Sunday, April 10, 2011

Richard Pells's "Modernist America"

Richard Pells is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since 1945, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, and Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. He has been a visiting professor in many European countries, as well as in Brazil, Australia, and Indonesia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture, and reported the following:
Modernist America is a book about the influence of foreign cultures on American painting, architecture, advertising, music (including jazz and Broadway musicals), and movies. More specifically, it describes the ways that European modernism in the arts and high culture were transformed in America into a popular culture that had an impact all over the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The book deals not only with the effect of foreign ideas but also with the presence in America by the 1930s of European intellectuals, artists, composers filmmakers, and entertainers, all of them in a desperate flight from Nazism.

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On pp. 99-100, I introduce a chapter called “From the Rite of Spring to Appalachian Spring.” The chapter title refers to the evolution of classical music in America, and particularly the influence that Igor Stravinsky had on American composers like Aaron Copland. All of the chapters in the book follow this example. They analyze the impact of modernist painting on American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, of German architects like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe on modern American architecture, of Caribbean and European music on the development of American jazz, of European and Japanese film directors on Hollywood movies, and of the acting theories of the Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski on American actors on stage and screen.

On a more personal note, Modernist America gave me the opportunity to write about the artists and entertainers I love. So the book is meant for a general, as well as scholarly, audience. I hope the book will allow all readers to appreciate why George Gershwin’s music, Cole Porter’s lyrics, the innovative jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, Fred Astaire’s dancing and Bob Fosse’s choreography, Marlon Brando’s acting, Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, and Orson Welles’s storytelling were so influential, and why these and other artists represent both a uniquely American and a modern global culture.
Learn more about Modernist America at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue