The world was never the same after World War II. There were millions of dead; buildings, crops, and infrastructure were destroyed; and the land, air, and beaches were polluted. Families were decimated, and even many of the families that were still intact suffered from emotional and psychological problems. Food was scarce and business had to retool from war production to civil production. The post war world focused on getting back to normal. But it was a new normal. There was an increased emphasis on speed and there was better communication. Charles Lindbergh had become the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and now there were flights to Europe often. The first true “talking picture”, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, had revolutionized the motion picture industry. There were still shortages and in some parts of the world hunger was ever present. The GI bill enabled returning soldiers to attend school. Reality was swallowed up by the newcomer: television. Artists ignored the past or remade it to say something new.

Artists came back from their wartime service with new ideas but many had broken minds and bodies. The kid next door in Kansas now had friends in countries around the world and many brought home new wives from “foreign” countries. There was a new interest in consumerism, and there were new ways to market everything. Goods became disposable, mass produced, and low cost. Art was no longer just to be hung on the wall in a museum. It could be anywhere. The canvas was no longer a window into space but a surface, like a desktop onto which things could be piled. The ability to mass produce images spawned repetition and chaos and a consumer culture. Artists used found objects and new materials and new combinations of materials.

Some artists searched for ways to minimalize their materials, sweeping away the idea of the artist as a generator of form. Warhol was a master at this as he produced repeated images of famous people like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis and Mao Zedung in garish colors. Lichtenstein used the dots he saw in cheap comic book images to create his huge works of art. Sculpture became site specific, like Spiral Jetty built on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. Museums might put their art outside of their galleries on the street or on the roof instead of inside in a gallery. Or museums might become a supermarket for culture. Artists might make their work oversized, like Oldenburg’s giant Swiss Army Knife which he depicted floating down a canal in Venice to symbolize the invasion of tourism and modern materials into ancient cities. For some artists the work of art was about the idea and the process of creation rather than the end result.


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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