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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

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Unit Overview: Glossary

art deco - A style in decorative arts and architecture that emphasizes streamlined, geometric forms and an affinity to the shapes and materials of industrial products. A response to the elaborate, organic forms of the prevalent art nouveau style at the turn of the twentieth century, art deco designs such as the Chrysler Building often celebrated the machine. Beginning about 1910 and lasting until the mid-1930s, the art deco style influenced the design of many significant buildings and interiors.

cubism - A style of painting that developed in Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century and which emphasizes abstract forms rather than realistic representation in painting and sculpture. Reacting to the tradition of realistic art, cubists painted the underlying geometric forms that they believed were the basis of natural forms. Cubist art often incorporated multiple perspectives, which many viewers found disorienting. Some of the foremost practitioners of Cubist art were Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Leger.

dadaism - A term used to describe a nihilist form of modern art. The word "dada" is a child's term for "hobbyhorse" in French and was picked at random from a dictionary by the original group of dada practitioners. Beginning in Zurich in 1916, with centers of activity in Berlin and Paris as well, dada was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, cynicism, and the rejection of the conventional laws of beauty and social organization. Dada is art designed to force viewers to question aesthetic conventions by shocking or confounding them. Unusual materials were often used; Marcel Duchamp, for example, displayed a urinal turned upside down and titled "Fountain." The dadaists disbanded in 1922, many of them becoming part of other modern art movements, particularly surrealism.

jazz - Originated in cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago by African American musicians around the turn of the twentieth century, jazz developed in a variety of ways. Its roots are from African American folk music, but as jazz developed, elements from other musical cultures--from contemporary Western classical music to musics of the Far East--were gradually assimilated, resulting in a broad range of sub-genres within the larger context known as "jazz." Jazz is characterized by solo and group improvisation, complex syncopation, and extended harmonies, as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of popular songs. Different styles of jazz have markedly different sounds, and the New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong sounds strikingly different from the urbane jazz of Duke Ellington in 1920s Harlem.

modernism - A term that refers rather broadly to literature and art produced under the influence of "modernity"; that is, in response to the conditions of the modern world, with its technological innovation, increased urbanization, and accompanying sense of a world changing too quickly to comprehend. Modernists tended to self-consciously oppose traditional forms, which they believed to be out of step with the modern world. Recently, critics have noted the variety of ways artists and writers labeled "modernist" approach their work, and the allusive poetry of T. S. Eliot, the spare prose of Ernest Hemingway, the political poetry of Langston Hughes, the radical linguistic experimentation of Gertrude Stein, and the regionalist work of Sherwood Anderson have all fallen into the category of modernism.

nativism - A term used to describe the sentiment of Americans who considered themselves "native," since their forebears had come to the United States generations earlier. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, millions of immigrants arrived in the United States each decade, and native-born Americans often found their different cultural attitudes difficult to tolerate. Increasing numbers of immigrants arrived from eastern European countries and Asia, whereas earlier waves of immigration had come primarily from northern and western European countries such as England, Ireland, and Germany. Immigration laws passed between 1917 and 1924 significantly restricted how many immigrants could come from each country, and they tended to allow many more immigrants from Germany and Ireland, for example, than from Asian or African nations.

primitivism - A term used to describe artistic and literary styles that borrow from cultures (usually non-European) considered less advanced than the artist's own. Primitivism in painting enjoyed a vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century, and artists such as Picasso incorporated style and symbol from African art, while literary figures looked to rural settings and "simple" folk for their stories and poems. These seemingly less complex societies and modes of life appeared to provide an answer to the confusion caused by the modern world.

Prohibition - The period in the United States between 1919 and 1933 when the Volstead Act or Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol. The law was not especially well enforced, and in the early years of the Depression, many felt that Prohibition was not only an infringement on personal liberty but a detriment to the failing U.S. economy.

surrealism - An art and literary movement that aimed to tap the unconscious mind in the creation of art; founded by the French critic and poet André Breton in the mid-1920s. An outgrowth of dadaism, surrealism depicted scenes from dreams and employed Freudian symbolism. Some of the best-known surrealists are Salvador Dali and René Magritte. The surrealist movement in literature flourished mainly in France and often used automatic writing to establish a connection between the unconscious of the writer and that of the reader.

Taylorism - An approach to maximizing the efficiency of production developed by the industrial engineer Frederick Taylor in the first decade of the twentieth century. Taylor made careful analysis of the ways industries organized their human labor and machines and created systems to reduce the waste of time and energy. By simplifying the tasks of any individual laborer, Taylor's "scientific management" not only maximized the efficiency of production, but also made the laborer's job more repetitive and tedious. In a time when immigrants comprised a significant portion of the work force, such simple tasks allowed businesses to employ unskilled workers and pay them very little. This change in manual labor practice further alienated workers from meaningful work and created environments that made workers quite like the machines they operated.

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