Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz

 



 

All of this was concurrent with America's tempestuous climb to world leadership. In the mid-to-late 1920s, New York City, along with the rest of America, was in full economic boom. Massive immigration, technological progress and expansionist ambitions combined to catapult the United States into a position of global leadership. Unparalleled economic prosperity among the wealthy elite, increased cosmopolitanism and sophistication fueled by prosperous late 19th century America. This was up against a Victorian society committed to a strong sense of social and moral responsibility and showcased against a background of cities dazzlingly illuminated and buildings that reached to the sky creating a vertical world. Hadn't Calvin Coolidge stated in the famous utterance of his presidency, "The business of America is business?" And, hadn't his successor Herbert Hoover told the American people as he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1928, "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. We shall soon..be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation." Into the White House he went, and eleven months later on Black Monday, October 14, 1929, the earth opened and the American economy fell into it.

Thus the Depression knocked away the props on which America's collective self-image had been raised. Between the buildings of this dazzling vertical world, hunger and poverty led the society, where the despair of idleness brewed tensions, where a varied world of immigrants brought intolerance and street fights, murder and drugs. Humanity is depicted as both frightening and provocative, alienated from society. Artists began to paint this seamy side of New York City, with its derelicts, prostitutes, sleazy tenements and bars, the homeless, the hurly-burly excitement of the streets. These artists are the recorders of the history of the streets. They confront us with their loneliness and sadness. The paintings disturb us, impinging on our space and consciousness in the same way their subjects do in real life. They show an artist wrestling with an aspect of reality that most of us would prefer to forget and in this respect they are courageous works.

This real life was destined to be captured by artists first of the Ashcan School, then by others who preferred to define this situation of social injustice. These artists opposed those custodians of culture who did not want art to mirror the society around them but rather chose to embody divine moral truths and abstract spiritual values derived from images and symbols of the past, representing the last flourish of the Gilded Age.

The paintings in this exhibition are committed to humanity over and above the artistic sphere and not just to the style. The artists were committed to the subject of their paintings, to the belt of misery surrounding New York City. These were brave frontiers for an artist in a cultural world dominated by isms.. Art is a potentially powerful moral force that should be carefully and righteously used by its practitioners, even though, concurrently, some artists avoided the truth of humanity's plight.

 

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