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Modernist America

Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    Modernist America
    Book Description:

    America's global cultural impact is largely seen as one-sided, with critics claiming that it has undermined other countries' languages and traditions. But contrary to popular belief, the cultural relationship between the United States and the world has been reciprocal, says Richard Pells. The United States not only plays a large role in shaping international entertainment and tastes, it is also a consumer of foreign intellectual and artistic influences.

    Pells reveals how the American artists, novelists, composers, jazz musicians, and filmmakers who were part of the Modernist movement were greatly influenced by outside ideas and techniques. People across the globe found familiarities in American entertainment, resulting in a universal culture that has dominated the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and fulfilled the aim of the Modernist movement-to make the modern world seem more intelligible.

    Modernist Americabrilliantly explains why George Gershwin's music, Cole Porter's lyrics, Jackson Pollock's paintings, Bob Fosse's choreography, Marlon Brando's acting, and Orson Welles's storytelling were so influential, and why these and other artists and entertainers simultaneously represent both an American and a modern global culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17173-0
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History, Music, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Modernism in Europe and America
    (pp. 1-27)

    If you live in Oslo or Tokyo, São Paulo or Sydney, the emergence of a global culture is synonymous with the “Americanization” of the world. Because in these cities, and everywhere else, the artifacts of America’s culture are inescapable.

    When foreigners worry about the impact of American culture on their own societies, they are not thinking of America’s literature, painting, or ballet. Americanization has always meant the worldwide invasion of Hollywood movies, television programs, jazz, rock and roll, advertising, theme parks, shopping malls, fast food, and now the Internet. No wonder, then, that people abroad believe that the United States...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Painting Modernity
    (pp. 28-63)

    The calamities of the twentieth century occurred, for the most part, outside the United States. War and revolution destroyed nineteenth-century Europe, convulsed Latin America, and traumatized both the Middle East and Asia. But no nation, including an America previously sheltered from the rest of the planet’s bloodbaths, was left undamaged.

    How, if you are an artist anywhere, do you portray the harrowing nature of modernity? And how, if you are an American artist, do you participate in—and try to visualize for yourself—the mayhem of the modern world?

    You make the art of modernity your own. You make it...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Globalization of American Architecture
    (pp. 64-84)

    When European and Mexican painters came to America in the 1930s and during World War II, they were role models, compelling their American apprentices to listen respectfully and acquiesce. When foreign architects visited or sought refuge in the United States during the same years, they arrived as supplicants, forced to adjust their theories to already existing American architectural traditions.

    Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have thought their literature, art, and “serious” music were mediocre compared with the high-powered creations of the artistic giants in other lands. But the flamboyance of American architecture was a prominent...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Modernism in the Marketplace
    (pp. 85-98)

    One of the most alarming characteristics of American modernism for foreign intellectuals and social critics was the ease with which it was used to sell products. After all, if modernist painters and architects were mainly interested in stylistic experimentation, then the new visual techniques they developed could serve any purpose, including the demands of commerce. Indeed, the modernist emphasis on crisp lines, abstract designs, and uncluttered imagery was perfectly suited to the needs of advertising, packaging, fashion, and interior decor. Moreover, the modernists, in the words of Ezra Pound, were always trying to “make it new.” And no one was...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE From The Rite of Spring to Appalachian Spring
    (pp. 99-129)

    Americans never embraced Europe’s modernist music with the enthusiasm they showed for its contemporary painting, architecture, and design. In the years after World War II, the majority of Americans grew accustomed to seeing the modernist esthetic on display in museums, in the configuration of office buildings, in department and furniture stores, and in homes. Meanwhile, the paintings of the Cubists and the Surrealists were selling briskly and at hefty prices on the American art market. But with the exception of Igor Stravinsky, no European composer in the twentieth century was as famous or as fashionable in America as Pablo Picasso...

  9. CHAPTER SIX All That Jazz
    (pp. 130-156)

    When Bob Fosse reused the title of the opening number of his 1975 musicalChicagofor his autobiographical film All That Jazz (1979), he was honoring a dance tradition in the United States that was rooted in America’s most distinctive music. For in the history of Western modernism, the unrivaled American contribution—beyond painting and literature—had always been jazz.

    Raucous, dissonant, and disturbing to the genteel middle class (like the music of Europe’s avant-garde composers in the twentieth century), jazz was irrefutably modernist. And as with other modernist art forms that flourished in urban locales like Paris or Berlin,...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN They’re Writing Songs of Love
    (pp. 157-200)

    The magnetism of jazz, in America and throughout the world, was evident not only on the recordings and in the live performances of a Benny Goodman or a Billie Holiday but also on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood musicals. Unlike a lot of nineteenth-century European operas, with their disastrous romances or visions of a Wagnerian apocalypse, many of America’s musicals—especially between the two world wars—were bouncy, impertinent, and full of clever lyrics and syncopated rhythms. Hence the musicals borrowed from and embodied the jazz mystique.

    And as with jazz, the tone of the Broadway and movie musicals...

    (pp. 201-232)

    In F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Last Tycoon, Monroe Stahr—a movie producer modeled on MGM’s Irving Thalberg—has imported a novelist from New York named George Boxley to write screenplays. Boxley rarely goes to the movies, knows nothing about how they’re made or why they appeal to the public, and submits scripts that are full of “talk.” So Stahr makes up a scene for Boxley: a mysterious woman enters Boxley’s office while he’s there, dumps some coins on his desk, and prepares to burn her black gloves in the stove by the wall. At that moment Boxley’s telephone rings, she...

    (pp. 233-264)

    In the summer of 2003, when I was a visiting professor at the University of Vienna, I went to an exhibition commemorating the music of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early twentieth century. The exhibit contained photographs of conductors and composers. Beneath the photographs were signs indicating the dates and places of births and deaths. Invariably, the signs read: born in Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Budapest, Moravia, Silesia; died in Los Angeles.

    If you didn’t know the story of why these people fled from the Old World and found refuge in the New (and the exhibit was vague on this point),...

  13. CHAPTER TEN The New Wave Abroad
    (pp. 265-293)

    From the end of World War II until the 1970s, the American film industry was in trouble. While America’s movies continued to dominate the international market, four factors eroded the power of the old Hollywood: the appearance of alternative forms of entertainment, the disintegration of the traditional studio system, the rise of independent producers and directors, and the growing appeal of British and foreign-language movies in the United States.

    Each of these developments weakened Hollywood’s grip on the imagination of audiences in America and abroad. During the postwar years, American movies seemed once again—as they had at the beginning...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN The New Wave at Home
    (pp. 294-342)

    Between 1967 and 1980, fromBonnie and Clyde to All That Jazz, most of the movies worth seeing originated in America. Although a young generation of American directors, critics, and moviegoers were deeply affected by foreign films, Hollywood’s own products again became essential to anyone anywhere who cared about movies. Once more, the films people argued about and remembered, that spoke directly to their social concerns and private predicaments, flowed from the United States. In few other periods were the works of American directors so central in shaping the experience and attitudes of audiences all over the world.

    The renaissance...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE A Method They Couldn’t Refuse
    (pp. 343-372)

    The glamour of modernism has always rested on the flamboyant performance of the artist. We are awestruck by the paintings of Picasso, the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, the songs of George Gershwin, the films of Orson Welles. Yet we prize not only the brilliance of the final product but the way that modern art calls attention to the charisma of the creator—the towering personality confronting a canvas, a blueprint, a musical score, or a film script.

    In the case of...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Global Popularity of American Movies
    (pp. 373-399)

    In the 1920s American novelists like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, together with composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, benefited from the upheavals in painting, literature, and music that transformed Western culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarly, American actors after World War II drew on ideas and techniques that had been developed in the Russian theater before the Bolshevik Revolution. And many American film-makers modeled their work on the stylistic experimentations of the German Expressionists, the Italian neorealists, and the missionaries of the French New Wave. In all these cases, America’s artists and entertainers were...

  17. EPILOGUE The Modernism of American Culture
    (pp. 400-406)

    The diversity of America has mirrored the diversity of the world. Just as the United States is divided by region, class, religion, gender, and race, so the foreign recipients of American culture are equally heterogeneous. These disparities could have made it impossible for America’s artists, composers, musicians, and filmmakers to find a substantial or cohesive audience for their works either in the United States or abroad. Yet unexpectedly, the modernist esthetic helped the Americans create a culture that charmed people no matter what their ethnic roots or where they happened to live.

    One important way that the American media succeeded...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 407-454)
    (pp. 455-467)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 468-498)