The “Roaring 20s,” America’s “Jazz Age,” was a “Golden” period in US history, when everything seemed to be shining of a golden hue and the country was reaping the benefits of industrial capitalism. It is pieces like Thomas Benton’s “America Today” that remind us that despite the lack of color film, this decade was full of color—and as it seemed to many, more so than any other time before.
This prosperity and indulgence was not universal, however; it was built on the backs of those working in factories and on railroads. The mechanization of industry did not reduce the need for manpower because it increased production levels to previously unimaginable yields. As The New York Times notes, Benton’s mural conveys the hard work and struggles of groups all over the country, from Western farmers and factory workers in Northeast cities. The seemingly random yet precise and organized divisions within and between the panels highlight contrasts between these different individuals while also allowing the viewer to see each component as one piece in a whole system—in this case, the mural, but metaphorically, a factory and then, by extension, the American economy. The piece accurately and carefully visualizes the new assembly line system, with many different workers all doing small tasks at once to create a finished product. Benton’s work definitely displays these multiple moments in time.
In his connection post to the Armory Show article, Davis also talks about how a painting by Marchel Duchamp—Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912)—also visualized multiple moments in time in a two-dimensional work. Duchamp painted a figure as if it was painted many times, at different angles and places along the staircase. While it was from a slightly earlier time, Duchamp’s painting was part of the lead-up to the Roaring 20s and all of their golden glory. Davis noted that the critic Julian Street called the golden painting “an explosion in a shingle factory,” once again touching on the industrial nature of the early-20th century.