by Joel Dinerstein
“Scholars have achieved no consensus on what modernism is, when it began, what methods its artists shared (beyond self-conscious experimentation), or what role American modernists played in international modernism. Some argue that American modernism was simply constructed out of the self-promotion of its artists, critics, scholars, and camp followers (Poirier 1992); others that it is a habitus, a structural field equivalent in importance to Victorianism or the Enlightenment (Hoffman 1992). While many scholars understand the 1950s and 60s as a continuation of modernism (or “high modernism”) via the Beats, Abstract Expressionists, and Black Mountain artists, others — myself included — argue that the events of 1945 marked the birth ofpostmodernism. Beckett differs from Joyce and Pynchon from Stein because artistic responses to the failure of technology, progress, and rationality between 1890 and 1940 must be distinguished from later responses to the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the arms race.”
“Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring (1989) picks up the thread in 1913 Paris, and immediately establishes the concurrent modernisms of art, technology, and politics just before World War I exposed German nationalism and the shock of modern warfare. In the dynamic physical display of Russian ballet, the spatial reorientation of Cezanne and the Cubists, the Futurists’ embrace of machine technology, and the rage for ragtime dances, Eksteins reveals the diffuse desires of those attempting, in Gertrude Stein’s term, to “kill off the nineteenth century.” In these histories, the US provides the innovations and inventions of industrial capitalism and its responsive cultural forms: skyscraper cities, assembly lines, sleek powerful cars, jazz rhythms, and African-American kinesthetics (physical movement).”
“The analogous texts on American modernism are two anthologies. One maps the impact of technology across the spectrum of the arts, from George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique to Busby Berkeley’s musicals (Ludington 2000); the other explores race, class, and gender responses to the quicksilver shifts in markets and production, equating modernism with the embrace of mobile identities (Scandura and Thurston 2001). Both works focus on individual negotiations of the massive social changes in the half-century between 1890 and 1940: the demands of the industrial workplace; immigration and urbanization; ethnic consciousness and labor rebellion; adaptations of the body to machines; the emergence of a national media culture. Such experiential modernism registers “the simultaneous disenchantment and reenchantment of the world … both anaesthesia and shock, boredom and exhilaration” (Stewart 2001: 22).
“To be modern was to reject the wisdom of the ancients for self-authorization through experience. For such mid-nineteenth century figures as Whitman, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Dostoevski, an objective, transcendent ideal of beauty gave way to a relativist notion of the sublime (Calinescu 1988). Exposing one’s self to the world — unaccompanied, unprotected — became the objective of the artistic (or intellectual) life; experiences became the equivalent of deeds. The self-conscious modern artist came into being as a seeker after new truths — a rebel, a pathbreaker, the avant-garde of an army-not-yet-born.
Certainly the novelists of Stein’s Lost Generation — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, among others — conceived of themselves in these terms. Their canonical works narrated the search of self-conscious bohemians for a floating community of cosmopolitan free-thinkers; their drunken adventures validated a free-spirited lifestyle achieved through engaging the dark side of life spurned by bourgeois Victorian society (sexuality, transience, criminality, substance abuse, poverty).
“Valorizing unproductivity was an exemplary strategy for disaffected modernist youth…”
From The Blackwell Companion to American Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen (2008)