The 1940s Arts and Entertainment: Overview
The 1940s Arts and Entertainment: Overview
The 1940s began with the end of one crisis and the start of another. American artists and writers in the 1930s had worked hard to understand and expose the problems caused by unemployment, poverty, and industrial life in the Great Depression (1930–39). Realistic artworks were popular in the 1930s, and many artists continued to create them into the 1940s. But as American society changed with the end of the Depression and the coming of World War II (1939–45), the arts began to reflect new concerns. As Americans grew richer, there was less interest in art that campaigned against poverty. Artists began to look away from society and into themselves for inspiration. In Hollywood, many filmmakers abandoned light entertainment to create films that took a dark view of human nature. Painters turned to abstract images, while writers began to experiment with new forms of poetry and prose.
The 1940s were dominated by war. Many artists and writers had been worried about the rise of fascism (a form of government controlled by a dictator and known for oppression of opposing viewpoints) for years. Some even fought against fascists in the Spanish civil war during the 1930s. But the Japanese bombing of the American port of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, forced the whole nation to take notice of international affairs. From then on, campaigns to help the poor lost support as the nation focused on defeating fascism in Europe and Asia during World War II. Once the war was won, America prospered. Instead of looking outward to society, American artists looked inward to the self.
The ideas behind modernism (a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression) emerged in Europe in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, finally taking hold in America in the early 1940s. Modernist art moved away from realism and looked for new forms of expression. American painters began exploring cubism, a style of painting in which images are made up of jumbled, square-edged shapes. Surrealism also had its followers; this style of art shows everyday objects in unusual settings. By the end of the decade, American art was dominated by abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionist painters tried to express their thoughts and feelings through abstract images.
Like painting, music also turned toward individual expression in the 1940s. In bebop, jazz musicians experimented with rhythm, musical forms, and sounds. The long solos of saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Miles Davis marked a dramatic shift of focus to the individual musician. A similar change was going on in literature. Writers moved away from political themes to focus on the self. Many were influenced by the French philosophy called existentialism. Existentialists argued that individuals are defined by the decisions they make. This was an optimistic view, in the sense that individuals were free to do as they pleased. But it was also frightening. In an existential world, individuals also have to take the consequences for what they do.
Hollywood dealt with World War II in several ways. Many stars enlisted in the armed forces, while others traveled around the battlefields entertaining the troops. Back at home, war movies showed American soldiers beating an evil enemy. After the war ended, Hollywood was less confident. The U.S. Justice Department challenged the movie studios' monopoly on movie distribution. Anticommunists in government attacked the film industry as subversive and dangerous. Television began to spread, bringing competition for the first time. Filmmakers in Hollywood also began to experiment. A style of films known as film noir showed a dark, violent underside to American life. By the end of the decade, the shadowy noir look dominated the shrinking film industry.
The 1940s were disappointing years for American drama. Only two major voices, playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, emerged during the decade. Drama did not join in the modernist experiment, remaining realistic. But while 1930s theater was often political and forward-looking, 1940s American drama was pessimistic about the future of American society.
Unlike drama, other kinds of American writing developed a great deal during the 1940s. Writers from the so-called "lost generation," such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, either had died or fallen silent. Works by William Faulkner, an important voice in the 1930s, went out of print in the 1940s. Realist authors such as John Dos Passos kept writing, but a new generation was emerging. Saul Bellow would go on to be one of the most important writers of the century. In 1948, Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead, which is possibly the finest novel to come out of any war. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal also began their writing careers during the decade. In the 1940s, black writers such as Richard Wright also began to influence mainstream literature.