Read LETTING THE CROWD BE BEAUTIFUL - IRON MACHINES - CHAPTER XI of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


A crowd civilization produces, as a matter of course, crowd art and art for crowded conditions.  This fact is at once the glory and the weakness of the kind of art a democracy is bound to have.

The most natural evidence to turn to first, of the crowd in a crowd age, is such as can be found in its literature, especially in its masterpieces.

The significance of shaking hands with a Senator of the United States is that it is a convenient and labour-saving way of shaking hands with two or three million people.  The impressiveness of the Senator’s Washington voice, the voice on the floor of the Senate, consists in the mystical undertone-the chorus in it-multitudes in smoking cities, men and women, rich and poor, who are speaking when this man speaks, and who are silent when he is silent, in the government of the United States.

The typical fact that the Senator stands for in modern life has a corresponding typical fact in modern literature.  The typical fact in modern literature is the epigram, the senatorial sentence, the sentence that immeasurably represents what it does not say.  The difference between democracy in Washington and democracy in Athens may be said to be that in Washington we have an epigram government, a government in which ninety million people are crowded into two rooms to consider what to do, and in which ninety million people are made to sit in one chair to see that it is done.  In Athens every man represented himself.

It may be said to be a good working distinction between modern and classic art that in modern art words and colours and sounds stand for things, and in classic art they said them.  In the art of the Greek, things were what they seemed, and they were all there.  Hence simplicity.  It is a quality of the art of to-day that things are not what they seem in it.  If they were, we should not call it art at all.  Everything stands not only for itself and for what it says, but for an immeasurable something that cannot be said.  Every sound in music is the senator of a thousand sounds, thoughts, and associations, and in literature every word that is allowed to appear is the representative in three syllables of three pages of a dictionary.  The whistle of the locomotive, and the ring of the telephone, and the still, swift rush of the elevator are making themselves felt in the ideal world.  They are proclaiming to the ideal world that the real world is outstripping it.  The twelve thousand horsepower steamer does not find itself accurately expressed in iambics on the leisurely fleet of Ulysses.  It is seeking new expression.  The command has gone forth over all the beauty and over all the art of the present world, crowded for time and crowded for space.  “Telegraph!” To the nine Muses the order flies.  One can hear it on every side.  “Telegraph!” The result is symbolism, the Morse alphabet of art and “types,” the epigrams of human nature, crowding us all into ten or twelve people.  The epic is telescoped into the sonnet, and the sonnet is compressed into quatrains or Tabbs of poetry, and couplets are signed as masterpieces.  The novel has come into being-several hundred pages of crowded people in crowded sentences, jostling each other to oblivion; and now the novel, jostled into oblivion by the next novel, is becoming the short story.  Kipling’s short stories sum the situation up.  So far as skeleton or plot is concerned, they are built up out of a bit of nothing put with an infinity of Kipling; so far as meat is concerned, they are the Liebig Beef Extract of fiction.  A single jar of Kipling contains a whole herd of old-time novels lowing on a hundred hills.

The classic of any given world is a work of art that has passed through the same process in being a work of art that that world has passed through in being a world.  Mr. Kipling represents a crowd age, because he is crowded with it; because, above all others, he is the man who produces art in the way the age he lives in is producing everything else.

This is no mere circumstance of democracy.  It is its manifest destiny that it shall produce art for crowded conditions, that it shall have crowd art.  The kind of beauty that can be indefinitely multiplied is the kind of beauty in which, in the nature of things, we have made our most characteristic and most important progress.  Our most considerable success in pictures could not be otherwise than in black and white.  Black-and-white art is printing-press art; and art that can be produced in endless copies, that can be subscribed for by crowds, finds an extraordinary demand, and artists have applied themselves to supplying it.  All the improvements, moving on through the use of wood and steel and copper, and the process of etching, to the photogravure, the lithograph, the moving picture, and the latest photograph in colour, whatever else may be said of them from the point of view of Titian or Michael Angelo, constitute a most amazing and triumphant advance from the point of view of making art a democracy, of making the rare and the beautiful minister day and night to crowds.  The fact that the mechanical arts are so prominent in their relation to the fine arts may not seem to argue a high ideal amongst us; but as the mechanical arts are the body of beauty, and the fine arts are the soul of it, it is a necessary part of the ideal to keep body and soul together until we can do better.  Mourning with Ruskin is not so much to the point as going to work with William Morris.  If we have deeper feelings about wall-papers than we have about other things, it is going to the root of the matter to begin with wall-papers, to make machinery say something as beautiful as possible, inasmuch as it is bound to have, for a long time at least, about all the say there is.  The photograph does not go about the world doing Murillos everywhere by pressing a button, but the camera habit is doing more in the way of steady daily hydraulic lifting of great masses of men to where they enjoy beauty in the world than Leonardo da Vinci would have dared to dream in his far-off day; and Leonardo’s pictures, thanks to the same photograph, and everybody’s pictures, films of paper, countless spirits of themselves, pass around the world to every home in Christendom.  The printing press made literature a democracy, and machinery is making all the arts democracies.  The symphony piano, an invention for making vast numbers of people who can play only a few very poor things play very poorly a great many good ones, is a consummate instance both of the limitation and the value of our contemporary tendency in the arts.  The pipe organ, though on a much higher plane, is an equally characteristic contrivance making it possible for a man to be a complete orchestra and a conductor all by himself, playing on a crowd of instruments, to a crowd of people, with two hands and one pair of feet.  It is a crowd invention.  The orchestra-a most distinctively modern institution, a kind of republic of sound, the unseen spirit of the many in one-is the sublimest expression yet attained of the crowd music, which is, and must be, the supreme music of this modern day, the symphony.  Richard Wagner comes to his triumph because his music is the voice of multitudes.  The opera, a crowd of sounds accompanied by a crowd of sights, presented by one crowd of people on the stage to another crowd of people in the galleries, stands for the same tendency in art that the syndicate stands for in commerce.  It is syndicate music; and in proportion as a musical composition in this present day is an aggregation of multitudinous moods, in proportion as it is suggestive, complex, paradoxical, the way a crowd is complex, suggestive, and paradoxical-provided it be wrought at the same time into some vast and splendid unity-just in this proportion is it modern music.  It gives itself to the counterpoints of the spirit, the passion of variety in modern life.  The legacy of all the ages, is it not descended upon us?-the spirit of a thousand nations?  All our arts are thousand-nation arts, shadows and echoes of dead worlds playing upon our own.  Italian music, out of its feudal kingdoms, comes to us as essentially solo music-melody; and the civilization of Greece, being a civilization of heroes, individuals, comes to us in its noble array with its solo arts, its striding heroes everywhere in front of all, and with nothing nearer to the people in it than the Greek Chorus, which, out of limbo, pale and featureless across all ages, sounds to us as the first far faint coming of the crowd to the arts of this groping world.  Modern art, inheriting each of these and each of all things, is revealed to us as the struggle to express all things at once.  Democracy is democracy for this very reason, and for no other:  that all things may be expressed at once in it, and that all things may be given a chance to be expressed at once in it.  Being a race of hero-worshippers, the Greeks said the best, perhaps, what could be said in sculpture; but the marbles and bronzes of a democracy, having average men for subjects, and being done by average men, are average marbles and bronzes.  We express what we have.  We are in a transition stage.  It is not without its significance, however, that we have perfected the plaster cast-the establishment of democracy among statues, and mobs of Greek gods mingling with the people can be seen almost any day in every considerable city of the world.  The same principle is working itself out in our architecture.  It is idle to contend against the principle.  The way out is the way through.  However eagerly we gaze at Parthenons on their ruined hills, if thirty-one-story blocks are in our souls thirty-one-story blocks will be our masterpieces, whether we like it or not.  They will be our masterpieces because they tell the truth about us; and while truth may not be beautiful, it is the thing that must be told first before beauty can begin.  The beauty we are to have shall only be worked out from the truth we have.  Living as we do in a new era, not to see that the thirty-one-story block is the expression of a new truth is to turn ourselves away from the one way that beauty can ever be found by men, in this era or in any other.

What is it that the thirty-one-story block is trying to say about us?  The thirty-one-story block is the masterpiece of mass, of immensity, of numbers; with its 2427 windows and its 779 offices, and its crowds of lives piled upon lives, it is expressing the one supreme and characteristic thing that is taking place in the era in which we live.  The city is the main fact that modern civilization stands for, and crowding is the logical architectural form of the city idea.  The thirty-one-story block is the statue of a crowd.  It stands for a spiritual fact, and it will never be beautiful until that fact is beautiful.  The only way to make the thirty-one-story block beautiful (the crowd expressed by the crowd) is to make the crowd beautiful.  The most artistic, the only artistic, thing the world can do next is to make the crowd beautiful.

The typical city blocks, with their garrets in the lower stories of the sky, were not possible in the ancient world, because steel had not been invented; and the invention of steel, which is not the least of our triumphs in the mechanical arts, is in many ways the most characteristic.  Steel is republican for stone.  Putting whole quarries into a single girder, it makes room for crowds; and what is more significant than this, inasmuch as the steel pillar is an invention that makes it possible to put floors up first, and build the walls around the floors, instead of putting the walls up first and supporting the floors upon the walls, as in the ancient world, it has come to pass that the modern world being the ancient world turned upside down, modern architecture is ancient architecture turned inside out, a symbol of many things.  The ancient world was a wall of individuals, supporting floor after floor and stage after stage of society, from the lowest to the highest; and it is a typical fact in this modern democratic world that it grows from the inside, and that it supports itself from the inside.  When the mass in the centre has been finished, an ornamental stone facing of great individuals will be built around it and supported by it, and the work will be considered done.

The modern spirit has much to boast of in its mechanical arts, and in its fine arts almost nothing, because the mechanical arts are studying what men are needing to-day, and the fine arts are studying what the Greeks needed three thousand years ago.  To be a real classic is, first, to be a contemporary of one’s own time; second, to be a contemporary of one’s own time so deeply and widely as to be a contemporary of all time.  The true Greek is a man who is doing with his own age what the Greeks did with theirs, bringing all ages to bear upon it, and interpreting it.  As long as the fine arts miss the fundamental principle of this present age-the crowd principle, and the mechanical arts do not, the mechanical arts are bound to have their way with us.  And it were vastly better that they should.  Sincere and straightforward mechanical arts are not only more beautiful than affected fine ones, but they are more to the point:  they are the one sure sign we have of where we are going to be beautiful next.  It is impossible to love the fine arts in the year 1913 without studying the mechanical ones; without finding one’s self looking for artistic material in the things that people are using, and that they are obliged to use.  The determining law of a thing of beauty being, in the nature of things, what it is for, the very essence of the classic attitude in a utilitarian age is to make the beautiful follow the useful and inspire the useful with its spirit.  The fine art of the next thousand years shall be the transfiguring of the mechanical arts.  The modern hotel, having been made necessary by great natural forces in modern life, and having been made possible by new mechanical arts, now puts itself forward as the next great opportunity of the fine arts.  One of the characteristic achievements of the immediate future shall be the twentieth-century Parthenon-a Parthenon not of the great and of the few and of the gods, but of the great many, where, through mighty corridors, day and night, democracy wanders and sleeps and chatters and is sad and lives and dies, streets rumbling below.  The hotel-the crowd fireside-being more than any other one thing, perhaps, the thing that this civilization is about, the token of what it loves and of how it lives, is bound to be a masterpiece sooner or later that shall express democracy.  The hotel rotunda, the parlour for multitudes, is bound to be made beautiful in ways we do not guess.  Why should we guess?  Multitudes have never wanted parlours before.  The idea of a parlour has been to get out of a multitude.  All the inevitable problems that come of having a whole city of families live in one house have yet to be solved by the fine arts as well as by the mechanical ones.  We have barely begun.  The time is bound to come when the radiator, the crowd’s fireplace-in-a-pipe, shall be made beautiful; and when the electric light shall be taught the secret of the candle; and when the especial problem of modern life-of how to make two rooms as good as twelve-shall be mastered aesthetically as well as mathematically; and when even the piano-folding, bed-bookcase-toilet-stand-writing-desk-a crowd invention for living in a crowd-shall either take beauty to itself or lead to beauty that serves the same end.

While for the time being it seems to be true that the fine arts are looking to the past, the mechanical arts are producing conditions in the future that will bring the fine arts to terms, whether they want to be brought to terms or not.  The mechanical arts hold the situation in their hands.  It is decreed that people who cannot begin by making the things they use beautiful shall be allowed no beauty in other things.  We may wish that Parthenons and cathedrals were within our souls; but what the cathedral said of an age that had the cathedral mood, that had a cathedral civilization and thrones and popes in it, we are bound to say in some stupendous fashion of our own-something which, when it is built at last, will be left worshipping upon the ground beneath the sky when we are dead, as a memorial that we too have lived.  The great cathedrals, with the feet of the huddled and dreary poor upon their floors, and saints and heroes shining on their pillars, and priests behind the chancel with God to themselves, and the vast and vacant nave, symbol of the heaven glimmering above that few could reach-it is not to these that we shall look to get ourselves said to the nations that are now unborn; rather, though it be strange to say it, we shall look to something like the ocean steamship-cathedral of this huge unresting modern world-under the wide heaven, on the infinite seas, with spars for towers and the empty nave reversed filled with human beings’ souls-the cathedral of crowds hurrying to crowds.  There are hundreds of them throbbing and gleaming in the night-this very moment-lonely cities in the hollow of the stars, bringing together the nations of the earth.

When the spirit of our modern way of living, the idea in it, the bare facts about our modern human nature have been noticed at last by our modern artists, masterpieces shall come to us out of every great and living activity in our lives.  Art shall tell the things these lives are about.  When this is once realized in America as it was in Greece, the fine arts shall cover the other arts as the waters cover the sea.  The Brooklyn Bridge, swinging its web for immortal souls across sky and sea, comes nearer to being a work of art than almost anything we possess to-day, because it tells the truth, because it is the material form of a spiritual idea, because it is a sublime and beautiful expression of New York in the way that the Acropolis was a sublime and beautiful expression of Athens.  The Acropolis was beautiful because it was the abode of heroes, of great individuals; and the Brooklyn Bridge, because it expresses the bringing together of millions of men.  It is the architecture of crowds-this Brooklyn Bridge-with winds and sunsets and the dark and the tides of souls upon it; it is the type and symbol of the kind of thing that our modern genius is bound to make beautiful and immortal before it dies.  The very word “bridge” is the symbol of the future of art and of everything else, the bringing together of things that are apart-democracy.  The bridge, which makes land across the water, and the boat, which makes land on the water, and the cable, which makes land and water alike-these are the physical forms of the spirit of modern life, the democracy of matter.  But the spirit has countless forms.  They are all new and they are all waiting to be made beautiful.  The dumb crowd waits in them.  We have electricity-the life current of the republican idea-characteristically our foremost invention, because it takes all power that belongs to individual places and puts it on a wire and carries it to all places.  We have the telephone, an invention which makes it possible for a man to live on a back street and be a next-door neighbour to boulevards; and we have the trolley, the modern reduction of the private carriage to its lowest terms, so that any man for five cents can have as much carriage power as Napoleon with all his chariots.  We have the phonograph, an invention which gives a man a thousand voices; which sets him to singing a thousand songs at the same time to a thousand crowds; which makes it possible for the commonest man to hear the whisper of Bismarck or Gladstone, to unwind crowds of great men by the firelight of his own house.  We have the elevator, an invention for making the many as well off as the few, an approximate arrangement for giving first floors to everybody, and putting all men on a level at the same price-one more of a thousand instances of the extraordinary manner in which the mechanical arts have devoted themselves from first to last to the Constitution of the United States.  While it cannot be said of many of these tools of existence that they are beautiful now, it is enough to affirm that when they are perfected they will be beautiful; and that if we cannot make beautiful the things that we need, we cannot expect to make beautiful the things that we merely want.  When the beauty of these things is at last brought out, we shall have attained the most characteristic and original and expressive and beautiful art that is in our power.  It will be unprecedented because it will tell unprecedented truths.  It was the mission of ancient art to express states of being and individuals, and it may be said to be in a general way the mission of our modern art to express the beautiful in endless change, the movement of masses, coming to its sublimity and immortality at last by revealing the beauty of the things that move and that have to do with motion, the bringing of all things and of all souls together on the earth.

The fulfillment of the word that has been written, “Your valleys shall be exalted, and your mountains shall be made low,” is by no means a beautiful process.  Democracy is the grading principle of the beautiful.  The natural tendency the arts have had from the first to rise from the level of the world, to make themselves into Switzerlands in it, is finding itself confronted with the Constitution of the United States-a Constitution which, whatever it may be said to mean in the years to come, has placed itself on record up to the present time, at least, as standing for the tableland.

The very least that can be granted to this Constitution is that it is so consummate a political document that it has made itself the creed of our theology, philosophy, and sociology; the principle of our commerce and industry; the law of production, education, and journalism; the method of our life; the controlling characteristic and the significant force in our literature; and the thing our religion and our arts are about.