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The Popular Front and the Corporate Appropriation of Modernism

  • Shannan Clark

Abstract

During the 1930s and 1940s, artists and designers in the United States with leftist political sympathies embarked upon a range of ambitious cultural initiatives to promote modernist aesthetics. By harnessing the symbolic power of a range of modernist styles, including functionalism, abstraction, and surrealism, these activists hoped to further their efforts to cultivate class-consciousness among the creative workers whose mental labor enabled the culture industries to function. Yet, rather than creating conditions that challenged corporate hegemony over the systems of mass culture production, the initiatives launched by the radical partisans of the Popular Front ultimately abetted the assimilation and appropriation of modernism by corporate capitalism. Instead of fostering an enlarged conception of the working class that included artists, professionals, and other white-collar workers, they inadvertently helped to furnish corporate America with mastery of a new set of visual idioms with which to represent its resurgence and revitalization after the crisis of the Depression.

Keywords

Mass Culture Design Laboratory Corporate Capitalism Laboratory School Mental Labor 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    For early examples of the “conventional” narratives of modernist design, see Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York, NY: Norton, 1932)Google Scholar
  2. Martin Green, New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Pat er son Strike Pageant (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1989)Google Scholar
  3. William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, NY: Vintage, 1993), 185–190Google Scholar
  4. Walter Kalaidijan, American Culture Between the Wars: Revolutionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993), 19–187.Google Scholar
  5. Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 385–04Google Scholar
  6. Barbara Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installation at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 143–190Google Scholar
  7. William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, New York Modern: The Arts and the City (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 163–193Google Scholar
  8. A. Joan Saab, Tor the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 84–128.Google Scholar
  9. James Sloan Allen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 3–77Google Scholar
  10. Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 259–269.Google Scholar
  11. Serge Guilbault, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Treedom, and the Cold War, Arthur Goldhammer trans. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 17–99Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    For the most thorough of the recent scholarly efforts to rehabilitate Popular Front culture and to promote a rethinking of its modernist affinities and sensibilities, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Verso, 1996).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elspeth H. Brown, Catherine Gudis, and Marina Moskowitz 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shannan Clark

There are no affiliations available

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