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July 11, 2007

Utopia it Ain’t: Modernism’s Lasting Influence

Leger Never before have the conditions of life changed so swiftly and enormously as they have… in the last fifty years. We have been carried along… [and] we are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the storm of change that has come upon us.

This 1933 quote by H. G. Wells is prominently displayed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's current show Modernism: Designing a New World 1913-1939. Little could Wells have known how prescient those words would be, for the cultural force and strength of modernism's influence touches almost every aspect of life today, from the design of household items and buildings, to ideas about efficiency and form following function, to worldviews that celebrate the created over the Creator and the marvels of machine over man.

Witold Rybczynski, in his Slate review of the exhibit, makes the distinction between the political and philosophical expressions of Modernism in Europe during that era, and the modernity spreading across America at the same time. It's an important distinction to remember, since the exhibit focuses almost exclusively on European Modernism and not American modernity. Says Rybczynski:

It was only in the United States that modernity—as opposed to Modernism—was a fact of life. By 1920, nine out of 10 cars in the entire world were Fords. Electrification was widespread. . . In the United States, modernity was not an artistic ideology but a marketing phenomenon. American designers were pragmatists.

I visited the show this weekend, and I was struck by three things: First -- it was one of those rare times when I saw with my own eyes the outworking of "life imitating art" and was reminded of the enormous power of the arts and media to influence politics, philosophy and people. Second -- I started pondering where and how the arts and media are influencing our culture today (think green, anyone?). Third -- I was intrigued by the reactions and responses the show elicited from my friends and me as we realized that rather than leaving the museum filled with joy and wonder at the beauty we'd just absorbed, we were disturbed, distressed, and empty.

From the moment we entered the first gallery, the dissonant, ominous, frenetic soundtrack set the pace for the tour. The dream of Utopia -- an escape from the horrors of World War I and the flu epidemic that decimated Europe in the early 1900s --- the quest for a society that celebrated the triumph of reason, technology, machine, and industrialization was expressed in the Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe glass and steel geometric, linear architecture ("cars are machines for driving, planes are machines for flying, houses are machines for living"), the German-designed "efficiency" kitchens, and the concrete urban housing projects of Eastern Europe and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the emphasis on socialism, mass conformity, loss of personal identity, individuality or expression was evidenced in the syncopated rhythm of music, kinetic imagery in film, synchronized choreography of dance and abstraction in art and advertisements. My friend noted that nothing was inspired or influenced by nature -- God was not present -- only machine and the triumph of man to create machine.

Where did this quest for Utopia lead? As implied by the exhibit and inferred by some of those who have seen it, not to a perfect society, but to socialism, Communism, culminating in WWII. Not quite my idea of Utopia. Or even Xanadu. More along the lines of Metropolis.

This quote in a NYT review from prominent British political commentator Simon Jenkins, sums up well the feelings of our group:

Venting his fury against Modernist architects, he wrote in The Guardian: "It is the most terrifying exhibition I have seen because it is politics disguised as art. It opens with a word that says it all -- utopia -- and ends with an unspoken lie, that this nihilist ideology became merely a style and is no longer a threat. If only."   

(Photo courtesy of Corcoran website, copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society)

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