A Hell Of A Town: The Artistic Explosion of ‘30s New York

The Wall Street crash of 1929 was the seminal event that propelled not just the art, but also the people of New York City into the twentieth century.

That was the subject of a seminar Saturday at the S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C. Johns Hopkins University professors and native New Yorkers George Scheper and Saul Lilienstein explained that Black Tuesday was the dividing line between distinct periods in art history.

The 1920s were an exuberant time, Scheper said, reflected in the music of the Jazz Age and in modernist works like Joseph Stella’s famous impressionist depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bouncing back from going broke

When the market crashed on Black Tuesday, Scheper said, the forms of modernism that were so celebrated in the “Roaring Twenties” were cast aside, in favor of a return to the kind of social realism and escapism that had defined an earlier era.

“When people are casting about and unemployed and trying to support themselves and their families, somehow the exuberance of the modernist art falls out of favor,” said Scheper. “Whereas pictures of guys working, becomes a more hopeful kind of thing.”

Architecture pivoted from old-fashioned buildings of load-bearing stone, to the first examples of modern skyscrapers. The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, and was built on a core of more than 60,000 tons of steel.

Scheper said that even though the Empire State Building was largely empty for decades and didn’t turn a profit for its owners until 1950, it was a beacon of hope for New York City residents.

The 1930s also saw the construction of iconic buildings like the Museum of Modern Art, the Chrysler Building, and the Rockefeller Center. Scheper said that these renowned works of architecture not only put people to work, but they became symbols of a city rising from the ashes of economic collapse.

Music leaves no stone unturned

The city itself was changing in spectacular ways, but that didn’t ease the pain of the Great Depression for a significant portion of New Yorkers.

Saul Lilienstein, a professor of music, played Cab Calloway’s famous “Minnie the Moocher.” He said it was a prime example of the era’s musical realism. The song, popularized by its inclusion in a famous Betty Boop short, tells the story of a woman abandoned by a man addicted to opium and heroin to a lilting, jazzy beat.

It was in music, Lilienstein said, that the seedy underbelly of a city wracked by the Great Depression was reflected.

But not all the music of the era focused on sadness and despair. Lilienstein said Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’” captured the defiance of the African-American community. It depicts a group holding a raucous neighborhood party to try and raise enough money for rent.

“Artists like Fats Waller became famous because they met depression with joy,” Lilienstein said.

Lessons for today

This artistic response on the part of New Yorkers to trial and tragedy is not limited to the 1930s. Scheper said the city reacted to the September 11 terrorist attacks by rejecting post-modern irony, for example.

What is different today, Scheper said, is that attitudes towards architecture and art have changed dramatically. Where art was once treated as a trade, receiving the backing of federal stimulus funds, it is now taken less seriously.

“The gallery world has enshrined art as a kind of sacrosanct thing,” Scheper said.

The story that Scheper said he wants people to know is that New York was rebuilt to a large degree with spending from corporate and government entities directed at art and architecture. The construction of parks, bridges and buildings put thousands of people to work, and left a legacy that would please millions for years to come.

With New York City struggling to rebuild once again after another body blow in the form of Hurricane Sandy, the lessons learned in the 1930s could prove invaluable in bringing the city back from brink.

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