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This paper will look at the representation of city life and city politics as depicted in the mural New York by Stuart Davis. The paper will also explore what could have influenced Stuart in the choice of objects for the mural. The central image in the mural is the Empire State Building which was dominated the skyline of Manhattan. The Empire State Building also doubled as the tallest building both in New York and the US as well as in the whole world. This could in a way symbolize the emergence of the US as a dominant player in the world affairs. It could also be interpreted as a symbol of the economic prosperity of the 1920s. That prosperity changed the face of urban areas and what Davis painted can be described as the ‘new’ New York1. Being a private-owned business, the building could also be taken as a symbol of the increasing power of big business in the 1920s under Republican governments. The building was completed in 1931 while the mural was done in 1932.
Behind the Empire State Building is a white sail from which a rope leads to a martini drinking room. In 1920s alcohol prohibition laws were passed. This laws which prohibited selling and consumption of alcohol did not deter in stopping the business but rather took it to the black market. During those years of prohibition, there were ships that used to smuggle moonshine into New York2. This must be what Davis wanted to achieve by putting the white sail connected to a martini drinking room.
The mural also contains a brown Derby hat, a trademark of Al Smith. Al Smith, the former governor of New York before his unsuccessful run for the president of the US in 1928. Smith became the symbol of the anti-prohibitionist movement in New York3. Davis would most likely have been sympathetic to Smith’s anti-prohibitionist cause because of his lifestyle. He was a frequent patron at the City’s night club and alcohol would almost naturally go with that kind of a lifestyle. The same could have motivated him to include in the mural a tipped glass probably of moonshine at the top left corner of the mural.
The brown hat parches on a banana. A banana in this context represents Smith’s unsuccessful run for the presidency because of his signature campaign song titled ‘Yes we have no Bananas here3.’ This representation of Democratic Party’s symbol and personality is also be a representation of New York’s politics. The City was a Democrats’ stronghold.
There is also tiger head interpreted by some as a lion’s head. The head is a representation of Tammany Hall, a political organization founded in 1786 and registered in 17893. It was controlled by influential New York Democrats who by their influenced ruled supreme over the politics of Manhattan and the whole of New York City. This organization determined who would be the mayor of New York City from 1786 all the way to 1931 with its influence declining thereafter until its end in the 1960s4. The organization met at Tammany hall which can be called the home of New York Democratic Party then. The mural contains a tiger’s tail shaped like a shepherd’s crook. This represents the crookedness of the Democratic Party.
The mural is painted in bright colors that have been liberally used. The background is black creating a contrast. This contrast can in one way be a representation of the City life itself. The bright colors are also an expression of the change in America’s culture in the 1920s5. Society became more open; women joined the workforce in large numbers and popular culture like jazz blossomed of which Davis was a popular fan of. Such was the urban life in the 1930s as depicted by the New York mural by Davis Stuart.