The 1910s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1910s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News



As the 1910s began, the National Academy of Design was the policy maker for fine art in the United States. The academy promoted and exhibited paintings representing only the genres of art that it deemed acceptable. These included the landscape paintings of Winslow Homer, the portraits of John Singer Sargent, and the impressionist works of William Merritt Chase. Impressionist works were so named because they recorded impressions of their subject matter without a great deal of detail. Excluded from the list were a number of painters who were working outside the academy's boundaries of acceptability. Among the "outcasts" were Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B.

Davies. These painters—who became known as The Eight—created art in a realistic style and, for the most part, concerned themselves with less refined, sometimes seedy aspects of urban life. In doing so, they were questioning the very definition of "art."

In 1908, The Eight arranged an exhibit of their works; all but two of the pieces on display, both by Henri, had been rejected by the academy. Then, in 1910, The Eight held a larger, open showing called the Exhibition of Independent Artists. Nearly two thousand people attended this exhibition, which was considered rebellious because it was not authorized by the academy. Further breaking with tradition, the Exhibition of Independent Artists established no juries (committees for judging) and awarded no prizes.

As the decade advanced, a growing number of artists joined the movement, including several whose coarse, earthy subjects secured them membership in what was known as the Ash Can school. The name stemmed from a painting by John Sloan (1871–1951) of a woman rummaging through a trash can. Among the most famous Ash Can paintings are Sloan's McSorley's Bar (1912) and Cliff Dwellers (1913), by George Bellows (1882–1925).

In addition to the Ash Can realists, painters such as Max Weber (1881–1961), Joseph Stella (1877–1946), and others joined the artists who had risen in rebellion against the academy and its rigid guidelines for art. Additionally, two photographers, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and Edward Steichen (1879–1973), helped to develop photography into a new kind of fine art. Later in the 1910s, American artists who had been influenced by other European abstract art movements became part of the everstrengthening fellowship of modern artists.


In 1910, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (1882–1931) first appeared on an American stage where she captivated audiences dancing the Dying Swan ballet. Her performance influenced mothers across the nation to dress their daughters in leotards and tutus and pay for ballet lessons. In 1916, Russian Sergey Diaghilev (1872–1929) brought the famed Ballet Russes to the United States, and Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950) made his American debut. The company offered a modern style of ballet that broke with the formal standards of classic choreography, incorporating dance steps with music and stage design. In addition, innovative modernist dancer Isadora Duncan (1878–1927) performed on stages in New York City and San Francisco in 1914 and 1917. These events forever changed American dance.

Even so, it was the dance team of New Jersey-born Ruth St. Denis (1878–1968) and Denver native Ted Shawn (1891–1972) that made the deepest impression with the American public. St. Denis had been a dancer in vaudeville and in Broadway revues until she teamed with Shawn, a former theology student. The couple, who met in 1914 and married in 1915, believed that spirituality could be expressed through body movement. Their dances emphasized the connection of mind, body, and soul. In 1915, they established Denishawn, a dance company and school, in Los Angeles. During the next seventeen years, Denishawn dancers, including their star pupil Martha Graham (1894–1991), performed original choreography across the nation. Several of their dances were purely American with subjects such as cowboys or industrial workers, while other were influenced by Orientalism, an involvement with Asian culture that was fashionable in the United States and Europe at the time.


A number of significant American novels in the 1910s were penned by writers from the Midwest, including Nebraskan Willa Cather (1873–1947); Booth Tarkington (1869–1946) and Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), both from Indiana; Edgar Lee Masters (1869–1950) and Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) of Illinois; Ohioan Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941); and

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) who grew up in Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. So strong was the Midwestern influence that Chicago became the center of a literary Renaissance during the 1910s.

These authors' writings emphasized realism and highlighted topics related to the American experience. The European influence of earlier decades was fading, and literature such as Tarkington's Penrod (1914), Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Cather's prairie novels O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918) told stories in which the regional American settings were as powerful an element as the characters themselves. The urban immigrant experience was chronicled in such novels as The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the fictional biography of a Jewish businessman, by Abraham Cahan (1860–1951).

Established novelists Edith Wharton (1862–1937) and Henry James (1843–1916) continued writing during the decade; however, their influence on other American writers was limited by the fact that both were living in Europe by the early 1910s. Wharton's writing often was gender-oriented, in that she emphasized society's treatment of women. Several of her novels concentrated on life in Europe, while her novel Ethan Frome (1911) was set in the rural Berkshires of Massachusetts. James, who became a British citizen in 1915, often wrote about Americans traveling in Europe.

Pulitzer Prize Winners

The Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded in 1917 for journalism, biography, and history. Prizes in the categories of drama and fiction were added the following year.

Pulitzer Prize for fiction: His Family by Ernest Poole.
Pulitzer Prize for drama: Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams.

Pulitzer Prize for fiction: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington.
Pulitzer Prize for drama: no award.

Poetry also was a popular form of literature, and a growing number of new poets published in magazines such as Smart Set, The Atlantic Monthly, and Vanity Fair. To further accommodate the market for modern poetry, a number of small-press magazines were founded, such as Poetry (Chicago, 1912), in which T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) published his famous "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915); The Poetry Journal (Boston, 1912); The Glebe (Ridgefield, NJ; 1913); and Others (Grantwood, NJ; 1915).

The Armory Show and Its Legacy

On February 17, 1913, an enormous exhibition of new-style art opened at the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City. It was organized by a number of independent artists who had formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors in 1911. Seventy-five thousand viewers attended the show, which included new and established European and American artists. The list of participants is impressive. Included were:

Established EuropeansEuropean NewcomersEstablished Americans
Paul CezanneConstantin BrancusiMary Cassatt
Vincent van GoghMarcel DuchampChilde Hassam
Paul GauguinHenri MatisseJames McNeill Whistler
Edouard ManetFrancis PicabiaAlbert Pinkham Ryder
Claude MonetPablo PicassoAmerican Newcomers
Camille PissarroOdilon RedonGeorge Bellows
Pierre Auguste RenoirMarsden Hartley
Auguste RodinEdward Hopper
Georges SeuratJohn Marin
Henri de Toulouse-LautrecJoseph Stella

The formats of new poetry offered an escape from older verse, taking on increasingly abstract styles. Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) used words in an innovative manner, stressing that poetry should be read aloud. She and Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) were among the first American poets to give public readings of their work. Ezra Pound (1885–1972), with Hilda Doolittle (also known as H. D. Doolittle) (1886–1961) and Richard Aldington (1892–1962), created Imagism, a literary concept that avoided unneeded words, called for direct treatment of the subject, and favored musical phrasing over strict meter (the orderly arrangement of words in a poem). By mid-decade, a number of important American poets had relocated to Paris or London.


By 1910, the motion picture business had been in existence for more than a decade. Inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931) controlled patents on many inventions that made movie-making possible. Although Edison and others experimented with synchronized sound, the movies remained silent until the end of the 1920s, when the problems of synchronizing sound with the picture and amplifying sound were solved.

Movie-making was an East Coast-based industry during its first years, and most of the films were produced in the New York City and New Jersey area. In 1908, The Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) was formed by the nine leading film companies (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Lubin, Selig, Kalem, Melies, and Pathe), along with inventor George Armat and distributor George Kleine. The organization was a trust (a combination of companies working together to reduce competition) that intended to put out of business any film companies that did not join their group. Even as the decade began, a number of film companies were moving their production facilities to other locations, including southern Florida and California. One of the reasons for the move was the attraction of good weather and lots of sunshine. Another was to avoid dealing with the MPPC. In 1917, the MPPC was disbanded by U.S. law as an illegal trust.

The Birth of a Nation Makes History Come to Life while Making History

D. W. Griffith could not have realized the enduring significance of his historical film epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) when it was in production. The film is a spellbinding melodrama of two families who wind up on opposing sides during the American Civil War. It offers exciting battle sequences, reproductions of historic events, and a captivating story of people who suffered from the war. Unfortunately, it also features one of the most bigoted depictions of African Americans in the history of the cinema. In its climax, the sympathetic Southern white characters are saved by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Although this real-life racist group had disbanded in 1869, the excitement of this blockbuster motion picture led to the rebirth of the KKK in late 1915.

The length of motion pictures changed as the decade advanced. In 1910, movies lasted between five minutes (a split-reeler) and eleven minutes (a one-reeler). In December 1910, director D.W. Griffith (1875–1948) made His Trust/His Trust Fulfilled, a two-reel film, for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. He wanted it to be seen in one sitting, but his bosses released it in two parts. Audiences craved uninterrupted storytelling and eventually, in 1911, two-reel films began to be exhibited. One of the first was Griffith's film adaptation of the celebrated poem Enoch Arden, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892).

By 1911, the film industry in Italy was making motion pictures that lasted more than one hour. When these were shown in the United States in 1911 and 1912, their popularity sparked the production of feature-length American-made movies. Two of the most significant films of the decade were the controversial Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the cinema masterpiece Intolerance (1916), which intertwined four stories. Each was produced, directed, and scripted by Griffith, and each was three hours long.

Another film maker whose movies stand out in a decade filled with innovative movie makers is Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959). In 1914, DeMille directed The Squaw Man, the first feature-length Western shot in Hollywood. Later he made films that were enjoyed by audiences who were experiencing a loosening of traditional Victorian morality in the post-World War I "Jazz Age" at the end of the decade.

Slapstick comedies were popular with American audiences. Producer Mack Sennett (1880–1960) was known as "the king of comedy." In 1912, he set up his own independent production company, Keystone. This studio was a comedy factory, turning out several short films per week, many of which featured a dimwitted police force called The Keystone Kops. Each short featured a simple plot that was peppered with a string of comic gags. Most of the gags were highly physical, and featured chase sequences. In December 1913, Sennett hired a British music hall performer and mime named Charles Chaplin (1889–1977). Soon Chaplin would become the most famous comedian in motion pictures.

In 1910, audiences went to see movies without regard for titles, production companies, directors, or actors. By mid-decade however, the star system was developing at a rapid pace. In the early years of the decade, audiences could only hope to see their favorite actors by chance because the film producers did not promote individual performers. There were ripples of discontent among moviegoers; they were unhappy about the anonymity of movie actors and wanted the studios to identify and advertise featured performers. The studio heads refused to divulge names, fearing that the popular performers would ask for higher salaries. In 1912, the bosses gave in when they realized that ticket sales rose when the actors were recognized by audiences. The first stars of the cinema were identified with the studios for which they worked. Florence Lawrence (1886–1938) was "the Biograph Girl," and Florence Turner (1885–1946) "the Vitagraph Girl." That approach was dropped after Mary Pickford (1893–1979), who moved from one studio to another, remained a favorite with fans. Other early screen stars included Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, Blanche Sweet, Maurice Costello, Francis X. Bushman, Clara Kimball Young, and western standouts Tom Mix and William S. Hart.


The public's interest in symphonic music (music played by large orchestras) grew as the music became more available through the production and sale of 78 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) recordings, radio broadcasts, and the spread of symphonic orchestras in cities across the nation. In the midst of the general appeal for this type of music among Americans, most of the music being played in concert settings was the product of European composers and was often performed by European musicians. Further, if an American wanted to train to become a composer or musician, he or she was expected to study abroad in a major European conservatory of music.

Ironically, as Americans appreciated listening to the works of such new European composers as Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953), an unrecognized American composer named Charles Ives (1874–1954) was writing works that would later be considered his finest, most enduring creations. Even so, he would not be acclaimed as a great American symphonic composer for several more decades. The Connecticut-based composer drew upon older formats of classical music but also used bold, experimental touches in his works. For instance, he repeated certain themes several times simultaneously in different keys or time signatures. In 1915, Ives wrote the piece that remains his most popular: Second Sonata for Piano, Concord, Mass., 1840–1869. It features movements titled "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts," and "Thoreau," all named after famous American writers. The fact that his work was then unfairly overlooked by the classical music community is best demonstrated by his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947 for his Third Symphony, a work that was written in 1911, but performed for the first time in 1945.

With opera, the emphasis also was on the European composers. Among the most popular new operas staged during the 1910s in American cities were Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), by German composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Still, Americans were encouraged to pursue this musical genre. In fact, during the 1910s, the New York Metropolitan Opera House (the Met), the foremost opera company in America, set up an annual competition, with a $10,000 prize, for the best new American opera. The first winner was Horatio Parker (1863–1919) of Yale University for Mona, which premiered at the Met on March 14, 1912.

Meanwhile, popular music for the masses was being produced in the form of sheet music, sold in most five-and-dime stores across the country. This music could be played in the home, and it cost a penny to ten cents per song sheet. With the rapid rise of radio programming and the recording industry during the decade, the mass marketing of popular songs increased. The production and distribution of popular songs stemmed from what had come to be known as "Tin Pan Alley." Based in New York City, this small but prolific songwriting industry actually had been concentrated in an alley on West Twenty-Eighth Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1910, the many offices of Tin Pan Alley songwriters, producers, and marketers had spread to other nearby neighborhoods.

The leading composers of popular tunes during the decade included George M. Cohan, brothers Albert and Harry Von Tilzer, Harry Ruby, Gus Kahn, Sam M. Lewis, Walter Donaldson, Joe Young, and Richard Whiting. Most successful of all was Irving Berlin (1888–1989), who composed more than three hundred songs during the decade and formed his own music company. Various categories of popular songs included ethnic novelty songs, comedy numbers, "home songs" (which were sweet tunes for women to play on their parlor pianos), "coon songs" (which emphasized aspects of African American lifestyles), and romantic ballads.

The African American influence on Tin Pan Alley music was strong. Syncopated, ragtime rhythms that had been part of African American jazz music in the first few years of the century now were entering into popular tunes. Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911)—inspired by ragtime music but lacking a feature called syncopation, in which a weak beat is stressed—was one of the most popular songs of its time. Almost singlehandedly, it sparked a ragtime fashion in popular music. A string of black composers, including Scott Joplin, James Scott, Eubie Blake, and Shelton Brooks, wrote hit songs. Joplin (1868–1917) published his second complete ragtime opera, Treemonisha, in 1911. His first one, A Guest of Honor, had appeared in 1903. W.C. Handy (1873–1958), whose "The Memphis Blues" was published in two versions in 1910 and 1912, was a pioneer in popularizing the form of jazz called the blues, a type of music that dates from the days of slavery, when African American slaves sang spirituals and work chants in the field.

Throughout the 1910s, the most popular forms of theater included music. These appealing productions were either called musicals, which were thinly plotted stories with song numbers to break up the action, or musical revues, which were separate musical numbers held together by a common theme and ending with an elaborate production number. In future decades, these forms of musical theater would take on a more formal structure and become shows that dramatically integrated musical numbers into a plot. The first musical theater to effectively do so was Show Boat in 1927.

The most memorable musical revues were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld (1867–1932). His annual Follies ran from 1907 to 1931. The shows, which featured stylish sets, new musical compositions by top Tin Pan Alley and other contemporary composers, comic sketches, and a lineup of beautiful Ziegfeld Girls, opened in New York City and then toured cities across the country. Among the stars of the Ziegfeld Follies were musical artists and comedians W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Irene Castle, and Billie Burke. Recognizing the immense popularity of the Follies, the Shubert Brothers (Sam S., Jacob J., and Lee) produced their own version of the annual revue, titled the Passing Show, which began in 1912 and also became very fashionable.

To accommodate the enthusiasm for musical revues, the Shuberts opened the sixteen-hundred-seat Winter Garden theater on Broadway between Fiftieth and Fifty-First Streets on March 20, 1911. The first show was La Belle Paree, a musical revue featuring Broadway newcomer Al Jolson (1886–1950). Jolson would be the headliner at the Winter Garden for the next fifteen years. He was a precursor to the modern-day superstar.

Dramas also were a popular form of theater. The most traditional dramas spoke of the way life ought to be, and featured happy endings. During the decade, however, more plays were produced that focused on how life actually was. These new plays explored the psychological state of the characters. A pioneer in this movement was Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). During the 1910s, O'Neill was still in the early stages of his play writing, which truly blossomed during the next decade. In the 1910s, he and other serious-minded dramatists were involved in a new manner of stage production called The Little Theater Movement, in which short plays and experimental theater were produced by companies that resided separately from larger, mainstream theaters. The Henry Street Settlement in Lower Manhattan and the Provincetown Players, which had theaters on the far tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and in Greenwich Village, New York, are examples of small theater groups that influenced the mainstream theater of the 1920s by presenting experimental works during the 1910s.

As is true of each twentieth century decade, the theater of the 1910s featured actors who were more popular than the works in which they appeared. The Barrymore family, particularly siblings Ethel (1879–1959), Lionel (1878–1954), and John (1882–1942), delighted audiences in stage dramas throughout the decade. Among their hit plays were: Mid-Channel (1910), by Arthur Wing Pinero (1855–1934), with Ethel; Justice (1916), by John Galsworthy (1867–1933), with John; and The Copperhead (1918), by Augustus Thomas (1857–1934), with Lionel. Another star of dramatic theater was Laurette Taylor (1884–1946), whose appearance in Peg o' My Heart (1912) scored a hit with audiences.


Writing the news of the day might seem to be a straightforward business, but newspapers reported regional and world events with a remarkable number of biases during the 1910s. Corruption among newspaper publishing companies was widespread during the first decade of the century. In 1911, Will Irwin (1873–1948), a former reporter for the New York Sun and editor of McClure's magazine, published an in-depth research study called "The American Newspaper" in Collier's, a popular magazine. In it, he demonstrated that certain newspapers printed the news with honesty and integrity, while others tailored the news to the advantage of their owners and advertisers.

Taking an antiwar stance was not uncommon among the African American press and various papers representing immigrant groups after World War I started in 1914. If the war was not going to further the progress of a particular segment in American society, then there was no use favoring the fighting. That remained the case until some of these antiwar presses were criticized for publishing antipatriotic statements. The passing of the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act, which were passed after the United States entered the war in 1917, allowed government officials to suppress newspapers that did not submit to official U.S. policies concerning the war. During 1917 and 1918, many socialist and foreign language papers were targeted. Some closed, while others relented and switched their editorials to reflect prowar policies.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) signed into existence the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to assure the promotion of an official government war policy and give the American public "the feeling of partisanship that comes with full, frank statements concerning the conduct of the public business." Newspaperman George Creel (1876–1953) was named chairman of the CPI. To some, Creel and his committee of expert advisers and journalists sought to supply the public with a federal war policy. To others, it seemed that the committee was waging a propaganda campaign to encourage all Americans to believe in the same policies as the government. Particularly emphasized in the Creel committee's "information" was a ferocious hatred for Germans, who often were referred to as "the Huns." The policies expounded by the CPI found their way into the newspapers, magazines, and even the novels and movies of the day.

William Randolph Hearst Takes an Unpopular Stand on World War I

William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) was one of the most powerful newspaper publishers in the country at the start of World War I, and during the war he became one of America's most hated citizens. His newspaper chain included the New York American, the San Francisco Examiner, and several other papers.

From the start of the war in Europe in 1914, Hearst's papers editorialized that America should remain out of the war. Even when America entered the conflict after three years of neutrality, Hearst maintained his controversial stance despite the strong criticism of much of his readership and other newspapers.


From 1906 to 1919, a young Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff (1891–1971) worked for the American branch of the Marconi Wireless Company. He was one of the company's most capable telegraph operators. In 1916, Sarnoff proposed a "Radio Music Box" to his superiors, but his memorandum either was rejected or went unread. The radio industry soon would become the nation's in-home source for information and entertainment. Sarnoff would be one of the key players in designing and heading the new industry. During World War I, the Marconi Company became government controlled. After the war, it was reorganized as the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and Sarnoff became its commercial manager. Thirteen years later, he was named president of RCA, which eventually grew into a media giant whose power and influence transcended his own proposed "Radio Music Box."

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The 1910s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1910s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News