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Review: Cult of the Machine at the de Young

Let’s flash again to the Machine Age, the interval in American historical past that gave us the meeting line, the primary nonstop transcontinental flight, common radio broadcasts, and the primary robotic able to performing greater than 20 actions. These technological developments impressed a mode of artwork known as Precisionism, popularized by massive names like Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.

The Cult of the Machine exhibit on the de Younger museum in San Francisco is a mirrored image of attitudes towards machines and robotics throughout the Machine Age, the interval between the 2 world wars throughout which industrial effectivity was the reigning mantra. In an period the place effectivity was seen as each stunning and as a risk, there was an inflow of artwork impressed by anxieties individuals had in regards to the rise of business expertise. The exhibit rehashes the “are machines a pal or foe to people?” debate by a Precisionist lens with a radical, presumably too thorough, assortment.

Curated by Emma Acker, the exhibit is predominantly Precisionist works. Precisionism is an early 20th century American modernist type that was born from artists who synthesized European cubism and futurism with the American imaginative and prescient of business, city themes. We see smokestacks, factories, bridges and skyscrapers painted with geometric, clean strategies.

Technologists right this moment have expressed concern in regards to the takeover of robotics, decline in manufacturing jobs, shedding management to AIs, biased algorithms and the loss of craftsmanship to machines. Each tech firm has a technique round machine studying and AI. Venture capitalists are investing in robotics startups. There are robots designed to make pizzas. Robots that autonomously deliver goods by the final mile. Autonomous automobiles designed to exchange drivers and flying vehicles on the horizon. Tech continues to make our world extra environment friendly and handy, however it’s inconceivable to foretell whether or not machines will finally assist or hinder us as a species. When strolling by the Cult of the Machine exhibit on the de Younger, one begins to surprise if this line of questioning will ever finish.

Duality of machines as mild and darkish

The de Younger assortment is a stability between the anxieties People felt towards expertise throughout the Machine Age, combined with the hope that expertise dropped at a extra linked, handy world. One gallery dives into menacing interpretations of what expertise meant throughout the interval. Charles Sheeler’s “Suspended Energy,” a 1939 oil on canvas depicts a big machine hanging over a couple of small people in a manufacturing facility — a stark illustration of the immense, barely-controlled energy expertise can exert over humanity — and the way with one mis-engineered piece, we could possibly be crushed. The piece is the star of the exhibit, encapsulating the looming, unquantifiable risk of the longer term.


Artists definitely noticed the darkness in America’s worship of trade. Take Charles Demuth’s, “Incense of a New Church,” 1921. Right here a manufacturing facility is in comparison with a church, smoke to incense.

A lot of the exhibit is scenes of factories, smokestacks and concrete landscapes void of people, motion and shade. The items themselves seem like they have been painted by machines, with no brush strokes to be detected. It could possibly be the mixture of the monotony of this artwork — the amount of immobile city landscapes — that makes elements of the exhibit really feel empty and tedious. However that simply will be the level.

Clarence Holbrook Carter’s “Conflict Bride,” closes the exhibit. A bride stands to face her groom, a machine.

The absence of human error evokes anonymity and alienation that exist in a technological world. There’s an eerie vacancy to those shut up photographs of mechanical techniques. But they’re the small items that make up our world.

Complicated effectivity with magnificence 

In the course of the Machine Age, the demand for effectivity turned the driving drive of the fashionable period. Its simple to see how effectivity was confused with magnificence, relatively than seen because the success of financial wants. But artists have been discovering that means within the intersection of artwork, commerce and trade.

“I communicate in [the] tongue of my occasions. The mechanical, the economic. Something that works effectively is gorgeous.” – Charles Sheeler.

This exhibit will not be by any means stunning. There’s nothing right here that one may be impressed to hold on a lounge wall.

Nonetheless, for the primary time “artists began to find magnificence and that means in our American material of trade and manufacturing and elevated it to the extent of wonderful artwork,” says Acker. “The concepts and themes explored within the works from this era appear to resonate a lot with our present second. That’s what I needed to emphasise. Precisionism was the springboard for occupied with bigger themes round our relationship to expertise throughout the Machine Age and right this moment. And the way the excitements and anxieties People skilled round tech innovation are mirrored in our similar social forces right this moment.”

Battle between people and machines 

Maybe probably the most attention-grabbing a part of the exhibit is an interactive function that invitations guests to pick out three phrases out of 30 to precise what expertise means to them. Among the choices are: inventive, interconnected, revolutionary, automated, isolating, surveillance, collaborative, addicting, alienating, chilly. On the finish of the exhibit probably the most frequently-selected phrases are displayed in a collective phrase portrait.


The phrase cloud is up to date each three seconds, and is contrasted with one other phrase cloud. The opposite is a composite of Machine Age phrases describing expertise, drawn from 1920s-1930s American periodicals. Dimension and shade of the phrases is decided by how incessantly it appeared within the texts. It appears the guests of this exhibit have extra optimistic views of tech than the media throughout the Machine Age did.

General the exhibit connects two views of expertise: a cult-like promise of a greater engineered world, and the crushing concern of the unknown threatening humanity’s livelihood.

The place does this go away us now? “We will relate to [the Machine Age] now as we enter this fourth industrial revolution. We’re trying ahead with pleasure and a few trepidation towards disruption, displacement and adjustments on the horizon,” says Acker.

Cult of the Machine: Precisionsim and American Artwork runs by August 12, 2018 on the de Younger Museum in San Francisco. For these taken with exploring how tech has formed artwork all through American historical past, this exhibit is one to see.


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About Alejandro Bonaparte

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