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Berlin and New York City
Artists of all media are inspired by the culture in which they live and work. This is a universally accepted idea; it is impossible to extricate the artist from the culture in which he or she created his or her pieces of artwork, no matter if the art is writing, paintings, or any other type of multimedia. One of the most important influences that an artist can find is the life that exists in the city in which they were reared; the landscapes, the people, and the sights and sounds cannot help but to find their way into the works of artists who lived in that given location. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were important in the development of what are now considered to be modern metropolises. Examining Berlin, Germany and New York City, New York in the United States of America, the culturally significant criteria can be observed and an analysis of society in those regions can be understood. These two locations were the preeminent cities in their countries and thus artwork which emerged from the cities during the period can give researchers and historians a clearer understanding of what life was like in Berlin and New York respectively, how life was similar and particularly how the values of one population were different than those of the other.
Berlin is and has been the capital of Germany. It is the place where the highest priority politicians in the country lived and convened. It was also the financial and economic capital of the country. Consequently, all matter of people came to live in the city at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The city continued to grow following the end of the First World War when Germany was in a period of financial despair. Depressed, hungry, and insolvent families moved to the major metropolitan areas in the hopes of finding work and being able to support themselves and their loved ones. Germany's politicians tried to alleviate the despondency of the majority of the population by reinventing the nation as a perfect society and by imbuing the populous with the idea that as Germans they were part of a higher order of human being.[footnoteRef:1] Consequently, the artwork that emerged from Berlin during this period tends to paint the country as an ideal place, one of beauty and intelligence and international import, defying the reality of the harshness of life for most Germans during the beginning of the twentieth century. By the middle of the 1920s, Berlin was the fastest-growing city in Europe and home to some of the most intelligent minds the world had ever known as well as some of the most significant artists of the modern period. [1: Uwe Klussman, "Conquering the Capital: the Ruthless Rise of the Nazis in Berlin." Spiegel. (2012)]
New York City, New York is still considered one of the most vibrant cities in the United States and indeed the world. It is the most populous city in the country and home to millions of people. Since the period of the colonies, New York was established as the epitome of American society, even becoming the first national capital until it was moved to Washington, D.C. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, New York was already regarded internationally as a metropolis of unimaginable vastness. Everything imaginable could be found in New York City. People from all over the country would come to New York City to seek out their fortunes and people living in poverty in Europe and Asia would likewise come to call New York their homes. There were neighborhoods of only Jewish residents or only Italian-Americans. The entire world seemed to represent itself in New York City as a microcosm of life on earth. Artists from every medium came to New York City because of the expansiveness of it. The city was already divided up into aesthetic tastes; African-Americans travelled to take part in the Harlem Renaissance. Many writers and painters made Greenwich Village or Soho their home. Actors and playwrights travelled to midtown in the hopes of making it on Broadway. In another bureau of Manhattan, the first film companies were producing their "flickers" and distributing them for waiting audiences. It became widely believed that whatever your talent happened to be, there was a place for you somewhere in New York City and only in New York City.
The artwork of the two different cities exhibits the societal perspective of the culture in which the piece was created. This aspect of human life and artistic influence can be seen in a wide variety of different mediums. Poetry for example shows what life might have been like for the poets at the time in which they were writing. For example, Walt Whitman's poem "Manhatta" describes New York City from the perspective of one small person surrounded by luxury and extravagance of the biggest city in the nation. At the same time the unnamed narrator of the poem is awed by New York City and also feeling as though he is a part of it and in that way the city is intimate. Whitman writes, "City of hurried and sparkling waters! City of spires and masts! / City nested in bays! My city!"[footnoteRef:2] In the poem, Whitman is speaking about New York City, but this is the same attitude that artists seem to convey to any city that they have decided is their home. This holds true for artists coming out of New York City and of course out of Berlin as well. [2: Walt Whitman. "Mannahatta." ]
A better example of real-life being portrayed via artistry is the documentary which allows for a concrete, living and breathing relic from a period which has passed. Short documentaries still exist which were made in Germany and New York respectively in the early 20th century and shows what life was like at the time in which the documentary was shot. Both silent films, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and Manhatta nevertheless provide modern viewers the ability to look and experience the living, breathing city of another century. The two films also exhibit the underlying psychology which accompanies any piece of art. Nothing can be created within a culture without exploring the sociology of what is occurring in that culture. The films in turn show a country on the verge of collapse as it tries to rebuild itself and a nation secure in its own power and awed by its own abilities.
The movie from Germany is considered a "semi-documentary" as some of the scenes have been choreographed to portray what the auteur feels is the truth of Berlin rather than showing a completely bare and honest version of the city.[footnoteRef:3] Nevertheless, it is a film which powerfully shows the viewer what it means to be living in Berlin. More than trying to showcase a city, the film endeavors to show the principles of the German people and the rising psychology of the emerging political party. This is a city of trains, of people walking, of children and schools, and offices. Attention is given to the keys of a keyboard, the fighting of dogs, to work and to play, to entertainment and to boredom. It is essentially a slice of German life. Although the city is growing in its prosperity the focus on the simplicity of life, with children walking about and lights going on in house, the message is made clear that Germany is a nation of the people and the development of the city as a metropolis is only for the betterment of the lives of its citizens. [3: Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, directed by Walter Ruttmann (1927; Berlin, Germany: Fox Europa, 2012), DVD. ]
In the same way that Ruttman's film shows what life was like in early twentieth century Germany, Sheeler and Strand's 1921 documentary Manhatta explores life in the city of New York during the same period. Rather than focus on the humanistic idea of the city, Manhatta instead is about the amazing sights of New York City. The film begins on a ferry as it enters Manhattan's harbor and with it the audience is drawn into the city.[footnoteRef:4] From there, the filmmakers explore other man-made components of the major American metropolis, particularly focusing on the architectural marvel of the New York skyscrapers. Instead of building up the psychology of the downtrodden as the German film needed to do, this instead is about the sheer awe Americans should feel at their own accomplishments and the subsequent gratitude that the live in a nation where such things could be constructed. The beauty and artistry of what man has wrought is the factor on which the directors are focused. Similar films of the era, including Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled and Manhattan Medley from 1931 also showcase Manhattan's industrious physical features rather than its vast population illustrating that the importance in this culture…[continue]
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