The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Overview
The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Overview
At the dawn of the twentieth century, many Americans were filled with both pride in their nation's past achievements and confidence in their bright future. Technological and manufacturing advances since the Civil War (1861–65) had allowed the United States to become an international power, and its citizens enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world. Most Americans believed that the new century would look much like the old century: Moral values would remain constant, scientific progress would continue to benefit society, and traditional themes in arts and culture would endure. When we look back, however, we can see problems that might have tempered the confidence and optimism that characterized the public's mood.
In the arts, a cultural gap between the classes was becoming increasingly evident. The lower classes, which often earned less than five dollars per week, saw the arts as a luxury they could not afford. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid generally filled their free time at penny arcades, the nickelodeon, and dance halls, or in activities related to their ethnic traditions. In contrast, the cultural elite continued to celebrate "highbrow" arts such as the opera, the symphony, Broadway theater, and the pastime of collecting Asian and European antiquities. The middle class patronized the museums and libraries built by the elite's philanthropy. They also enjoyed family-friendly vaudeville shows. At home, middle-class entertainment centered on the piano or phonograph in the parlor.
"Popular culture" was an unknown term in this era without television or radio, but it was fast becoming a phenomenon. Mass marketing was succeeding at bringing mainstream entertainment to a large portion of the population. However, the cultural elite remained immersed in the "genteel tradition" that emphasized the romantic idealism and studied refinement of the past. The nineteenth century and its grandeur in painting, art, music, and literature was viewed as the height of human artistic achievement. Those artists, writers, and musicians who dared to be experimental and creative were met with rejection and ridicule. Americans in the first decade of the twentieth century were content with traditional styles in the arts. American art and literature had advanced dramatically in the 1800s and was finally up to European standards. The so-called custodians of culture were satisfied with these accomplishments and did not seek change. Still, some individual artists and writers were innovators who began to challenge popular norms and tastes. Individually, and in groups or "movements," they pushed the American arts toward a dynamic path that would characterize much of the twentieth century. The term "modernists" has been used to describe those cultural innovators who deliberately set out to diverge from established traditions in the arts.
While most Americans had not embraced modernism, the years 1900 to 1909 were not without some innovations and accomplishments. In literature, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) shocked readers with its frank treatment of sexuality. Although the novel was praised for its gritty realism, its publishers suppressed the work for years for fear that it would disturb readers. Some writers like Gertrude Stein left the United States for the more liberal Europe in hopes of finding an audience. On the art scene, critics were appalled by the "modern art" that was emerging. The slum life depicted in "Ash Can"-style paintings scandalized those who objected to its unsavory subject matter and loose painterly style. In the field of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was building his long, low, environmentally friendly Prairie Style designs while architects from the Chicago school were creating gigantic steel skyscrapers. The rising Arts and Crafts design movement announced a transition away from the elaborate and ornate style that characterized the Victorian era. Even music was a center of innovation, as Scott Joplin developed ragtime and Ma Rainey sang the blues. Despite these and other cultural innovators' best efforts, however, the mainstream public remained largely unresponsive to their creations.
No means of mass communication yet existed that could offer the entire nation common information and ideas. Print was the first medium to reach a national audience, but it was stratified. The elite read literary journals such as The Atlantic and Harper's Bazaar, which filled their pages with works by respected authors like Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Sarah Orne Jewett. On the other hand, the masses read serialized romances and adventure stories printed on inexpensive paper. Among the works most popular with the mainstream public were Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1905), a racist view of the Old South; Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), a novel of Western heroism; and Alice Hegan Rice's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901). Jack London became wealthy with the success of his many adventure novels like The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). Horatio Alger was another prominent writer whose 135 rags-to-riches tales found mass acceptance.