Symbolism of the Machine in Modern Art – Technology As a Destroyer

World War I brought mechanized death in a measure unimaginable to prior generations. The machine that had promised during the Industrial Revolution to relieve mankind’s suffering had created chaos and crippled an entire generation. Obviously the machine’s productive efficiency for man’s benefit could just as easily become an extremely efficient means of death. An example of the interpretation of the machine as a destroyer is depicted in artist Raoul Hausmann’s statue “The Spirit of Our Times” (1921), which condemns the dehumanizing effects of the machine in no uncertain terms.

Hausmann’s sculpture is akin to a death mask and reminiscent of the primitive African masks which interested him. The vacant stare of the wooden dummy is silent. Man has engaged in a tremendous battle with the help of his machines and everyone has lost. The sounds of machine guns, pistons, locomotives, power drills and mechanical looms are his new lullabies. Innocent, ecstatic, mystical man has been replaced with expressionless, manufactured man.

Man no longer thinks for himself, but functions automatically. Life is not an expanding vista of exhilarating possibilities but is tied to the monotonous rhythm of machines in perpetual motion. In order to make accurate judgments and keep pace with his machine counterparts, Hausmann’s mute, wooden dummy needs assistance from an assortment of gadgets including a metal cup, a jewel box, a typographic cylinder, a pipe stem, a wallet, a piece of a camera, a tape measure, a metal ruler and a piece of cardboard on which is printed the number twenty-two. Not only is man’s life measured, but man himself has only numerical significance remaining.

Like the mass-produced head which forms the basis for Hausmann’s statue, man has been forced to relinquish his individuality and personal power. The jewel box on the right side of the dummy’s head has actually replaced his right ear. Man has apparently become part human and part mechanical object. The image of the war cripple dependent on prosthetic devices was a recurrent theme in the work of Dadaist artists like Hausmann and one of it’s strongest statements against the machine’s brutality.

Like the amoral machine, Hausmann’s statue is indifferent. The figure lacks the capacity for either reflection or independent action. Man has degenerated into a stiff, robot-like creature whose human relationships and accomplishments are merely mechanical processes. Man’s visionary childhood is over and he does not try to hide the fact that he has grown into a composite of assembled materials.

Like the materials and subjects in the two-dimensional works of his fellow Dadaists, especially the photomontages, the objects which Hausmann utilizes for his artistic work are largely machine-made. Replicas of flowers, landscapes, and mountains have vanished. The eminence of the machine has resulted in an almost total loss of contact with nature. The future is no longer brilliantly colorful, but dark, metallic and foreboding. Man’s life is not based on sunsets or seasons, but on the clock and the factory whistle.

In addition, the artist himself has become an unabashed engineer. Creating art is a visible production and not a mysterious inner revelation. Hausmann’s metaphors are concrete. The screws and rivets on “The Spirit of Our Time” are visible. The effect for the viewer is an uneasy sense of exposure and an involuntary recoil from the implied physical and psychological pain. The dummy, of course, does not react. He is completely numb and cannot fear or comprehend the realm of nightmares and torture any more than he can aspire to the realm of the spirit.

Technological progress has stripped man of every aspect of his humanity–even of his sexuality. How can man’s feeble attempts at creation compete with the capacities of the machine? The machine is the master of repetitious motion and functions easily at incomparable levels of productivity. Hausmann’s statue, however, possesses no sexual desire. In fact, the wood and metal figure has no living, breathing physicality at all.

“The Spirit of Our Time” is merely an empty head resting on a neck too short to offer even a hint of connection to a human body. Now man has been completely dismembered. Technology has succeeded not only in bringing about man’s dislocation from nature, but also in distorting the rhythm of his life, his human relationships and finally in severing his relationship with himself. This dark view of the machine and technology has continued to today as a dominant theme in modern art, movies and science fiction writing.






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