both in everyday life and in modern art. During the intei-war decades of the twentieth centur)', value itself came under new investigation, specifically, as a troubled category of material existence. The mass production of commodities introduced new factors into the arbitration of their worth, from massive economies of scale, to style fads and planned obsolescence. No longer could scarcity or uniqueness serve as the primary determinants of a commodity's value. Nor was modernity's radical transformation of evaluation limited solely to marketplace stuls. The radical renegotiation of meaning and materiality also assumed new importance in the era's national conversations over politics, philosophy, morality, and, notably, art, which, by its very nature, ventures itself as a model of how meaning might alight upon materiality. By the time Machine Art opened in 1934, to both crowds and good reWeu-s, the current cultural criticism had come to take this broad-based rvaluation of meaning and its foundations as the defining hallmark of twentieth-century modernity. This was the age of Albert Einstein's relativity and American pragmatism's "radical empiricism," a miheu in which value obtained in the relations between things, not in things themselves, nor even in any overarching standard ideal. Haward Universit)" philosopher Alfred North Whitehead summed up the Zeitgeist succinctly in 1929: a new "notion of fluent energy" had taken intellectual precedence over the old "notion of static stuff."' Modem meaning was an abstraction; it was unmoored from standards and divorced from the palpable proof of materiality as such. Besides consumer goods and contemporaiy art, which both suffered criticism during these years for an apparent drift away from principles (and were both ver\- much at issue in Machine Art), money also became a frequent topic for anxious conversation in the 1930s, and for the same reason. Money, according to Georg Simmel's influential treatise on the subject in 1900. is an especially sophisticated solution to the ongoing challenge of adjudicating concrete pardculars to abstract universals. A "triumph." Simmel called it, "One of the great accomplishments ol' the mind."' If money can be taken as a model for negotiating between meaning and materiality, the end of the American gold standard in 1934 can be seen as perhaps the most telling example of modern value's dissociation from materiality. A year almost to the day before Machine Art opened, a writer for the Wall Street Journal


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design by Philip Johnson (digiial image The Museum ol Modern Art/Licensed by StALA, provided by Art Resource, NY) observed, "There is something about 'money' nowadays which resembles time and space, at least in the matter of its elusiveness as a concept."'' Like time and space, particularly after Einstein revolutionized tlieir study, money seemed more and more like an indecipherable iibstraction, well beyond the comprehension of most people living under its spell. Some moderns, including Cieorges Bataille in Paris and Marcel Duchamp in New York, took notice of money's new semiotic openness and pulled ftirther at this loose thread. Others, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, leavened their modernism with the conservative monetaiy analogies of the American Social Credit Movement, upholding faith in currency and rejecting the abstractions of usury and debt.'' In otir own time, the literary critics and art histo rians who have examineci tlie period's productive analogy between art and money have tended to take their cues from Bataille and Duchamp, viewing the end of the gold standard as a bellwether for empty signifiers and token abstraction.' However, another analog)' presents itself in this context: not the end of the gold standard per se, but the popular reaction against it (and another of Simmel's favorite tropes)the act of hoarding gold. Machine Art offered an aesthetic philosophy of meaning matched perfectly to materiality, which shared the motivating assumptions of the rash of gold hoarding that was historically coincident with its staging. Turning to Platonic Form as both the origin and the standard of all artistic valuea conceit underscored both in Barr's text for the show and in Johnson's installationthe two men advanced a model of artistic beatity gtiaranteed by timeless ideals. Raphael Demos, an interpreter of Plato during these years (and a tiientor to Johnson at Hai^vard), wrote that "tmiversals may be called abstractions, if the word abstraction be used neutrally, without derogation as to realness.""^ Machine Art retained responsibility, above all, to the stabilizing force of this realness; realness as conceived doubly not jtist as Demos's Platonic ideal (which he called the "really real"^) but also, convincingly, as incarnate in the palpable stuff of modern life. Those who put their stock in gold assumed the same ontology of value: at once real as so many coins, and really real as an abstract universal standard. Neoplatonic formalism in the Machine At1 show had real social significance given the historical circtimstance of value's increasing dematerialization, especially as signaled by the






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2 Page from the exhibition catalog Marhine Ali. 1934 (photograplis hy Ruth Bernhard, reproduced with permission ofthe Ruth Bernhard Archive, Princeton Universit)' Ajt Museum, copyright Trustees of Princeton University; digital image The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCJ\1-A, provided by Ait Resource, NY)

end of the American gold standard in 1933. In the end, Machine Art ventured more than just a new way to appreciate vacuum cleaners and office chairs, and more than just a populist approach to understanding modern art. Like those who hoarded gold in the face of encroaching monetary abstraction (and unlike, incidentally, Duchamp and his readymade). Machine Art held onto obdurate things as reliable incarnations of intangible ideal.s: ideals that were at once the origin, standard, and substance of meaning and materiality in modern life. Interwar Neoplatonism While a preoccupation with materiality' has long been central to modernism'.s interpretation, the philosophical content of materiality itself has been less well considered. In the case of Machine Art, an idealist model of materiality was in play, one made possible in the show through explicit and repeated

reference to Plato. Howe\'er, the Plato of Machine Art was a very particular version of Plato. Mmhtne Art\ Plato belonged to the Neoplatonic tradition heralded by Plotinus in the third centuiy and exiending into the tw'entieth to include both progressive advocates ofthe avant-garde and consenative philosophers seeking an alternative to the growing dominance of American pragmatism (known for LS rejection of ideals). In iLs presentation of household objects as ideal forms, the exhibition implicitly advanced a Neoplatonic interpretation of the theoiy of the Forms, emphasizing the mysticism of "participation" over the more conventional (and more hierarchical) emphasis on "mimesis." Like the Puritan idealists and New England transcendentalists who had discerned in Plato a kindred approach to \iewing the sensible world as coextensive with the divine absolute, MorAmc Ari suggested a participatory ontology of value, in which concrete objects were guaranteed notjust by absolute ideals but by their very

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By beiiiity of shapes I do not mean, as most people would !4iippose, the beauty of iivin^ figure or of picture, but. to make my point cleitr. I mean straight line.H and cirrlirs, and sliapfs, plane or olid, made from them by lathe, ruler and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely.

3 Detail of a page from the exhibition caUilog Machine Art, .showing the (|tioiation fruni Plato's Fhtlel/us (difriuil image The Musetim of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA. provided by Art Resource, NY)

to sqtiare Plato with the cause of art. In the pages of Pama.ssus, art historian A. Philip McMahon declared that the exhibition's appropriation of that snippet of Phikbu.s (a dialogue devoted to ethics. McMahon pointed out, not aesthetics) was "not appropiiate," adding that any misplaced hope for a Platonic redemption o' the fine arts had its origins in the mistakes of "Plato [as] revised and interpreted by the Neoplatonists," especially Plotinus.'^ However, and in spite of McMahon's opinion (which Barr himself had itrged toward publication after McMahon had sent it to him in a personal letter), there existed a strotig case in favor of Plotintis and Neoplatonism in contemporary readings of Plato, and it was necessarily in the spirit of this argument that Machine AH advanced its version of abstraction. Nearly sixty years after the fact, Johnson remembered that the idea of bringing Plato into the mix had been Barr's, but he claimed that he had been the one responsible for picking the exact quotation. In an interview conducted during the winter motiths of 1990 and 1991 for the Mtisettm of Modern Art's oral history pr()ject, Johnson recounted. "[BarrJ was veiy big on Plato. So I looked tip the Plato for him. . . . that kind of purity was Alfred's big meat."'"'Johnson certainly had the background for acting as Barr's philosophical coiuisel. As a philosophy major at Harvard dtiring tlie li)20.s, Johnson had cultivated a special foctis on ancient classical thotight, developing both leading fluency in Greek and Latin and a close personal relationship with his mentor, Riiphael Demos, an authority on Plato. One might even say that Johnson's passion for philosophy, and for Plato, was hard to distinguish from his passion for his professor. W^eu Johnson introduced Demos to a friend as the man who had inspired him to concentrate in ancient philosophy, his mentoridentifying what would become Johnson's trademark fickle fanaticism joked, "Jtist now he is concentrating in Demos, next year in something else I stippose."''' Johnson and Demos freqttently dined and attended cultural events together, and it was through Demos that jolinson also gained social acquaintance with one of the department's most distinguished personalities, Alfred North Wliitehead."* Johnson quickly became a repeat visitor to the Whitehead residence in Cambridge, but the man whom he described as "the greatest philosopher we have today" wotild not become a direct source of intellectual infltience.' In fact, Jtfhnson later recalled that a conversation with Whitehead, in which the professor ranked liim tinfavo...