Assembly-Line Art

Nearly every century has had its share of creative sparks, but the 20th century somehow managed to produce not only periods of innovation and spectacular creativity, but also sustained high productivity, particularly in industries like music and film. During certain decades of the 1900s, media industries—and their titans—were able to tap into a no-fail formula for success, a high-quality cultural production rate, however, for a time the people behind these works of art were considered almost “human cogs” (Wu, 162).

Tim Wu in The Master Switch considers the 1940s (the so-called “Golden Age”) in Hollywood cinema to be one of those periods where mass media production clicked into an almost industrial system. “By the 1940s the Hollywood studio system had been perfected as a machine for producing, distributing, and exhibiting films at a guaranteed rate of return” (Wu, 162). Film was in constant production, and these movies were

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Bringing Up Baby (1938) courtesy of Timeless…

creative, well-written and produced, and very successful. Vertical integration of creative industries was at the core of this continuous success—by combining all the necessary components of film into one studio, production became streamlined and also homogenized, and the studios became powerhouses.

 

 

Similarly, the 1950s and early 1960s in the music business represents another moment of brilliance in mass art production, that came at a price for the artists. Case in point: the Brill Building, in New York City, spawned from the days of Tin Pan Alley and not unlike the Hollywood studio era of the film industry. “Containing the offices of record companies, publishers, managers, composers, and promoters, it functioned in a way that has been rather glibly described as a ‘production line’ or ‘songwriting factory’” says Ian Inglis in his essay, “‘Some Kind of Wonderful:’ The Creative Legacy of the Brill Building”(Inglis, 218). Music production at the Brill Building functioned so successfully for two main reasons: the building was divided up into specified departments responsible for specific things, and this division—taking place all in one building—required that communication be exercised regularly (Inglis, 219).

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Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King, courtesy of Aol.com

Reflecting on these “magical” periods of creation in America and the cultural capital created lets us, too easily, romanticize these times. Clearly, there were downsides to these “assembly lines” of media/art production (Wu, 162). In Hollywood, virtually all of the films produced during the Golden Age were similar in subject matter, not only because of audience’s interests, but because of strict moral codes enforced at the time. The Hayes Code (a pre-censorship production code) allowed for only certain stories, characters, motifs, and imagery—only the “right” morals were preached. Wu elaborates, “…marriage was good, divorce bad; police good, gangsters bad…” (Wu, 162). Religion couldn’t be mocked or even questioned; nudity, alcohol, and drugs were prohibited; sex out of wedlock had to include severe consequences; “miscegenation” and any interracial relations were completely off-limits; and even certain dances were prohibited from the screen (Production Code).

But this level of censorship and homogeneity couldn’t and didn’t last, fortunately. It all changed going into the culturally seismic mid-1960s, when there was a return to disseminated film production, last seen in the ‘10s and ‘20s (Wu, 165). This de-censorship led to great, complex, idiosyncratic films that explored previously banned topics like interracial relations, civil rights issues, sex and nudity, and violent crime—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Graduate (1967), to name just a few.

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Music at the churn-out-the-hits factory Brill Building also grew problematic, for similar reasons. Although the Brill Building paved the way for many Black artists’ careers, the songwriters themselves were all white. The Black artists in this way had no agency in their music, and the songs did not explore topics of race in America and civil rights-related concerns that were brewing in society and could not be ignored for long.

And then came Motown, establishing a new model of vertical integration in which Black songwriters, producers, and managers were spearheading the business, and making a difference by openly discussing issues of civil rights, poverty, and war. Inglis describes: “…Motown [was] one of the few black-owned labels at a time of increased social awareness of, and interest in, black issues and black culture” (Inglis, 225). Influential examples of this major shift: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (1971), “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations (1971), and “War” by The Temptations (1970). Motown Records even recorded and distributed MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 (Schoonmaker).

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The Temptations, courtesy of Seventies Music WordPress

In looking back at these so-called golden eras in mass media production, it’s clear that the industrialization of art production may, for a time, have its upsides—people were able to make incredible things for society at an unprecedented rate. But at the same time, people and stories were left out of the equation because of the tight boxes these industries had built up around themselves. For good and for bad, fantastic music and films were created during these times (most likely providing an escape for the American public), even though it could not and should not have lasted forever. Eventually, freedom of creative expression will always out itself.


Works Cited

Inglis, Ian. “‘Some Kind of Wonderful’: The Creative Legacy of the Brill Building.” American Music, vol. 21, no. 2, 2003, p. 214., doi:10.23073250565

Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Atlantic, 2012.


 

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