As we are sliding into a new year, I’ve been thinking lately of my father’s birth, 100 years ago on January 14th, 1913, the first of four sons born to parents who had recently emigrated from Smolensk, now part of Russia. He was born in Brooklyn, probably above, behind or inside a laundry that his parents would have owned. 1913, the year of his birth… How was he to know… How was anyone to know, that at the time of his birth, a movement in arts, culture and technology was forming that was to have a major impact on changing how he, his children and his children’s children would think and live and what they would see and hear?
In 1913, the time of my father’s birth was also the birth or at least the formative years of Modernism. Trains and cars, streetcars and factories created a cacophony of sounds, a seemingly anarchistic collage of sense impressions and a pace of life faster and less comprehensible than anything anyone had ever before experienced. Ford’s first assembly line began that year. The Armory Show established European impressionism and cubism as the most prescient description of a world of multiple and often conflicting narratives and of a place where one simply refused to ‘stand still’. Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ demonstrated the effects of film on perception and this painting, of a freely moving nude body, was an empowering challenge to Art’s stationary, gazed upon and posed female nude as well as brusque farewell to the mask of Victorian morality. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debut provoked boos and battles as the loudness and at times dissonant sounds of the City made their way into concert halls whose patrons wanted to still believe that they lived in a world where gentility filled their lives and wallets. But the anarchist-socialist Wobblies knew better and in 1913, built a union and a strike among Patterson , New Jersey Silk workers as their cross industry, cross cultural model shot fear into the ‘late robber barons’ as they joined with the intellectuals and Avante-Garde artists of Mabel Dodge’s 5th Avenue salon to create a pageant that would raise support for the strike and for the then Utopian, eight hour day.
Samuel Levitt, my father, benefiting from a free government funded college and law school education became a lawyer and lived in a world charged by Modernism’s skepticism for the past and confident that change was for the better. As we enter into the Centennial of both my father’s birth and so many defining moments of modernism, it seems increasingly difficult to believe that change is always for the better and now seem perched between the dual themes of our next season’s Action Speaks; the Utopian and Dystopian. However, as we approach the New Year, we feel sure about one thing about our world, articulated so succinctly by the early Modernist philosopher and economist, Karl Marx, ‘All that is solid, melts into air…”