Article Index



Leon Surette.

Art in the Age of the Machine.

Kindle, 2013.


review by Roxana Preda


rsz 51xmm6accxl 2There is a formal difference between all the books that Leon Surette published during his long academic career and Art in the Age of the Machine (AAM). In his previous books, Surette talked to other scholars – readers got a distinct impression that the theory and criticism found therein were meant for advanced study and research. This time, he tread on new ground, aiming his book at students and shaping it accordingly. AAM contains a survey of the reception of machines and technology in cultural history: it has relatively short chapters further subdivided into even shorter focused sections. Each chapter has a summary at the end and the introduction is itself a very useful review of the material included. Though the fine grain subdivisions primarily serve citation, the textbook value is clear, both in the construction of the work and in the easy-going tone adopted. Moreover, AAM has a comprehensiveness and variety that is very well served by these short sections – a galaxy of focused points of discussion illuminating the impact of technology not only in aesthetics but primarily in our way of thinking and behaving, therefore on fundamental assumptions and social arrangements. For the first time, we get a glimpse of how Surette must have sounded like in the classroom and how he must have mentored his students.

There is however a very important characteristic that AAM shares with Surette’s previous books: it has a heavy historical and theoretical bent. To the impatient reader seeking for analysis of concrete instances where the machine aesthetics impacts on the arts, the present reviewer recommends starting with the second half. The risk of such an approach is of course that readers might soon get bogged down in terminological and definitional difficulties making it imperative to return to the beginning and to the theoretical and historical framework Surette provides. I am of course recounting my own impatience and trajectory as a reader. I expected a theoretical chapter, but found six instead. The second chapter (“Architecture and the Machine Aesthetic”) was indeed a lure and a temptation – however, this section too is strongly theoretical. If we also count the chapters on Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Giedion from the second half of the book, we’ll see that eight chapters out of fourteen are theoretical discussions. This balance is not simply the reflection of Surette’s intellectual interests but rather an effort to survey a whole field of knowledge and lay the parameters for a foundational discussion of modernism in the arts seen from the perspective of technological change. My initial impatience notwithstanding, the theoretical and historical contextualization responds to a need of surveying the reception history of the machine in the work of cultural historians; it has viable terminological distinctions and looks at how thoughts on the machine coming from critics and artists have meshed together.

Surette is heavily author-oriented and structures his chapters as readings of books he constantly compares to one another: his conceptual history of the machine is woven out of the network of agreements and disagreements among the authors he chooses. Of these, Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media) and Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilisation, The Pentagon of Power) stand out. Surette’s historical approach covers a lot of ground and his book is a delight to read: historian, as well as reader are plunged into the past together, but have the privilege of knowing the future. Even if Surette’s book stops short of the computer revolution, it is still written in our time and cannot avoid comparisons and shifts of positioning. In considering what the machine used to mean and what it did to our minds, the reader is always asking herself – if technology altered our way of thinking then, what is it doing to us now? Surette never ventures on that ground, but the reader is bound to and this is what makes this book so fascinating to experience.

The shifts of perspective in the book are also a bonus. Surette defines the machine as an “instrument that transfers force from some independent source – whether animal, wind, water, thermal or electrical to a tool that performs work without the active intervention of a human operator” (AAM, §III.A). However, the book does not rest with a strict definition, but enlarges the terminological scope to include the attending technologies joined to specific inventions. Surette also has in mind the useful distinction that Lewis Mumford made between paleotechnics (machines driven by wind, water, steam) and neotechnics (machines functioning on electricity), pointing out that the latter transfer not only force to a tool but more importantly transfer information to us. He is thus referring to the machines and attending technologies that influenced the modernist arts the most: the camera, the gramophone, the radio.

It is difficult for any reviewer to make a comprehensive survey of this true galaxy of author perspectives – as he stated in the interview, Surette was primarily interested to emphasize the effects of the machine on the way we think. However, I will try and depart from this focus by concentrating on two main directions in which the machine aesthetic influenced the arts of the modernist era. All the points I am going to mention in what follows are developed in Surette’s book – I do nothing else but follow a certain strand out of the variety, occasionally bringing in other examples as well.

A first and earliest force of impact of the machine on the arts was mechanical reproduction: the printing press (1450). Literature was first to be transformed by the new invention: availability of books, transformations in subject matter, fundamental changes in readership across social classes, the emergence of prose and the novel, the habit of reading in solitude and silence. Reproducibility impacted the other arts much later, in the 19th century: the invention of photography put pressure on the idea of painting as imitation of nature, hence was instrumental in various modes of non-representation: impressionism, cubism and vorticism would have been hardly thinkable without the crisis produced by the camera. Painting was now bound to explore domains which were inaccessible to the mechanical eye: realms of fantasy (late Symbolism), emotions and subconscious, affective impulses (Kandinsky), essential values of forms and colour (Cubism). At the same time, photographers were struggling to impose the medium as a form of art and this was especially successful in the United States where Stieglitz and his circle forcefully affirmed the expressive value of photographic images, beyond the documentary mimeticism hitherto ascribed to them. Even more important was the invention of devices able to record moving images – Surette discusses the influence of Étienne Marey on the Futurists and the impact of the moving image in the Siegfried Giedion’s theorizing of abstraction.

Music began to be impacted by mechanical reproduction with the invention of the pianola, phonograph and radio. In these respects Benjamin’s discussion of mechanical reproduction as despoiling art of the aura that makes it distant and inaccessible, bringing cheap reproduction to every household and enabling the democratization of the aesthetic experience holds in the case of music as in the case of the visual arts. Artists like Prokofiev, Eliot and Pound resisted this phenomenon by valuing the authentic unmediated experience of art or of life. Pound even connected the active recourse to the ideogram as a more authentic, natural way of poetic expression with the “live” experience of the arts: he remarked in the ABC of Reading that there “is nevertheless the RIGHT WAY to study poetry, or literature or painting. It is in fact the way the more intelligent members of the general public DO study painting. If you want to find out something about painting you go to the National Gallery, or the Salon Carré, or the Brera, or the Prado and LOOK at the pictures. For every reader of books on art, 1,000 people go to LOOK at the paintings. Thank heaven!” (ABCR 23)

If the modernist artists resisted mechanical reproducibility by championing the authentic experience, there are other qualities of the machine aesthetic that were adopted. Surette found the earliest instance in an article by the American sculptor Horatio Greenough:

When the savage of the South Sea Islands shapes his war club, his first thought is of its use…. If we compare the form of a newly invented machine with the perfected type of the same instrument, we observe, as we trace it through the phases of improvement, how weight is shaken off where strength is less needed, how functions are made to approach without impeding each other, how straight becomes curved, and the curve is straightened, till the straggling and cumbersome machine becomes the compact, effective, and beautiful engine. (“American Architecture” 1843, AAM §II A).

The nucleus of the machine aesthetic then is the adaptation of form to function, an idea that would only later become popular in the slogan of the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, “form follows function,” a slogan that does not acknowledge any debt to Greenough’s formulation some fifty years earlier. Greenough is indeed surprisingly modern in his delight with the formal coordinates of simplification and essentialism that governed the adaptation of form to function. Reduction, elimination of decoration or indeed anything superfluous reminds us of Pound’s championing for “le mot juste,” his imagist principle of stripping away anything not contributing to the presentation and his later slogan “dichten=condensare.”

So while reproducibility was decried, modernist artists whole-heartedly adopted essentialism and simplification as fundamental artistic creeds. What seems to me remarkable in Greenough’s early formulation is the acceptance of the machine as a composition of form, anticipating the much later formalism of W. Lewis and such experiments as Gaudier Brzeska’s:

Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a mauser rifle. Its heavy unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful IMAGE of brutality.

I was in doubt for a long time whether it pleased or displeased me.

I found that I did not like it.

I broke the butt off and with my knife I carved in it a design through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling which I preferred.


The trajectory from Greenough to Gaudier spans a wide arc from the former’s admiration for the aesthetic of the “war club” per se, to the latter’s articulation of the essentials of modernist aesthetics derived from the machine. It looks strange that both start from the consideration and beholding of weapons. Looking at the mauser rifle, Gaudier thought it unwieldy – it was probably also inefficient, a brute instrument and therefore ugly. He broke “the butt off” to destroy the gun’s function and transform it into an art object: in Kant’s terms, purposeful (i.e. intentional) but purposeless (with no other goal than being itself). The art object belongs to the realm of peace “the gentler order of feeling” which Gaudier preferred. But we see from the reactions of these two sculptors that the aesthetic distinctions they drew had to do with the simplification of the design and also with fundamental, abstract qualities: round, curved or rectilinear form, simplicity of the idea underlying it and maybe most importantly the recognition that the object in the world possessed aesthetic qualities which hitherto had been the province of art.

Surette’s book is thus extremely valuable in bringing such lines of force to our attention and making us readers draw our own constellations of meaning – for scholars and students an efficient, elegant machine of words.