Art Deco (from Arts Décoratifs) loosely refers to an aesthetic that infiltrated much of the visual arts in the decades between the two World Wars (1910-1939). The sociopolitical turbulence manifested itself visually and artists tried to negotiate between several contradictory ideologies: modernism, traditionalism and exoticism. There were some artists who paid homage to advances made in technology and engineering by glorifying the new ‘Machine Aesthetic’ while others continued in the tradition of revamping historical motifs-but this time with a twist.
While previous eras of art had used the designs from Graeco-Roman antiquity, artists during the 1920s started to look to sources outside the West. Although there was a continued interest in the Western tradition, the public significantly turned their attention to the forms and styles of Egypt, China and Latin America. Many looked to the ‘Eastern’ past to shock their viewers and as a result the art of Asia, Africa and Latin America entered mainstream media in an unprecedented way. For many Americans this was their first, and possibly only, encounter with the art of these ‘far-away lands’.
This bizarre combination presented new image of American modernity. Within the combination of elements from the past and present lay novelty. Motifs that would have had very specific connotations and attached ideological principles had become purely ornamental. Pieces crafted in this way held connotations of excitement, exoticism, and mystery but were conveniently available domestically. Thus, the contemporary designers were hugely instrumental in shaping the public’s perception of Africa and the East and these ‘new’ motifs infused works with an aura of mystique and glamour in the unfamiliar.
Although one might expect that the emergence of these artistic hybrids would now call into question their authenticity, people did not seem to mind that these products were facsimiles; they were the romanticized versions of non-Western cultures that the West wanted to see. Bold and innovative design took precedence over almost all other formal elements of a piece, be it a building, dress or elevator door. Although some, such as Cartier, did utilize luxury materials in their works, that was not necessary to spread these new images to the American public. What pieces were carefully crafted from precious metals in antiquity could now be mass-produced in the modern era with modern machines. Painted aluminum and other newly engineered materials were conveniently and cheaply available.
Absorbing the visual motifs of other cultures is not some made-up contemporary problem; it is one that is generations-old. And even for that era, the use of art from other cultures was not meant to be flattering. Creating simplistic renderings of non-Western culture served a singular ulterior purpose for designers: to create a marketable desire. In the 1920s, the art of non-Western cultures was chosen to refresh visual design. The sensual and sensational images were a fantastical escape from dreary everyday life, a window into a world that was previously wholly inaccessible. In a way, the consumption of Art Deco represented a certain liberation from the old standards for the consumer. What was once deemed as barbaric and primitive became exotic, glamorous, and provocative. Symbols from different cultures were taken out of context and recombined with other things, simply because someone thought they would look good together.
So why might you just be hearing about this for the first time now? If you have never seen this narrative in our history books, I would ask you to consider exactly who is in charge of those textbooks. The saying “History is written by the victors” exists for a reason. More often than not, the writers simply can not be depended upon to act as the voice for the oppressed-that is not the story that we would like to hear. It is much more glamorous to hear about the rich, sexually-liberated flappers attending lavish parties than it is to consider how their dresses bear the symbols of ancient civilizations, jumbled together and completely out of context that were put together in the first place by white designers). But by even reading this blog post, you are engaging with a voice that would have been silenced a century ago.
One does not have to look deeply to find this pretentious past because we still live in a very privileged present. The issue of visual appropriation continues to the present day, infiltrating almost every creative field and facet of mass media. While nail acrylic art was once considered “ghetto” it has infiltrated the mainstream via Pinterest and is now considered beautiful. While locs are praised on one (white) young starlet, they somehow were a marker that another smelled bad and smoked weed. This has been the ‘American Way’ for quite some time now, picking and choosing the most “pleasing” elements of a style and discarding the rest without consideration of the source. The Art Deco style is dazzling and audacious but it is also hugely problematic. While Art Deco was certainly a product of its time, its questionable legacy is still very much alive today.