The Art Inspired by the Religion of Technology

The American painter Charles Sheeler was contracted by Fortune magazine to create a series of paintings that captured the power and majesty of American technology. Nye describes Sheeler’s paintings as follows:

Like many artists of his generation, Charles Sheeler explored the apparent omnipotence of industrialization. In six paintings commissioned by Fortune he depicted the central objects of the technological sublime: the water wheel, the railroad, electrification, and flight. Martin Friedman has observed of the series: ‘Sheeler always depicted power at absolute stasis. In his hermetic visualizations, power is not treated in terms of crashing strength but as an intellectualized concept with its mechanisms always in mint condition.’ The immobility of these paintings creates a tension between the static forms and the reader’s knowledge that all these objects move at great speed. Published together in a single issue of Fortune, Sheeler’s images were presented like a photographic essay. The accompanying text asserted: ‘The heavenly serenity of Sheeler’s style brings out the significance of the instruments of power he portrays here … He shows them for what they truly are: not strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason.'”

“Heavenly serenity” was not the only religiously inflected language to appear in the text. Here is another portion of the text, cited by Nye, that accompanied Sheeler’s paintings:

“What is this incredible, elusive power that man has taken so magnificently from the waters and the hills? What unguessed secrets of the universe are hinted by its transmission unchanged through unchanging strands of copper or aluminum? In what way have men’s minds, grappling with the raw phenomena of lightning and magnetism, managed to contrive so swift and carefully guarded a channel for a force that no one can fully apprehend? … It is not surprising that the modern scientist, confronted with such questions and with their partial answers, which open up still further questions, should often be a man of deep religious feeling. And it is not surprising either that the modern artist, depicting such a scientist’s handiwork, should put a devout intensity into the painting. This is as truly a religious work of art as any altarpiece, or stained-glass window, or vaulted choir.”

This further points to the entanglement of religion and technology explored by historian David Noble among others. It also suggests to me that while some have referred to the 1930s as America’s most irreligious decade, coming on the heals of the Scopes Trial debacle and fed by H. L. Menken’s acerbic wit, this may be a mischaracterization. It may be better to suggest that in the 1930s the religious impulse was more thoroughly displaced onto technology and its possibilities. Although as Nye’s study of the American technological sublime makes clear, this was a displacement that had long been in the making.

Below is one of the Sheeler’s paintings that appeared in Fortune. Another is included in the preceding post. You can see the whole spread by following the link in the first paragraph.

Conversation -- Sky and Earth

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