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Unpublished Paper
Selling "America": Precisionism and the rhetoric of industry, 1916-1939
Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (2001)
  • Sharon L. Corwin, Colby College

This dissertation considers Precisionist art in the context of the forms, practices, and ideologies of American mass-industrial culture. It situates the art of Precisionism within a specific set of concerns that marked 1920s and 1930s America: the position of labor under scientific management, the cultural roles of the commodity and the machine, the impact of the Great Depression upon representational practice, and the depiction of the American landscape. In addition, the text launches a socio-historical inquiry into the modes of production that governed Precisionist practice and the ways in which its works were harnessed to support particular ideological programs through advertisements, trade literature, and art exhibitions. This study argues against the reductive notion that Precisionist images were simply co-opted by capitalist interests and instead insists on acknowledging the ambivalences and complexities which mark the Precisionist project. One of the sites of greatest tension occurs around the representation of working bodies and machine subjects. Questions of labor and the forces of mass industrialism thus form a central axis of this thesis and serve to install the figure of labor--both the worker's and the artist's--firmly within a history of Precisionism.

Chapter One examines Charles Sheeler's 1927 photographic commission for Ford Motor Company. Sheeler's photographs of Ford's River Rouge plant depict the massive machines and monumental architecture of the Ford factory. They also, importantly, picture Ford workers. This chapter contends that these laboring figures are crucial to both a history of Ford Motor Company and a full account of Sheeler's artistic practice. Using the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White as a case study, Chapter Two explores the role of modern photography in American consumer culture, as well as the reciprocity between artists and advertisers, Precisionist art and corporate America. Chapter Three considers Precisionist painting within the rhetorics of scientific management and mass production and proposes a reading of Precisionism within an aesthetic of efficiency. Through the urban-industrial and rural-agrarian imagery of Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler, the subjects of America's agrarian past are seen through the formal lens of its industrial present. Chapter Four argues that the Precisionist project is bound to the binary poles of technological progress and rural nostalgia.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Sharon L. Corwin. "Selling "America": Precisionism and the rhetoric of industry, 1916-1939" Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (2001)
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