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American Arts & Culture of the 1920s & the Harlem Renaissance

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  • 0:01 Modernism During the 1920s
  • 1:20 Art and Literature…
  • 4:00 The Harlem Renaissance
  • 5:15 Popular Culture During…
  • 7:05 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, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about American art and culture during the 1920s. We will identify key figures, trends, and artistic and cultural developments, most notably the Harlem Renaissance.

Modernism During the 1920s

The 1920s was a time of profound change. This change was so significant that the decade is commonly called the 'Roaring Twenties.' World War I ended in 1918, and Americans were eager for a return to normalcy. The 1920s was a dynamic decade, characterized by prosperity, leisure, technological advances, consumerism, and major shifts toward modern values, and a vibrant artistic and cultural scene. It's these artistic and cultural developments that we want to focus on in this lesson.

The arts and popular culture of the 1920s were imbibed with themes of modernism. Perhaps the word 'experimental' is the best way to describe the artistic and cultural trends during this decade. 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.

Art and Literature During the 1920s

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.

One popular 1920s artist was Georgia O'Keeffe, who is still famous today for her depictions of abstract nature scenes. 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.

As in the art world, literary creativity 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.

Harlem Renaissance

You may have heard of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American artistic and intellectual movement that flourished throughout the 1920s. The movement was based in Harlem, New York, but its influence extended throughout the nation and even the world. Following the Civil War, large numbers of African-Americans migrated to northern urban areas like New York and Chicago. Harlem was one of the prime destinations for many black Americans and there, a distinct way of life developed.

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