"Art, Luxury, Elegance" Crafting an Aesthetic of Aspiration in São Paulo’s Early Cinemas

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Aiala Levy


Between 1907 and 1914, approximately one hundred cinemas opened their doors in São Paulo. Many cinema producers—the men who financed, managed, or owned cinemas—competed for spectators by reframing moving pictures as an art form, movie theaters as highbrow theaters, and moviegoing as an elite refinement. The article explains this triple process of cinemas’ legitimization, arguing that its consequence was the dissemination of an aesthetic of aspiration. The aesthetic of aspiration was part of the spectacularization of São Paulo, made possible by new technologies for visual and textual reproduction. Cinema producers saturated São Paulo’s press with the lexicon of beauty, marketing art, luxury, and elegance at affordable prices. Reconciling traditional notions of aesthetic pleasure with novel practices of consumption, they repurposed the forms of legitimate theater to broaden beauty’s reach and desirability. At the same time, cinema producers constructed a hierarchy of cinemas that mapped onto existing social hierarchies. They linked beauty to classed and racialized exclusivity and implied that both were constant universals. The aesthetic of aspiration thus promised simultaneous social mobility and stability through cultural refinement, a promise that spoke to the desires of an urbanizing upper class but also an incipient middle class. If modernity in republican Brazil was an elite “project,” São Paulo’s cinema producers show that, in a globally integrating city, modernity was also a commercial enterprise.

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Author Biography

Aiala Levy, University of Scranton

Aiala Levy is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Scranton. She can be reached at aiala.levy@scranton.edu.