Review: Cult of the Machine at the de Young


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Let’s flash again to the Machine Age, the interval in American historical past that gave us the meeting line, the primary nonstop transcontinental flight, common radio broadcasts, and the primary robotic able to performing greater than 20 actions. These technological developments impressed a method of artwork known as Precisionism, popularized by massive names like Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.

The Cult of the Machine exhibit on the de Younger museum in San Francisco is a mirrored image of attitudes towards machines and robotics through the Machine Age, the interval between the 2 world wars throughout which industrial effectivity was the reigning mantra. In an period the place effectivity was seen as each lovely and as a menace, there was an inflow of artwork impressed by anxieties folks had concerning the rise of commercial expertise. The exhibit rehashes the “are machines a pal or foe to people?” debate via a Precisionist lens with a radical, probably too thorough, assortment.

Curated by Emma Acker, the exhibit is predominantly Precisionist works. Precisionism is an early 20th century American modernist model that was born from artists who synthesized European cubism and futurism with the American imaginative and prescient of commercial, city themes. We see smokestacks, factories, bridges and skyscrapers painted with geometric, clean strategies.

Technologists right now have expressed concern concerning the takeover of robotics, decline in manufacturing jobs, shedding management to AIs, biased algorithms and the lack of craftsmanship to machines. Each tech firm has a technique round machine studying and AI. Enterprise capitalists are investing in robotics startups. There are robots designed to make pizzas. Robots that autonomously ship items via the final mile. Autonomous autos designed to switch drivers and flying vehicles on the horizon. Tech continues to make our world extra environment friendly and handy, but it surely’s not possible to foretell whether or not machines will finally assist or hinder us as a species. When strolling via the Cult of the Machine exhibit on the de Younger, one begins to surprise if this line of questioning will ever finish.

Duality of machines as gentle and darkish

The de Younger assortment is a steadiness between the anxieties Individuals felt towards expertise through the Machine Age, combined with the hope that expertise dropped at a extra linked, handy world. One gallery dives into menacing interpretations of what expertise meant through the interval. Charles Sheeler’s “Suspended Energy,” a 1939 oil on canvas depicts a big machine hanging over a couple of small people in a manufacturing facility — a stark illustration of the immense, barely-controlled energy expertise can exert over humanity — and the way with one mis-engineered piece, we may very well be crushed. The piece is the star of the exhibit, encapsulating the looming, unquantifiable menace of the long run.


Artists definitely noticed the darkness in America’s worship of business. Take Charles Demuth’s, “Incense of a New Church,” 1921. Right here a manufacturing facility is in comparison with a church, smoke to incense.

A lot of the exhibit is scenes of factories, smokestacks and concrete landscapes void of people, motion and shade. The items themselves appear to be they had been painted by machines, with no brush strokes to be detected. It may very well be the mixture of the monotony of this artwork — the amount of immobile city landscapes — that makes components of the exhibit really feel empty and tedious. However that simply would be the level.

Clarence Holbrook Carter’s “Conflict Bride,” closes the exhibit. A bride stands to face her groom, a machine.

The absence of human error evokes anonymity and alienation that exist in a technological world. There’s an eerie vacancy to those shut up photographs of mechanical programs. But they’re the small items that make up our world.

Complicated effectivity with magnificence 

Throughout the Machine Age, the demand for effectivity grew to become the driving drive of the trendy period. Its simple to see how effectivity was confused with magnificence, slightly than seen because the achievement of financial wants. But artists had been discovering that means within the intersection of artwork, commerce and business.

“I communicate in [the] tongue of my occasions. The mechanical, the economic. Something that works effectively is gorgeous.” – Charles Sheeler.

This exhibit will not be by any means lovely. There may be nothing right here that one is perhaps impressed to hold on a front room wall.

Nonetheless, for the primary time “artists began to find magnificence and that means in our American material of business and manufacturing and elevated it to the extent of high-quality artwork,” says Acker. “The concepts and themes explored within the works from this era appear to resonate a lot with our present second. That’s what I wished to emphasise. Precisionism was the springboard for serious about bigger themes round our relationship to expertise through the Machine Age and right now. And the way the excitements and anxieties Individuals skilled round tech innovation are mirrored in our identical social forces right now.”

Battle between people and machines 

Maybe essentially the most fascinating a part of the exhibit is an interactive function that invitations guests to pick out three phrases out of 30 to specific what expertise means to them. Among the choices are: artistic, interconnected, revolutionary, automated, isolating, surveillance, collaborative, addicting, alienating, chilly. On the finish of the exhibit essentially the most frequently-selected phrases are displayed in a collective phrase portrait.


The phrase cloud is up to date each three seconds, and is contrasted with one other phrase cloud. The opposite is a composite of Machine Age phrases describing expertise, drawn from 1920s-1930s American periodicals. Measurement and shade of the phrases is decided by how often it appeared within the texts. It appears the guests of this exhibit have extra optimistic views of tech than the media through the Machine Age did.

General the exhibit connects two views of expertise: a cult-like promise of a greater engineered world, and the crushing concern of the unknown threatening humanity’s livelihood.

The place does this depart us now? “We are able to relate to [the Machine Age] now as we enter this fourth industrial revolution. We’re wanting ahead with pleasure and a few trepidation towards disruption, displacement and modifications on the horizon,” says Acker.

Cult of the Machine: Precisionsim and American Artwork runs via August 12, 2018 on the de Younger Museum in San Francisco. For these all in favour of exploring how tech has formed artwork all through American historical past, this exhibit is one to see.


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