The Material Fifties
The photographs in The Tumultuous Fifties exhibition reflect how the world was depicted in the pages of one American newspaper in one ten-year period a half-century ago. The objects in these two rooms are pieces of real life from that same decade. They are like the archaeologist’s potsherds: bits and pieces of an extinguished time that we can see and touch, made objects that can tell us things, if we can just discern their code.
During the fifties, interstate highways with limited access and broad rights-of-way began to trump the two-lane blacktop roadways, so the cars got bigger and faster, and the painted and enameled signs that decorated roadside buildings disappeared forever. Imaginary people in slick magazines told us how our lives would be more comfortable and elegant if we acquired this year’s revision of last year’s car. In the same pages, celebrities from the entertainment world (several of whom would later die of lung cancer) told us how happy we would be if we smoked this or that brand of cigarette. The decade began with people going out of the house for entertainment and getting most of their information from newspapers and radio; it ended with people getting information and being entertained by a box in their living rooms. Press cameras became smaller and more flexible: the slow and bulky Speed Graphic was replaced by the faster and smaller Rolleiflex, which in turn was replaced by the even faster and smaller Leica. The one constant was the Cold War: it kept Congress busy, provided the rationale for funding the interstate highway system, gave television producers real-life and fictive things to put on the air, spurred federal aid to higher education and continued support for military research. Without the Cold War, we might still be driving at 50 miles per hour on two-lane blacktop, seeing all those towns and cities we now never see at all, and our vocabulary would lack the word “McCarthyism.”
Some parts of culture are institutionalized and we therefore know where to find them: paintings and sculptures in the art museums, performances of scored music in the concert halls, plays in theaters, Books-that-Count in the libraries, and Ideas-that-Matter in the university classrooms. High Culture.
Some parts are ephemeral, always in transit or process. These are the jokes and stories people tell, the songs they sing for themselves or each other, the way they cook, the rituals they do to keep bad things from happening to some people and increase the likelihood they’ll happen to other people. They are the things we learn not from books or schoolteachers but from one another by watching and listening, the words and techniques we have for describing and managing real life. Folk Culture.
And then there’s everything else, the stuff we hardly even notice because it’s there all the time or because there’s just so much of it and it’s all so ordinary and obvious. We figure out what were the important parts only later, long after the changes in tailfins and hemlines, in what we hear when we turn that dial and what we see through the windshield going down the road. It takes the perspective of time for us to have an idea about which perfectly ordinary and unremarkable aspects of our world in a certain place at a certain time fix that time and place as specifically as if they were coordinates on the map. Material Culture.
The high priests of the culture industry—symphony conductors, museum directors, theatrical producers, librarians, university professors and the public and private boards that tell them what they may and may not do—decide what is admitted to and what is excluded from the corridors of High Culture. Ordinary people develop, without any apparent design at all, what will comprise their Folk Culture. And just about everybody collaborates on the creation, utilization, and continuing modification of Material Culture.
If you want to know what it was like in a certain place at a certain time, knowledge of only one or two of those cultural worlds will mislead you profoundly. You need a sense of all three to know where you have been and where you are and who you are now. In these two rooms you will find some of the objects that made the fifties the specific decade it was.
SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo
The Material Fifties is part of The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives exhibition, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, January 26-April 7, 2002.
The Material Fifties was organized by guest curator Bruce Jackson, with the assistance of Judith Adams-Volpe, Michael Lavin, Michael Morin, Rose Orcutt and Kathleen Quinliven of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo.