Monday, December 5, 2011

Visual Culture of the Gilded Age

As industrialization and innovation increased productivity and the possibility of new products, consumer culture became increasingly more public and concerned with the role of seeing and being seen in the social and economic marketplace of the Gilded Age. Social relationships became more defined by a concern for one's own appearance and using appearances to assess others. Though products became more efficient through mass production, individual consumers became more concerned with uniqueness compared to producer goals of creating maximum efficiency. Beyond consumer goods, the Gilded Age saw a dramatic increase in the amount of spectacles and entertainment available. Technology created new visual art forms such as films. Prosperity propelled new potential places for people to see each other at parks, public performances, spectacles in the city and in other carnival-like atmospheres. People were seeing more of the potential possibilities that a capitalist consumer society could provide for them.
Frederic Thompson's account of creating “carnival spirit” at amusement parks gives us a good example of how American consumerism steered society towards creating successful visual communication and how it transformed the relationship between “performers” and their audiences. The spontaneous feel of a carnival creates an illusion of chaos while actually requiring an careful planning a manufactured experience. Thompson's “Amusing the Millions” suggests that visible displays of “decency” and “speed” along with “enthusiasm” are important to the success parks and carnivals as spectacles. P.T. Barnum acknowledged that his role in society was a performance of sorts for the public saying 
I'm a showman by profession...and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”
Visual culture in the Gilded Age revealed a paradox in the American experience. Consumer culture obscured the reality of the country and created illusions about society using the very technologies that had been “promised to reveal hidden realities.”

Thorstin Veblen's “The Economic Theory of Women's Dress” vilifies “conspicuous consumption” of commodities, specifically women's dresses, for exalting a “barbarian” feature of a “culture of adornment.” Veblen scorns the Gilded Age leisure class culture's valuing unnecessary goods for looks rather than their usefulness. Though “wearers and buyers of these wasteful goods desire to waste,” Veblen argues that the display of waste is meant to indicate the ability to pay. Veblen outlines “expensiveness,” “novelty,” and “ineptitude” as the three principle reasons why conspicuous consumption of clothing becomes wasteful and inefficient. Issues of patriarchy and social status are overshadowed by a natural desire to be on display. Emulation, imitation, and a comparative culture makes visible culture a “gilded” means of consuming.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued in Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relationship Between Men and Women as a Factor of Social Evolution, that the culture of consumption traps women in the role of consumption rather than allowing them to be creative. She notes despite the evolution of labor, society's rules still “carefully maintain among us an enormous class of non-productive consumers.” She argues that the “personal selfishness” in a “market for sensuous decoration and personal ornament” is deadly to “true industry and true art.”

Although consumer society propelled growth in the country's economy, Jacob Riis' photographs of tenement yards illustrated the side of capitalism's effect on those who could not afford to pay for the luxury of waste like the leisure class. The creation of the camera enables Riis to highlight the reality of living in the city in spite of the grand spectacles that promised the grand possibilities within the city. 

Thomas Edison's invention of the first working motion picture camera further accelerated the ability of visual culture to observe reality objectively. Edison's invention had the effect on expression, education, and entertainment that made telling truth from tale more transparent. It created a society that looked upon itself more than ever, reflecting with more self-awareness. The observation of the world around us became more possible as a result of using Edison's movies to examine some of the most basic elements of our lives with a more substantial and objective tool of visualization than was possible to the naked eye. 
While Edison hired William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to film real people to observe reality, Dickson and Edison learned quickly how to use visual efforts to embellish for the sake of spectacle. Edison's notorious electrocution of an elephant to demonstrate how dangerous Nikola Tesla's AC current was to promote Edison's more dangerous DC current system. This act demonstrated how dangerous Edison's technology had become to obscuring how we look to tell truth.
Temple University Founder Russell Conwell's “Acres of Diamonds” speech argues that the resources for success could be found in one's own community. He starts the speech with an anecdote he learned in Baghdad about a man who sold his home to search for diamonds. The new owner finds diamonds on the property and Conwell encourages his audience to “dig in your own back-yard!” when looking for opportunities, success, and fortune. Conwell's commentary on why we glorify generals exemplifies the strength and subtleties of symbolic culture, arguing that the statues of generals honor not only the men we see but also the numerous but effectively anonymous group of men they represent as soldiers in a shared struggle.


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois' struggle over issues of representing African-Americans is similar to Conwell's question of how the emerging visual culture emphasizes individuals who symbolically represent groups. DuBois' Souls of Black Folk exemplifies how the elite and educated “talented tenth” of the black community ought to use education as a means of setting the example of how black intellectuals present themselves to American society. Double consciousness exemplifies how the culture of “looking” creates social and economic inequality. Washington's criticism of DuBois in his Atlanta Address in 1895 shows how the struggle to adequately represent a complex community through individuals becomes a consequence of this culture of looking. Washington's “cast down your bucket where you are” attitude echoes Conwell's idea of looking carefully enough at our surroundings to make the most of our situation. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 demonstrates how shallow the possibility of succeeding in American society was for its most marginalized members. Segregation exhibited the worst side of a culture which defined aptitude and ability based on appearance. Racist mythology deceived us by spreading the belief that appearance was an issue that could somehow reveal the truth about someone's nature. “Separate but equal” became an effort to create the illusion of equality rather than achieving it. Nevertheless, the mythology of American civilization's promise of material prosperity continued despite its rotten, racist core.


Theodore Roosevelt's The Strenuous Life made the American Dream into a ideal Americans could visualize for society around the world. Imagery of the prosperity of civilization became a major propaganda point for pushing imperialist invasions in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii. Political cartoons produced an agenda driven effort to portray these territories as uncivilized societies which required American intervention. Racialized caricatures manipulated the American public into intervening for its own interests without regard for the people they intended to colonize.
William Jennings Bryan condemned the US occupation of the Philippines in 1900 at the Indianapolis Democratic Convention and pointed out that though the war was sold under the façade of building up their society while colonization would refuse to educate Filipinos for fear of revolt. He highlights that the war would bring profit to “army contractors...ship owners...those who seize upon the franchises...officials whose salaries would be fixt here and paid over there.” Meanwhile, the illusion of shared sacrifice and success in the war will “bring expenditure without return and risk without reward” to the “farmer...laboring man and to the vast majority of those engaged in other occupations.” Bryan warns his audience “be not deceived.”