In form we trust: Neoplatonism, the gold standard, and the Machine Art show, 1934.

Author:Marshall, Jennifer Jane

In the spring of 1934, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of New York's new Museum of Modern Art, 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, Machine Art displayed some six hundred artifacts of mechanized mass production like so much modern sculpture, hoisted in top of pedestals, set low on the floor, and arranged along gallery 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. Every gallery in all four stories of the museum'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 round.


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 during its six-week run in New York and throughout its lengthy nationwide tour, lasting until December 1938. As an exhibit of ordinary objects, Machine Art also drew praise for its apparent populism. A shoe 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. What'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) (1) Cheap things could have value, too, and this was no small comfort during what proved to be one of the lowest points of the American Great Depression. Indeed, Machine Art was in many ways the quint-essential example of Depression-era modernism: inexpensive to mount, sensibly functionalist, and a boosterish endorsement of both American industry and tasteful consumerism. Accordingly, the show also bore the reactionary hallmarks 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 Art embraced the machine, sure enough, but in the conservative 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. All 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 history. (2) 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 vies 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 interwar decades of the twentieth century, 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 stuffs. 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 reviews, the current cultural criticism had come to take this broad-based reevaluation 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 milieu in which value obtained in the relations between things, not in things themselves, nor even in any overarching standard ideal. Harvard University 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." (3) Modern meaning was an abstraction; it was unmoored from standards and divorced from the palpable proof of materiality as such.

Besides consumer goods and contemporary art, which both suffered criticism during these years for an apparent drift away from principles (and were both very 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 particulars to abstract universals. A "triumph," Simmel called it, "One of the great accomplishments of the mind." (4) 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 observed, "There is something about 'money' nowadays which resembles time and space, at least in the matter of its elusiveness as a concept." (5) Like time and space, particularly after Einstein revolutionized their study, money seemed more and more like an indecipherable abstraction, well beyond the comprehension of most people living under its spell. Some moderns, including Georges Bataille in Paris and Marcel Duchamp in New York, took notice of money's new semiotic openness and pulled further at this loose thread. Others, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, leavened their modernism with the conservative monetary analogies of the American Social Credit Movement, upholding faith in currency and rejecting the abstractions of usury and debt. (6) In our time, the literary critics and art historians who have examined the 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. (7) However, another analogy 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 boarding gold.

Machine Art offered an aesthetic philosophy of meaning matched 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 value--a conceit underscored both in Barr's text for the show and in Johnson's installation--the two men advanced a model of artistic beauty guaranteed by timeless ideals. Raphael Demos, an interpreter of Plato during these years (and a mentor to Johnson at Harvard), wrote that "universals may be called abstractions, if the word abstraction be used neutrally, without derogation as to realness." (8) Machine Art retained responsibility, above all, to the stabilizing force of this realness; realness as conceived doubly not just as Demos's Platonic ideal (which he called the "really real" (9)) 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 Art show had real social significance given the historical circumstance of value's increasing dematerialization, especially as signaled by the 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 ideals: 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. However, the Plato of Machine Art was a very particular version of Plato. Machine Art's Plato belonged to the Neoplatonic tradition heralded by Plotinus in the third century and extending into the twentieth to include both progressive advocates of the avant-garde and conservative philosophers seeking an alternative to the growing dominance of American pragmatism (known for its rejection of ideals). In its...

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