Arthur Dove, Art Gallery

Swing Era: Painting the Jazz Product

Arthur Dove, Me and the Moon, 1937. Wax emulsion on canvas, 18 x 26 in. Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection.

What constitutes American painting?

When a man paints the El, a 1740 house or a miner's shack, he is likely to be called by his critics, American. These things may be in America, but it's what is in the artist that counts. What do we call "American" outside of painting? Inventiveness, restlessness, speed, change.

Well, then, a painter may put all these qualities in a still life or an abstraction, and be going more native than another who sits quietly copying a skyscraper.

--Arthur Dove

Painter Arthur Dove (1880-1946) embraced the abstraction brought to swing by commercialization and technological intervention. Indeed, as evidenced by this quote, he did not view such forces as corruptions of artistic content, but as manifestations of the unique American sensibility.

Dove made a habit of working while listening to jazz on the radio. Art historian Donna Cassidy writes:

On the phonograph and radio music was divorced from its original source--the performer--and was reproduced and transmitted by invisible forces. From this mechanically reproduced music Dove painted abstractions and pseudo-landscapes, letting sounds stimulate his visual imagination.
As Dove's wife recalled, two of Dove's paintings: The Moon Was Laughing at Me (1937), and Me and the Moon (1937), were directly inspired by the artist's radio listening. They represent Dove's impressions of two songs popular in 1936: "The Moon Is Grinning at Me," and "Me and the Moon."

Dove himself explained:

How do you feel about a person when you're talking over the phone? If you know them, or if you don't know them, do you get something, do you put that into words of your own, from what they say, or from what you think? Or if it were music over the radio, have you ever tried to think how it would look?
Thus, Dove employed abstracted forms in his work, in order to sort through the abstraction of modern, technologically mediated American life, and to examine its impact on the individual American's consciousness and creativity. He embraced the spirit of commercialized swing as a model for creation of specifically "American" art.
Resources: Donna M. Cassidy, Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910-1940, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1997.
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