By beauty of shapes I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the beauty of living figures or of pictures, but, to make my point clear, I mean straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made from them by lathe, ruler and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely. -Plato

With this quote from an iconic if ancient figure of culture, the Museum of Modern Art launched its 1934 Machine Art exhibit. In this exposition, which ran from March 6 to April 30, the Chairman of the Department of Architecture and Exhibition Director Philip Johnson displayed over 400 hundred items from daily life and offered them as examples of modern high culture. The catalog, as carefully constructed as the installation itself, categorized the pieces as "industrial units," "household and office equipment," "kitchenware," "house furnishings and accessories," "scientific instruments," and "laboratory glass and porcelain." Like the Macy's exposition before it, the installment also paid homage to the novel industrial materials that enabled the emergence of machine art. One art historian explains: "The entire three floors of MoMA's townhouse were redesigned to create an aesthetic shrine to the beauty of 'machine art.' Panels were erected and walls were encased in shining steel, copper, canvas, and linen. Neutral colors and diverse textures dominated, but some walls were painted pale blue, pale pink, dark red, and rust red" (Staniszewski 153). A critic from The New Yorker, in fact, wrote, "The place itself looks, more than anything else, like a very elaborate hardware store." This tongue-in-cheek comment captures, perhaps better than Plato, the atmosphere of the exhibition. For while Johnson's work attempts to underscore the tacit beauty of form respective of function, it also successfully transformed the museum exhibition hall into a department store display window.

Intending to offer the first permanent collection of its kind, the originators of the Museum of Modern Art recognized the difficulty of their task. Modern art, first, could be defined only ambiguously. Conger Goodyear, the Museum's first president, asserted in 1943 that "Modern Art began fifty or sixty years ago with the Big-Four of Post-Impression: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and van Gogh. The common characteristic of these men was originality" (Goodyear 11). However, Goodyear also insisted that "[t]he artist who merely tries to be different will end by being nothing" (11). Moreover, even those who could recognize modern art did not necessarily appreciate its aesthetics or its cultural value. According to Goodyear, the most direct influence on the creation of the MoMA was the 1913 Armory Show. He explains, "[t]here and then for the first time the general public was excited, shocked, delighted, amused, disgusted and thrilled by the paintings and sculpture of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi and their fellows of the school of Paris" (13). Soon after, two wealthy art patrons, Lillie Bliss and Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, began discussing the need for a museum for such works. They quickly brought Mrs. John D. Rockefeller on board, as well as Goodyear.

By July 1929, the group had developed a statement of purpose, which included the showcasing of "as complete a representation as may be possible of the great modern masters--American and European" (Goodyear 15). They also allowed themselves some creative freedom, writing that "the possibilities of such an institution are so varied and so great that it seems unwise now to lay down too definite a program" (15.) That same month, Alfred Barr Jr. accepted the position of museum director, and, in November, the institution offered its first show, a collection of works from the "Big-Four." In the following years, as the Museum struggled to find its niche, its expositions included American and international painting, sculpture, lithographs, photography, architecture, and theatre art. Johnson's 1934 Machine Art exhibition, however, somewhat refined MoMA's focus. It firmly established a commitment to American artists, innovative shows, and an expanded appreciation for what qualified as art.

With the depression firmly established, Johnson seemed to place a high premium on the functional value and commercial aspects of art. His show suggested that even people with modest incomes could afford what was beautiful. Moreover, he demonstrated that what was beautiful was also useful, that money could last longer when spending also satisfied the overlapping purposes of necessity and desire. The catalog, written by Johnson with a forward by Barr, outlines the rise of machine art in Europe first as the ugly stepsister to hand-made crafts and then as an artistic enterprise, itself. However, Johnson also locates the origins of American machine art in technology and industry: "The situation in America has been somewhat special. The Arts and Crafts developments in Europe have affected us less whereas the tradition of machine construction has been purer and stronger" (Museum of Modern Art). Europe has her artistic heritage; America has her manufacturing foundations.

Machine Art highlighted American-made and, no less important, American-marketed and American-consumed products. In addition to the six categories, the catalog explains, "within each division the objects are listed according to use" (Museum of Modern Art). The listings include the name of the item, the manufacturer, the designer, and the price with a final note that "unless otherwise specified the objects may be purchased from the manufacturer." Industrial objects include cables, springs, ball bearings, wire rope, insulators, boat propellers, and car pistons. Cabinets, mirrors, sinks, broom closets, fans, vacuums, and lamps appear under home and office equipment. Kitchenware offers pots, pans, coffee urns, bowls, ladles, and the like. House furnishings and accessories, the largest category, comprises silverware, porcelain flatware, tumblers, bowls, ashtrays vases, billiard balls and furniture. The last two groups--scientific instruments and laboratory equipment--include microscopes, slide rules, and beakers. Every Machine Art patron was guaranteed to recognize, covet, and use these items on a daily basis; no prior art knowledge was necessary for an appreciation of the exhibits. Although removed from the normal context of their use, these objects exuded a beauty derived from familiarity and utility.

MoMA administrators, in fact, presumed that the degree to which each object integrated form and function would determine their level of aesthetic value. Therefore, Machine Art included machine-made products, as well as the machines--or parts of them--themselves. Intricacy and complexity did not guarantee beauty. In fact, in this atmosphere of form dependent on function, an understanding of the mechanics enhanced a viewer's response. Barr believed an understanding of function to be an enrichment of the object's artistic worth, and in his forward writes:

A knowledge of function may be of considerable importance in the visual enjoyment of machine art…. Mechanical function and utilitarian function--'how it works' and 'what it does'--are distinct problems, the former requiring in many cases a certain understanding of mechanics, the latter, of practical use. Whoever understands the dynamics or pitch in propeller blades or the distribution of forces in a ball bearing so that he can participate imaginatively in the action of mechanical functions is likely to find that this knowledge enhances the beauty of the objects (Museum of Modern Art).

Some patrons, however, disagreed, finding the enigmatic qualities of unfamiliar industrial parts far more remarkable than the unremarkable familiarity of kitchenware. New York Times critic, Edward Alden Jewell, explains his experience thus:

[F]or the layman in general it is probably much easier to apprehend qualities of abstract or 'ideal' beauty in isolated units such as springs, coils, ball-bearings, insulators, tubes, gears and propellers than in kitchen pots and pans, grills, percolators, furnaces, cash registers and paper drinking cups. Everyday, matter-of-fact familiarity with the functional aspect tends to interfere with our effort to see an object as, first of all, a 'pure' shape--one that is to be considered 'not beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely'…. I found it, save in the sections that relate to industrial units and to scientific instruments about which I know little or nothing, impossible to perceive beauty as not inextricably bound up in the function of the object (Jewell, "The Machine and Abstract Beauty").

Jewell's opinion, in fact, was supported by the general public, the presumably untutored in technical machinery. However, industrial experts seemed to follow Barr's hypothetical pattern. In a well-publicized contest, a group of industrial experts selected items of machinery, but in an equally touted poll, technologically untutored patrons did, too.

Machine Art glorified modern American industry, and encouraged viewers to participate in the revelry first by revering the corporate contributors, then by handling, buying, and judging their wares. The catalog--which provided not only prices but also the names of designers, manufacturers, and stores where the products were likely to be found--essentially doubled as an order form. The manufacturers, however, were treated as artists, not just mere producers. "Studding the walls throughout the exhibition," writes one art historian, "in clear, legibly sized black lettering were the names of U.S. companies: Aluminum Company of America, U.S. Steel Corporation, Bingham Stamping and Tool, America Sheet and Tin Plate Company, American Radiator Company" (Staniszewski 159). Dazzled by advertisement-like ambiance, "visitors transgressed museum codes of behavior and went so far as to handle and test the products, check prices, and attempt to make purchases. In other words, they were shopping" (159). Museum curators more than tolerated such behavior: they encouraged visitors to embrace the pieces, to make machine art their own, by conducting a visitor poll.

A panel of experts--aviator Amelia Earhart, Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, Columbia University professor John Dewey, and the Museum of Science and Industry's Professor Charles Richards--judged a section of spring (No.2), an outboard propeller (No. 14), and a self-aligning ball bearing (No. 13) as worthy of first-, second-, and third-place respectively. The public, however, also voted, and came up with alternate winners: a triple mirror for light signals (No. 341), a large bronze boat propeller (No. 40), and an aluminum airplane propeller (No. 42) (Storrey). In fact, one MoMA historian notes the museum's attempt to facilitate public enthusiasm for the everyday quality of art:

If it is not within the province of a museum to show the public that beauty is within the reach of those of modest incomes, that beauty can be made a part of their daily lives and need not be confined to the walls and halls of our museums, whether modern or ancient, then those who have been interested in the activities of the Museum of Modern Art have a basically erroneous conception of such an institution's value (Goodyear 47).

In America art and everyday products fused to such a degree that Machine Art patrons were not just visiting an exhibit. They purchased the items and brought art--in the form of chairs, billiard balls, and plumbing fixtures--into their living rooms, recreation areas, and most private sanctums.

According to the Museum's attendance ledger, 31,200 people visited the exhibit over the course of two months, suggesting the public's eager acceptance of Machine Art. However, the cultural elite, the critics, also embraced the show, though some more hesitantly than others. Jewell lauded both the content of the exhibit and the underlying form-function argument. He wrote, "No doubt the remarkable Machine Art show at the Museum of Modern Art tends to make anything less brilliantly choisi and less impressively arranged look a little indifferent" ("A Post-Lenten Revival of Activity"). In an article that confirmed the cultural significance of the MoMA, he also asserted that "The exhibition, one of the most engrossing ever held here, is irradiated with a beauty that lifts function to its loftiest plane" (Jewell "The Machine and Abstract Beauty"). A conservative critic from Art Digest wrote: "The only art in the present show is that contributed by Philip Johnson…. He is our best showman, and possibly the world's best. I'll say 'world's best' until proof to the contrary be submitted. He has such a genius for grouping things together and finding just the right background and the right light" (Qtd in Staniszewski 158). The reporter refused to acknowledge the machine products as art, despite his obvious appreciation for the industrial-materials-inspired backdrop. The installation, which featured light-concealing dropped-canvas ceilings, glass shelves, and railings of bent metal among other innovations, highlighted and employed aspects of machine art, and, therefore, the critique is essentially a masked commendation. The New Yorker ran a sarcasm-riddled report in the "Talk of the Town" section: "Their idea, you know, is to show the beauty to be found in objects of purely mechanical manufacture…. It's disturbing, after all, to discover that you've been surrounded by beauty all your life and have never known it." However, the snobbish reviewer, whose name is not given, refrains from actually lambasting the show, its director, or even the museum. Although the writer may object to the burgeoning modern art movement, his reluctant acquiescence recognizes both its position within American culture and his inability to prevent its pervasion.

The extent to which commerce and culture overlapped in America is evident not only on Machine Art, itself, but in the mindset of museum administrators, as well. Barr's plan for the museum indicated a two-pronged understanding of the nature of American art that recognizes the importance of unabashed public opinion as well as the need to operate within preordained notions of culture:

The development of an institution such as ours need not have followed a coordinated plan. It might have 'just growed,' reacting to supply and demand, seizing opportunities, developing new capacities for services or competition like a creature in a Darwinian system of evolution. Certain functions of the Museum actually did develop in this way without premeditated plan….But the development of the Museum as an organization of curatorial departments occupied with the modern visual arts…has followed a definite long range plan which was proposed before the Museum opened (Goodyear 137, emphasis added).

In referring to a "premeditated plan," Barr established the MoMA's beginnings as somewhat elitist: in organization and philosophy, the museum followed the respected example of existing art institutions. However, his invocation of highly recognizable business and socio-biological terms suggests an awareness of and willingness to address the firm entrenchment of art in everyday life among the general public. Machine Art, in fact, set the standard for both the permanent collection and temporary exhibits at the museum for years to come. As one art historian claims, "[a]lthough MoMA's curators would be a laboratory for installation experimentation during the decades following the Machine Art show, Johnson's 1934 modernist aesthetic and exhibition technique came to dominate as the standard at the Museum in later years" (Staniszewski 159). More important, the museum purchased one hundred of the exhibit pieces, which form the core of the design collection, and significantly Philip's architecture department came to include industrial art, as well.

The MoMA's categorical acceptance of machine art products ultimately boosted the sale of American-made goods and strengthened a growing alliance between artists and manufacturers: "The importance of the design collection is essentially that it takes seriously (indeed, often solemnly) what manufacturers turn out for a mass (and sometimes for a class) market, and that its curators and directors have been able to convince manufacturers--at least a few manufacturers--that 'good design' is good business" (Lynes 317). Some even considered Machine Art to be "the beginning of the Museum's career as a household tastemaker." The art world as a whole, however, did not embrace the MoMA's approach to exhibition and installation, as Machine Art did not shatter existing notions of museum propriety (Lynes 91). Existing institutions, such as New York's own Metropolitan Museum of Art, did not close its doors. Nor did it suddenly tear down the carefully placed barricades that protected the art from the viewer. Perhaps most significant, although lower- and even middle-class Americans continued to purchase consumables like those endorsed by Machine Art, they did not begin amassing expensive art collections of Goodyear's Big-Four. Therefore, Johnson's exhibit signified the cultural acceptance of "machine art," a genre that essentially evolved from the low-brow crafts and folk arts, as high art, but it did not eliminate the gap between this emerging form and more classic styles. It allowed beauty to be discovered, as Plato predicted, in simple forms, such as that found in industry, but it did not promote democratic ideals within the art world. Machine Art did not change public, or elitist, attitudes toward art, but it did mark increasing latitude in the exhibition of modern art. In breaking down the wall between art and commercial products, it also promoted a resurgence in capitalism and the greater cooperation between designers and manufacturers.
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