Tag Archives: Charles Sheeler

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.

Precisionism and Max Weber’s Process of Rationalisation

24 Nov

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation, and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

(Max Weber)

Charles Demuth, Chimney and Water Tower, 1931

Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. Charles Demuth’s painting “Chimney and Water Tower” shows such a motif in its full glory. The painting is painted in tones of red and grey in its entirety, the lines are precise and clear. The red chimney stands tall and proud alongside the black water tower; they are painted in such a solemn and serious manner that they bring to mind the tall and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals.

The clear lines and the cold and impersonal aesthetic of these paintings bring to mind a process of Rationalisation introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber. Rationalisation is a process in which more and more aspects of life are undergoing calculation and prediction, the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity; a worker is a just a tiny piece of the machinery; anonymous and replaceable, and it this process is similar to Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. The world has lost its magic. Weber believed that Rationalisation is the main characteristic of modern society and therefore the art of Precisionism, with its frighteningly tall buildings of Manhattan and dehumanising machines of Detroit, is a product of its time and could not have been painted in earlier eras.

Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932

Francis Picabia, French painter active around the same time, also speaks of “machinery” being the “soul of the modern world”; “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” (1915) These industrial landscapes appear eerily silent, and if there is any sound, then it is the sound of the machines, not the bird song or a child’s laughter. If Kirchner’s paintings were screams of despair and revolt against the modern world, if Edward Hopper’s captured the alienating mood of the modern city, then the paintings of Demuth and Scheeler are finely crafted spaces of silence and precision where the human was at last eliminated, erased, wiped out.

Even though Precisionism was a uniquely American art movement, it did borrow from the art on the other side of the ocean. The Precisionists and Futurists share in common their admiration and emphasis on the technological triumph of man over nature, and of course the obsession with dividing space and objects into clear and precise geometrical forms is something that they borrowed from Cubism. Still, the subject matter is uniquely American; factories, machines and industrial spaces was hardly worth the attention of European avant-garde artists at the time. Traces of Cubism are more noticeable in the paintings of Charles Demuth and Sheeler, who was also a photographer, preferred the smooth surface and an almost photographic realism. Indeed, looking at his photographs and paintings, one can scarcely notice a difference in approach, save for the colour.

Charles Demuth, Aucassin and Nicolette, 1921

Sheeler painted and photographed not only factories, but also the vernacular architecture and his comment on the barns near his house give an insight into his perception of beauty: “Their builders weren’t building a work of art… If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.” Sheeler also loved the Quaker furniture which was simple in style and made to be useful and not pretty. This love of simplicity and utilitarianism spilled over in his paintings. In 1927, Sheeler was invited by the Ford Motor Company to capture their factory in River Rouge, Michigan; they were releasing a new Model A automobile and Sheeler’s visit was a part of the promotional campaign. You can see the paintings of the River Rouge factory bellow. Mass production of standardised products was connected with the Ford factory and this again is tied to Max Weber’s process of Rationalisation; every worker in Ford factory was working on a specific little thing and thus his work wasn’t very valued and wasn’t well paid. We know that workers existed in that Ford factory, but gazing at Sheeler’s paintings alone we might assume that the machine themselves produce all cars.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927

Charles Demuth, End of the Parade: Coatesville, 1920

Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922