Research title:

City Sights: Visuality, Space and Modernity
in New York City, 1870s to 1930s

The research for this monograph is located in two inter-disciplinary areas: American Studies and Visual Culture. The former area - my own base - was prominent in pioneering inter-disciplinary research in the 1950s but its literature-history axis needs broadening. The relatively new focus upon Visual Culture which I have been researching since writing certain chapters in my 1991 monograph, Twentieth-Century America: The Intellectual and Cultural Context, offers exciting ways of combining theoretical, aesthetic and historical perspectives. These perspectives are focused upon New York City in the years when it became a quintessentially modern city.

City Sights is structured innovatively in order to resist the temptations of disciplinary approaches, whether art-historical or simply historical, and to do justice to the concepts of visuality, spatiality and modernity in the context of New York City. Visuality has a history but it also has a geography and so chapters are organized around New York sites where new forms of visuality intersect with spatial configurations which were either new to the city as it entered its most dramatic modernizing phase or were traditional places undergoing significant change. My sites/sights (which correspond with the main chapter divisions) are:

  • urban squares (e.g. Union Square, Madison Square and City Hall Square)

  • streets and street corners (e.g. Broadway, Fifth Avenue, ‘Ladies Mile’, 42nd Street, Mulberry Street)

  • underground New York

  • transportation sites (e.g. the Port of New York, and railroad stations notably Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station)

  • interiors (studios, homes - particularly when the external city is a factor)

  • workplaces (commercial and industrial).

My expertise crosses a number of visual forms from the 1870s-1930s period - painting, photography, architecture, street sculpture, planning and early film - and these are brought together in the discussion of the above sights/sites. Among the visual texts discussed are: paintings by the Ash Can School, the American Impressionists, and Early American Modernists; documentary photography (e.g. by Jacob Riis) and art photography (e.g. by Alfred Stieglitz); buildings by modernist, moderne, and Beaux-Art architects; city-square sculpture; modifications to the 1811 New York Plan and then the Regional Plan; and city films (documentary and art films) from the turn of the century through to features of the 1920s and 1930s.

An overall thesis runs through the chapters and this dates back to the Introduction to my Twentieth-Century America. There, I set out an argument that the rationalizing processes so memorably but gloomily described by Max Weber (with American versions of modernity in mind) have produced exciting and compelling forms of excess, opacity and uncanniness, even as they instituted standardization, transparency and repetitive familiarity. In that earlier book I did not have the opportunity to pursue these ideas but, in any case, I have since realized that the relationship between rationalization and excess has a significant visual and spatial dimension having largely to do with - historically - a shift from a horizontal 19th century New York to a vertical 20th century New York and - theoretically - a debate between the visibility and invisibility of modernity.

Although the book is not primarily theoretical, it depends upon a theoretical perspective which can satisfactorily address the specificity of painting, photography, architecture etc and more ephemeral (popular) forms of representation, while allowing treatment of the inter-disciplinary concept of visuality. At this stage the theory consists of a fairly loose amalgam of new visual theory and the spatial theories which have been around within Cultural Studies for at least a decade but which need re-thinking because they have become too imprecise to do the kind of tangible analytical and historical work which will impress those outside the orbit of Cultural Studies.


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Last updated 1st December 2000