Profitable Art in Modernist America

American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960: Richard LongstrethThe Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago was a giant in the world of shopping. Standing in the middle of the building in the central court, you looked up several stories to a huge, gorgeous Tiffany’s Favrile glass ceiling. You kept circling around back for another free sample of Frango mints, pretending you were not a tourist as you stared up at the marble façade. The whole trip seemed ridiculously refined. (The structure and many of the brands are all still there today as a Macy’s flagship.)

Visiting the department stores at your local mall today might not strike you as artistic. Yet their history has been intertwined with trends in design and business of the decades, as shown in The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960 by Richard Longstreth. The lavish flagships such as Marshall Field’s, finished in the first decade of the twentieth century, were just as much a part of the modernist art movement as the Stieglitz circle and Martha Graham, according to Richard Pells in Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, & the Globalization of American Culture. He argues that the construction of luxurious department stores, with their employees behaving like ushers at the opera and their elegant window displays mimicking art galleries, created an experience equal to other cultural pastimes. As Steven Watson noted in the Wall Street Journal, Pells has a “zest for tying together the unlikely.”

Modernist America: Richard PellsThe department store as a work of art was part of a larger movement in which consumerism, especially as it extended to advertising, was influenced by modernism. This profitable art, such as that produced by movie companies, ad agencies, and fashion magazines, is almost notorious today for its global exportation. Countries who receive American advertising via new communication technologies fear that the inundation will destroy their local culture.

Pells explains, though, that American production reflects other cultures, and other societies in turn disseminate American art in a manner suited to their society’s needs. The nineteenth-century flagship department stores like Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Macy’s in NYC, for example, were modeled on European emporiums. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, British and other European films were highly successful in the United States because Hollywood was willing to distribute them. From Gershwin’s early lessons on Stravinksy and Schoenberg to Latin America and Asia’s enthusiasm for Gershwin’s jazz, modernism was only one stage in a long history of cultural exchanged between continents.

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