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American Art, Pop Culture & Literature of the 1920s

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  • 0:05 Art, Literature & Culture
  • 0:52 1920s Art
  • 2:44 1920s Literature
  • 4:25 1920s Popular Culture
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the art, literature and popular culture associated with the 1920s. We will identify several key terms and figures related to the culture of the period, and understand them in historical context.

Art, Literature and Popular Culture During the 1920s

The 1920s was a dynamic decade characterized by enormous change. Not surprisingly, the art, literature and popular culture of the decade were imbibed with themes of modernism. Perhaps the word 'experimental' is the best way to describe the artistic and cultural trends associated with the 'Roaring Twenties.'

Creativity soared during this time, as writers and artists 'pushed the envelope' by experimenting with new styles and new themes. Art and culture in the 1920s was all about testing the status quo and producing something innovative and dynamic. Themes of sexuality, technology and social progress were prominent in the art and culture of the decade.

1920s Art

Replacing elaborate styles associated with Victorianism, a new artistic movement called Art Deco flourished throughout the 1920s. Art Deco style was applied not only to art but also architecture, furniture design, fashion, advertising and many other areas. Art Deco was minimalist and streamlined. The style often featured bold geometric shapes, such as spheres and triangles, vibrant coloring and oversized lettering. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in New York City are prime examples of Art Deco architecture. Art Deco was decidedly modern - it represented luxury, sophistication and hope in human progress.

Throughout the 1920s, realist painters like George Luks of the Ashcan School continued to be popular, even as innovative modernist art began to flourish. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who is still famous today for her depictions of abstract nature scenes, first became popular in the 1920s. In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded. Photography was also coming into its own as a modern art form during this time, with photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand leading the way.

A major movement called the Harlem Renaissance flourished throughout the 1920s. Centered in Harlem, New York, this artistic (and intellectual) movement expressed the uniqueness of African-American culture. Harlem Renaissance artists, like Palmer C. Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson and Laura Wheeler Waring, created bold, colorful imagery that communicated African-American pride.

1920s Literature

As in the art world, literary creatively soared throughout the 1920s. The overly formal styles associated with Victorianism were replaced with a more direct, democratic style. In literary circles, disillusionment following World War I caused some writers to focus on the horror and futility of war. Other common themes in 1920s literature included sexuality and the human capacity to seek pleasure and happiness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most popular writers of the 1920s, published The Great Gatsby in 1925. The novel deals with issues of decadence and excess and is widely interpreted as a cautionary tale. Another tremendously popular writer of the day was Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway, who witnessed the horrors of World War I firsthand, wrote short stories in a simplified, minimalist style. He lived an adventurous life, and he typically dealt with themes of struggle, courage and loss. Among Hemingway's most popular works are The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Other popular writers of the 1920s include T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos.

The Harlem Renaissance produced its own slew of African-American writers. Among the most well-known was novelist and poet, Langston Hughes. Other well-known writers include Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois.

1920s Popular Culture

As mentioned before, the 1920s were a time of tremendous social change. The economic prosperity and technological advances of the 1920s allowed for unprecedented leisure opportunities. A new style of music called jazz was enormously popular throughout the 1920s. With its emphasis on rhythm and improvisation, jazz music represented all that was carefree and modern. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were two popular jazz musicians during this time.

Dance fads like the Charleston became all the rage, as men and women danced the night away in nightclubs and cabarets. Although Prohibition was in effect, many people continued to drink alcohol in illegal bars called 'speakeasies.'

Interest in sports was common during the 1920s. Baseball was especially popular, as players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig captivated sports fans. Moving pictures were relatively new and attending the cinema became a favorite activity for many Americans. Popular movie stars included Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow and Joan Crawford.

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