New York City’s Influence on Modernism and Overconsumption

If there is one place that truly captures the success, power, and culture of the United States, it is New York City. Conceived as New Amsterdam in the 1600s, the economic and social powerhouse has grown into arguably the most important city in the world. This realization of this capacity came into eyes in the 1920s, during the peak of the modernist movement and the end of World War I. The birth of mass culture, the Harlem Renaissance, and Consumerism all grew exponentially as interconnectivity and new means of communication all culminated together into what is now referred to as The Roaring Twenties, with massive amounts of wealth pumped into the United States and New York (History.com Editors). All of this success, however, came with a price. Under the mask of prosperity, crime grew, droughts built up, and racism increased, all contributing to the greatest underlying issue of overconsumption in New York. The wealth of certainly generated one of the greatest decades in the city’s history, and the modernist images of this time period reflect this concern that is still a looming issue in The Big Apple today in 2021. 

A self acrylic painting of ice skaters in a wintry scene in Central Park. Surrealism was a sub-art movement derived from modernism. Notice how the trees slowly fade into the skyscrapers as if they were one, a demonstration of how aspects of life can blend into the same if one is not careful to take a step back and observe their livelihoods. Max McMurry, 2021

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby came into circulation in 1925 and has now sold over 25 million copies. The work captures the riches of old and new money in New York City through the eyes of a young man named Nick. Arriving from the Midwest, Nick takes in the wealth and love story of Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald does an excellent job fabricating and constructing the life of the upper class. Ornate diction and descriptions give the reader one of the best images of what life was like back then. Flashing lights and parties are attended by people arriving in vibrant Rolls-Royce’s and extravagant boas where not one outfit is worn twice, and butlers cater to anyone’s will. Perhaps the strongest suit of Fitzgerald’s work is his ability to create this image through the lens of a character who also has never seen this lifestyle before.

“Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white hears and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” (Fitzgerald 53). 

Nick’s identity as a new person in a new world allows for Fitzgerald to create a source of relatability to the reader, whom the vast majority of are not a fraction as wealthy as the characters, making this book a great look into what life would be like in the modernist era as if one were looking at it for the first time. As the book progresses, however, we begin to see the darker side to an affluent lifestyle. Jay Gatsby is later realized that he made his riches through criminal activity and shady business practices, and he lives mainly alone and without friends. He uses his money to conceal his past self yet is unable to reach the level of happiness he had years ago, as he now resides in a world where few among the rich accept him. A persisting symbol of empty satisfaction is the billboard of T.J. Eckleburg, whose eyes stand “one yard high,” yet have washed out over years of neglect and faded into gray (Fitzgerald 20). The size of the billboard represents copious amounts of wealth, but at the price of insufficient care or respect for other people, as the eyes slowly blend into the accompanying piles of ash. On the same level, Gatsby’s wealth fails to fix his happiness, as his romantic life crumbles apart, and later Gatsby’s funeral is attended by no more than two people, a signature blow to the rich man’s acceptance and popularity. The degradation and shallowness of Gatsby’s life symbolizes the issue of consumerism in today’s society, as many people (especially those in New York City), often buy things to cover up the emptiness inside. Ironically, the quick demise of Gatsby’s life greatly resembles the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which occurred 4 years after the novel was published, and how the rate at which stocks and standard of living inflated to amounts far higher than the actual success of companies and the masses.

Poetry in Modernism

One of New York City’s greatest contributions to modernism was the growing influence of women in art and movements in the time period. The passing of the 19th Amendment in the beginning of the decade paved a way for women to contribute to politics and create an identity for themselves. One of the more well-known female figures that capitalized on this rise in women’s recognition was Dorothy Parker, a New York native poet. Parker grew up in the city’s Upper West Side and grew in popularity with her poems that appeared in magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue (Encyclopedia Britannica). She became infamous for writing in a witty way that challenged female values and politically correct statements. None of her contributions during The Roaring Twenties reflected the modernist movement in New York as her poem “Observation,” published in 1925, and later in her best-selling collection in 1926.

If I don’t drive around the park, 

I’m pretty sure to make my mark. 

If I’m in bed each night by ten, 

I may get back my looks again, 

If I abstain from fun and such, 

I’ll probably amount to much, 

But I shall stay the way I am, 

Because I do not give a damn.

(Dorothy Parker, 1925)

 Each of the first six lines began with the letter “I,” demonstrating a reluctance to listen to anyone as Parker mocks those who choose to take a step back and relax in the chaos of New York. The poem reads loudly, without care for the minds or ideas of those around whom may try to conform her to society. The simple AABBCCDD rhyme scheme creates an acceleration that patterns the roaring cars and angered voices of the city. She refuses to “abstain from fun and such,” rather preferring a week without breaks (Parker 5). The voice of Parker can compare to the overconsumption and avoidance of real issues. She admits she loses her looks and sleep by living this way, but this observation goes uncared for as she continues this unrealistic lifestyle that will have to eventually collapse. Dorothy Parker’s words still resonate almost a century later, as Wall Street bankers and Fifth Avenue fashion designers work for days without sleep to cater to an unrelenting demand for success. The constant speed at which people work resulted in many clear warning signs missed during The Roaring Twenties that eventually led up to The Great Depression. Similar today, mental health is often thrown out the window in favor of short-term achievements, disproportionally affecting those in urban areas like New York, and this eventually will come back to haunt those who cannot find a balance in life.

Another poem written in 1920s New York City, Langston Hughes’ “Weary Blues.” Similar to Dorothy Parker’s poem, “Weary Blues” talks about Black culture during The Roaring Twenties, another group of people that saw slow progression in social acceptance. The avoidance of emotions in favor of making money slowly catch up to the piano man, as he falls into a slow dreadful pattern of performance until his death.

Florine Stettheimer’s The Cathedrals of Broadway

Continuing with the presence of women in the modernist movement, another artifact of the period that resembles life right after the in The Roaring Twenties was Florine Stettheimer’s Cathedrals of Broadway, an oil on canvas print published in 1929. Fountains of lights and glowing neon dominate the painting, and winds whisp up towering American flags and bright banners, signifying a never-ending motion to New York’s fast-paced life. 

The Cathedrals of Broadway, oil on canvas (1929)

In the center of Stettheimer’s work, the only gray in a sea of color, is the city’s mayor Jimmy Walker throwing out the first pitch of the 1929 baseball season, one that would begin in joy, but crash in depression. Stettheimer even draws herself in the bottom left corner in a pink dress, buying tickets as she enters into the city’s night life district, possibly using the last of her pennies to pay for a final show at one of the Broadway theaters whose signs glow in the yellow background. Unlike in The Great Gatsby, Stettheimer’s work was painted as a result of the Stock Market Crash, but it still captures the spirit and prosperity of earlier times of the decade. As the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art puts it, “many Americans turned to the world of entertainment to escape reality,” displaying a sign of hope as many try to forget the harsh times that are approaching, but also exemplifies the issue of consumerism as a means of distraction (The Met Fifth Avenue). The idea of New Yorkers forgetting the current conditions of life in favor of reminiscing on the past certainly has its positive traits yet disregarding current issues and instead purchasing movie tickets or going to a fair embodies the problem of overconsumption that we still witness in the city today. Though turning to better things helps in the short run, overlooking a problem through impulse buying has hurt the city of New York as witnessed through the COVID pandemic. Thousands of restaurants in the area continued to empty savings accounts during an economic boom between 2015-2019, but this quickly backfired as an emergency hit, and now 90 per cent of all restaurants in the city cannot afford rent (Zaveri, et al.).

Multiple artifacts from this time give us a great picture at what life was like back then and how it affected those of that period. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes a look inside the richest people of that period with lavish parties and backdoor business. The Cathedrals of Broadway shines a bright image of the never-ending consumption madness of insomnia of New York with vibrant colors and flashing lights. Finally, Dorothy Parker’s “Observation” shows what it was like for a woman to finally gain freedom yet still struggle in the greatest city on Earth. Exploring modernist images that came from New York City shows us how easy it is for history to repeat itself as overconsumption glosses over the fact that some things need to be changed in our lives to avoid the same mistakes.

References

Anonymous Contributor. “Observation Analysis.” Observation Analysis Dorothy Parker : Summary Explanation Meaning Overview Essay Writing Critique Peer Review Literary Criticism Synopsis Online Education, 2008, www.eliteskills.com/analysis_poetry/Observation_by_Dorothy_Parker_analysis.php.

The Editors of Encyclopedia, Britannica. “Https://Www.britannica.com/Biography/Dorothy-Parker.” Dorothy Parker, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Dorothy-Parker. 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New Directions, 2021. 

History.com Editors. “The Roaring Twenties History.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/roaring-twenties-history. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art Editors. “The Cathedrals of Broadway .” Metmuseum.org, 2000, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/488734. 

Stecyk, Griff. “The Cathedrals of Broadway [Florine Stettheimer].” Sartle, 27 Sept. 2020, www.sartle.com/artwork/the-cathedrals-of-broadway-florine-stettheimer.

Stettheimer, Florine. The Cathedrals of Broadway. The Met Collection API, New York City, 1929, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 902.  

Zaveri, Mihir, and Daniel E. Slotnik. “9 Of Every 10 Restaurants and Bars in N.Y.C. Can’t Pay Full Rent.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/nyregion/nyc-restaurants-rent.html. 

43 Replies to “New York City’s Influence on Modernism and Overconsumption”

  1. Maxwell,
    I really loved this piece! I really enjoyed your piece about women and poetry and the impact they have had. I also think it is very interesting how you used The Great Gatsby to help your argument about New York and it’s overconsumption issues. The roaring 20’s was definitely a time of mass consumption for the wealthy. I agree that this has had a major impact on the culture New York City has today.

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