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The Elusive Quest of the Moderns
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The Elusive Quest of the Moderns

Richard Cándida Smith


Before we can speak of "modernism" in the arts of California, we must confront the semantic muddle of the term itself. David Hollinger compared talking about modernism to walking through a room of multisided mirrors, each reflecting light differently, so as to prevent a clear view of any object in the room.[1] Conclusions about modernism depend on how we identify the most significant markers, a task, complicated enough when we are dealing with the major modernist creative figures, that becomes nearly impossible when we shift attention to developments on the periphery. For however talented California writers, artists, and architects were in the first half of this century, none played a critical role in shaping either national or international conceptions of the modern. Those like Irving Gill who have achieved retrospective importance did so only long after the height of their careers.

If, however, we count the Hollywood motion picture industry as quintessentially modernist, as Daniel Joseph Singal does, then Los Angeles becomes as central to the development of modernist culture as Paris. Singal's view of modernism clearly places the fine arts to the side, at least in the United States, where, he argues, the most important developments occurred in the mass media and advertising. Singal defines modernism as a set of cultural values that expressed people's admiration for "the vitality and inventiveness of technological progress while decrying the dehumanization it appears to bring in its wake."[2] Continuous discoveries in the sciences overthrew traditional belief structures and undermined the epistemological certainty they had given everyday life. In compensation, modernist pioneers extolled experience over knowledge: Learning through doing provided a more secure key to a rapidly changing environment than mastering the archives of human learning. In Singal's view, popular commercial entertainment was of greater importance in spreading these new values than elite experimentalism, which was often a rearguard effort to reconcile the new outlook with an outmoded humanist tradition.[3]


The common definition of modernism that focuses on the fine arts simply gathers together all the new art, music, architecture, and literature of the first half of the twentieth century. Even if such cultural productions followed opposing strategies, we can still portray them as united, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, "by a rupture with the classical and traditional vocabulary."[4] For Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde , the distinguishing feature of modernist aesthetics was linguistic creativity, a "necessary reaction to the fiat, opaque, and prosaic nature of our public speech, where the practical end of quantitative communication spoils the quality of expressive means." The "cult of novelty" was a corrective to the "degeneration afflicting common language through conventional habits."[5]

Despite superficial contradictions, Singal's approach can fruitfully be integrated with the more traditional aesthetic approach. The image of modernism as a broad-based middle-class culture working on multiple levels suspends the awkward isolation of fine arts experimentalists. To posit a shared epistemological crisis can help explain why elitist concerns diffused into the broader culture. An integrated approach also underscores the poignancy of the struggles of the aesthetic avant-gardes. Modernist attitudes have never triumphed completely or unconditionally. "Residual" beliefs in, and yearnings for, absolute knowledge and absolute values have continually welled up to challenge reigning epistemological conventions.[6]

Common to both approaches is a view of modernism as a response to the scientific method. For many at the beginning of the twentieth century, the most distinctive feature of the modern age was the rapid, apparently unending expansion of knowledge from scientific investigation. Millennia-old beliefs crumbled; new theories multiplied. The universe science revealed—its cosmological structure, the chemical and atomic building blocks of matter and energy, the earth's history, the evolution of biological species, and human psychology—was one that had been invisible; it had simply not existed for most men and women.

Even if the modern era was one of revolutionary change, when long-held beliefs were overturned and the social, cultural, and intellectual structures from which most people drew their identity weakened, it was also a time when scientific discoveries seemed like a return to original truths that had been obscured by superstition and ignorance. Skepticism did not necessarily lead to cynicism, since positivist scientific methodology relied on a faith that all experience sprang from unchanging universals. "God does not play dice with the universe," Albert Einstein said, convinced that the basic laws patterning natural phenomena were uncoverable through an accumulative process of hypothesis and controlled experiment.

This pervasive faith in what Raymond Williams has called the "modern absolute," in which particular historical practices assume the aura of eternal universal validity entered the arts as the basis for a poetics of the scientific method.[7] The desire to emulate men of learning provided artists and poets with an elusive and unstable but fruitful goal of transforming aesthetic creation into a form of research on the means of communi-


Figure 10
Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Color Wheel. Stanton
 Macdonald-Wright papers, Archives of American
 Art, Smithsonian Institution.

cation. Ezra Pound proposed that poets uncover the rules governing the relation between connotation and denotation in language and use this knowledge to apply standards of machine efficiency to their work. His college friend William Carlos Williams likewise described a poem as a "machine made of words," a phrase that parallels Corbusier's famous dictum that houses were machines for living in.

The emphasis on machinery reflected an optimism that knowledge led automatically to practical know-how. But first, artists had to treat their work as basic research into the components of aesthetic expression and reception. They had to isolate and specify the effects of shape, line, color, texture, perspective—all the individual elements at play in the languages particular to the various media—in experiments that isolated the elementals of perception. They needed to examine the possibilities for recombining these elementals to define more precisely the process of cognition and the translation of sensory experiences into ideas and emotions. Having uncovered laws governing experience, artists could bring forth work that surpassed representation of what already existed by actually creating experiences never before known to humanity and impossible to duplicate in any other human endeavor.

This model of the arts as an analogue to scientific investigation conforms to the conscious goals of several prominent modernist painters and critics in California. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who moved to Los Angeles in 1918, led his students through a series of exercises that focused on the process of vision more than the craft of painting (Fig. 10). He told his students that once they had mastered the nuances of his


theories of color harmony, they could produce specific sensations for the spectator.[8] In 1935 the art critic Arthur Millier defined modern art as a poetics of scientific method when he defended the work of the postsurrealists, a group of six painters in Los Angeles and San Francisco whose work focused on the processes of cognitive association. "The characteristic creations of our time are completed in the brain before an ounce of construction material is mined," Millier began. "Ours is the age of pre-calculations so exact that their objectifications seem miraculous." To express the dominant facts of the twentieth century, art must parallel science's "precision of theory and method. It must be as precise as the intricately calculated balance of a steel bridge, as absolute in the relationship of its parts as the element of a chemical compound." The experimental method applied to the arts would reveal the workings of the mind, a claim that Millier made without any hesitation or qualifications for the postsurrealists. Yet he hesitated to erase completely all distinctions between imagination and rationality. "The artist need not be an engineer," he conceded. "But he must create poems for an engineering age."[9]

Another particularly clear expression of a scientistic view of art came from the Austrian surrealist dissident painter Wolfgang Paalen, who settled in San Francisco after World War II and became one of the key figures in the short-lived Dynaton movement. The modern movements in the arts, Paalen wrote in 1942, during the first year of his exile to the western hemisphere, had spent half a century struggling toward an "esthetic science." The roots of such a science were present in the artistic production of archaic and non-Western societies, but traditional European ideals of order and beauty had blocked true experimentation and continued to hinder the development of modern art by focusing experiments on superficial forms of spectacle.

Paalen noted that the sculptors of the Pacific Northwest peoples spoke of their work as "right" or "wrong" rather than as "beautiful" or "ugly." Such a conception, he argued, showed that art had originated as a form of problem solving that trained the mind to approach all types of problems with a vision uncluttered by preconceptions. Art, science, and religion were "inseparably interwoven with the growth and development of human intelligence."[10] In the classical European tradition, this original function of art had given way to representing decoratively the worldviews of elites. Artists who continued to work in defined representational traditions helped to maintain a decaying system of social differentiation and prestige. The end of that system and the beginnings of a more inclusive, democratic society would free artists to return to their unique and truly creative functions.

According to Paalen, the artist, as a creative person, had an ethical obligation to expand the ways open to other citizens to examine and test the world:

The true value of the image, through which artistic activity is connected with human development, lies in its capacity to project a new realization which does not have to be referred for its meaning to an object already existing. . . . [T]he true value of the artistic image does not depend upon its capacity to represent , but upon its capacity to prefigure , i.e., upon its


capacity to express potentially a new order of things. In order to distinguish between reactionary and revolutionary painting, it is enough to distinguish between what I shall call the representative image and the prefigurative image .[11]

Paalen defined the "representative image" as a realistic one that claimed to give the only significant truth of what was presented. If artists approached their subjects with clear hierarchies of values, they would produce dull work, which, however masterly its technique, would ultimately be of little use to their fellow citizens. The "prefigurative image," even if ostensibly realist, never represents what exists, "but potentially anticipates some features of what will exist . . . spontaneously answered by hints related to the most crucial preoccupation of the times."[12]

As a surrealist, Paalen groped toward a view of art as a science of the unconscious and the preconscious, but this scientistic, rationalist model of modernism does not conform at all with the romantic, largely literary view that came to dominate the discussion of modernism after 1945. The modernist canon privileges D. H. Lawrence's irrational union with the cosmos, T. S. Eliot's defense of a Christian humanist tradition, or Martin Heidegger's claim that Western philosophy took a disastrous turn with Plato. This version of modernism, however rigorous its method, denied that scientific procedure could provide any meaningful system of values. Investigation might lead to useful facts, but science provided a morally bankrupt interpretive scheme for determining what people should do with them. This form of cultural modernism corresponds to a defense of premodern, prescientific knowledge occurring when enthusiasm for the scientific method entered a field.

The antimodernists, whose views overdetermine current discussions of modernism, criticized science for artificially dividing the world into the knower and the known, the subject and the object. Antiscientific modernists believed that only the reintegration of the self into the world would dispel the horror of scientific "progress." A vision of the world was always a vision of oneself, so that humans defined their individual values, fundamental characteristics, and fate in the process of describing and therefore creating the world in which they lived.

This subject-subject view of artistic creation permeated the experimentation of the fauves, the expressionists, and the surrealists and the work of Mondrian and Klee as well as the abstract expressionist revolution of the 1940s. The same works that we can describe easily as investigations into the formal characteristics of visual communication also created autonomous worlds of pure subjectivity.

There is no single, correct interpretation of modernism that we must choose. What is more important is the view that specific creators, critics, and publics brought at given times in given places to cultural production and reception. Equally interesting is the degree to which creative people combined a scientific model with antiscientific assumptions. There was no rigid dichotomy, even in individuals. Professionalism required of


artists an attention to method as precise as that of scientists, but ultimately artists and scientists "know" the world in very different ways. A poetics of the scientific method had to come into conflict with the factors that make art a distinct human practice.

One painter who struggled with scientific and antiscientific views of art was Mabel Alvarez (Fig. 11), a founding member of the Los Angeles Modern Art Society in 1916. She believed that rigorous investigation of the effects of color could help demonstrate the actuality of "harmony." The world appeared to be in strife and to consist of opposites. She was convinced, however, that under the temporary forms of social custom was a basic order, which, if brought into daily life, would help orient people to work for moral and cultural progress. Alvarez hoped that by exploring the effects of color, her paintings showed viewers the fundamental reality of harmony. "I want to take all this beauty," she had confided to her diary in 1918, "and pour it out on canvas with such radiance that all who are lost in the darkness may feel the wonder and lift to it."[13]

In remarks similar, even if less systematic, to those propounded soon after by the Bauhaus in Germany, Alvarez noted that painting as a decorative art entered into people's daily lives. By helping to structure perceptual outlooks, paintings could reorient their viewers' relation to the world. In a diary entry from 1919, Alvarez noted that she and her sister had spent an evening discussing how to implement the principles of harmony the painter studied: "Perfect Harmony would be Heaven but we decided we would have as much as possible in everything around us and in whatever we thot [sic ] and said and did. Carmen decided to change the Disorder in her little room to Harmony, and that when we wash and put away the dishes in the kitchen we are bringing Order and Harmony out of Disorder."[14]

Moved by a memorial exhibition of Rex Slinkard's work in mid-1919, Alvarez wrote of her fellow experimental painter, who had died prematurely, that his work was "all emotion—a dream world of the spirit—Nothing of the material physical world. Strange and lovely color and compositions and subjects. He worked entirely from within and said lovely things that were all his own."[15] In Alvarez's attempt to come to grips with the sources of abstract painting, two ideas clashed: modern art sprang from inner vision and therefore was entirely individual in its form of expression, but as the work became more personal it revealed patterns of perception and cognition that correspond to universal laws working on every level of reality.

This dichotomy between the personal and the universal engaged and frustrated artists. However "experimental" they were, their work was only an imaginative re-creation of the investigatory method, not an actual scientific procedure.[16] The finished works presented viewers with irreducible, unique experiences. A successful work of art was entirely unpredictable, no matter how logical it seemed. Artists, themselves caught between the practical requirements of crafting work and the theoretical model they followed, frequently questioned the path they had chosen. Mabel Alvarez complained one evening after returning from a class with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, "I have always doubted that pure abstractions in color would be very successful judging from the way


Figure 11
Mabel Alvarez, 1925. Mabel Alvarez papers,
 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

the 'moderns' have tried it. We are told we should get certain sensations from them but we don't.[17]

Modern artists could imitate the ideal of the scientist-engineer, but only by surrendering subjective freedom without gaining the objective increments of knowledge that were the source of scientific authority. The poetics of the scientific method combined opposites in a desire to discover in personal vision the necessity of universal law. Modernist goals were elusive because two contradictory ideas of power collided to leave only the tragic ashes of an aspiration. For a time, the explosion generated significant work, but eventually artists had to confront the specific nature of their power as artists and find a way of constituting the ideal artist as a type meriting the recognition and respect given the scientist. To say that a poem or a painting or a house was a machine enunciated a desire to appropriate the powers of technology and science on which contemporary social hierarchy seemed to rest. Modernism from the subjective point of view was then fundamentally a statement of desire rather than of method or epistemology. The modernist grappled with science and technology to become one of those who mastered the world and had a place of respect in it.


To understand how this aspect of the modern movement in California played itself out, I want to explore a well-known example that stretches the model of modernism as normally understood. By rethinking Sabato Rodia's Watts Towers in South-Central Los Angeles (Fig. 12) as a distinctively Californian expression of modern art, we can help to define the unique contribution of California to the modern art movement in terms that do not force us continually to define the periphery solely in its relationship to the cosmopolitan center.

Rodia was born, most likely in 1879, in Rivatoli, Italy, a peasant community twenty miles east of Naples. The family immigrated to the United States in the early 1890s and settled in central Pennsylvania, where Rodia's older brother worked as a coal miner. In his late teens Rodia moved to the West Coast, working over the years as an itinerant laborer in rock quarries and logging and railroad camps and as a construction worker and tile setter. He spoke Spanish fluently and probably lived in Mexico sometime during the first forty years of his life.

In 1921 Rodia, estranged from his wife and children, purchased a large triangular lot in the working-class community of Watts, some eight miles south of downtown Los Angeles. He immediately began to work on a large assemblage structure that he called Nuestro Pueblo, Spanish for "our town." He first built scalloped masonry walls and then constructed seven towers, the tallest nearly one hundred feet high, out of steel rods and reinforced cement. At the base of the triangle, nearest his house, he put the most parklike elements of his project: a gazebo-arbor, stalagmite groupings, fountains, birdbaths, and benches. At the narrowest point of the lot, Rodia built a galleon that he called Marco Polo's Ship. He decorated his structures with mosaics made from tile shards, broken dishes, seashells, and pieces of bottles. The walls are covered with impressions of hands, work tools, automobile parts, corncobs, wheat stalks, and various types of fruit. He incised his initials into the wet cement, as well as recurrent heart and rosette shapes.[18]

He told William Hale, who made a documentary film on the towers in 1952, "I was going to do something big, and I did."[19] His goal was to leave a monument: "You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered."[20] His heroes were Copernicus, Galileo, and Columbus, and he felt that scientists were truly the greatest heroes, for they had changed the world more profoundly than any other group. He also told interviewers that he had started working on his project to keep himself busy after he quit drinking.

Rodia used artistic production to create a place of respect for himself, something he could do only through the exercise of imaginative freedom, for in his aspect as a laborer in an industrial society his individuality had little significance. Art gave him a way to establish his presence in the contemporary world. His project allowed him to change the world by claiming the right to narrate, and thus interpret, his own experiences and traditions. Possible folk roots for elements of his creation are the ceremonial towers of wood and ribbon used for the Festa dei Gigli (Festival of the Lilies), celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of his birthplace. Rodia's forms, colors, and techniques


Figure 12
Sabato Rodia at his Nuestro Pueblo
 (Watts Towers). Los Angeles Times  photo.


however, are unique. Not a single element in the composition corresponds to traditional Italian folk art forms. Rather than nostalgically re-create memories from his early childhood, he refracted them through complex images reflecting on the rapidly changing world of the laboring immigrant.

Rodia's use of the assemblage form was key to the effect of linking past, present, and future. In assemblage, the artist uses found or constructed objects as basic materials, putting them together so that they retain some of their original identity.[21] Peter Bürger has argued that assemblage and montage are the fundamental principles of modern art: "The 'fitted' work calls attention to the fact that it is made up of reality fragments; it breaks through the appearance of totality."[22] Two corollaries follow from Bürger's argument: First, the insertion of "reality fragments" into a work of art destroys its unity and any possibility of illusion. The viewers' perceptions of the piece constantly shift between what they know was created and what was found. A sense of the work's totality emerges through the enjoyment of contradictory details rather than through appreciation of a preconceived pattern. Second, the authority of the artist's vision is undermined because the viewer sees more clearly the "constructed," arbitrary nature of the completed piece. The artist cannot claim to represent nature or to have created an alternative world. Loss of authority is compensated for by greater emphasis upon the subjectivity of the artist. The work of art is clearly an interpretation of a reality external to both creator and spectator. The aesthetic effect comes as an emotional and intellectual response to the contradictions of existence (be they individual, social, or metaphysical), rather than as a reconciliation of those contradictions in the artificial unity of an "organic" work of art.[23]

Modernist works reveal the fictional nature of representational aesthetic strategies. Nuestro Pueblo is not a town, but a set of ideas about living in industrial, urban America. Representational work helped establish a cognitive reality for members of a society by reifying its ideologies into sensory experiences that seemed lawfully necessary. Modernist works, on the other hand, helped clarify that the essential act in asserting individual autonomy in a complex society was advancing an interpretation of the apparent facts of one's life, which begin to appear more complex and ambiguous and therefore demand further investigation.[24]

Rodia's composition is a true "constructed" work because he intended the basic materials to remain visible for what they are—steel, cement, broken bottles, broken tiles, corncobs, dishes, silverware, and so forth—and the forms, while suggestive, do not insist upon a univocal reading; the towers, for example, can be viewed simultaneously as church spires, skyscrapers, garden arbor, and so forth. Rodia's own ambivalence about the specific content of individual sections of the work is indicated by the multiplicity of names and descriptions he used over the years with various interviewers.

Ernesto De Martino, a cultural historian who studied the transformation of the southern Italian peasantry over the last century, noted that when the working classes modernize, they do not throw away their traditional culture and replace it lock, stock,


and barrel with the "scientific" values of the commercial and intellectual elite. The crisis of the modern world, he argued, lies in the unresolved conflict between two distinct but interlocked modernizing worldviews, one based on power, wealth, and the monopoly of scientific knowledge, the other located in the subordinate world of work, poverty, and poor education.[25]

Modernization in both cases involves (but is not limited to) remaking earlier cultural forms into values, beliefs, and customs consistent with the facts of machinery and the increased power of the leaders of human societies. Neither was free of fear of what the future would bring, but both popular and elite cultures also wanted the benefits that increased knowledge of the world provides. The elite looked back on 2,500 years of art, literature, and philosophy to invent a tradition that made the contemporary world seem an inevitable, progressive culmination of the march of history itself. Popular culture looked back to folk arts and crafts, to ritualistic religion and magic.[26] Modern art or literature could come from either culture, but the traditions referenced were different, as were the social claims of the creative work.

We can see Nuestro Pueblo as a magical act that appropriates the powers of the modern city for Rodia and his neighbors by imitating them and transforming them into a more spiritualized form. De Martino argued that the magical process of imitation had a function more profound than the naive belief that power resides in form: "Imitation directed to an end configures itself as an additional ideological 'superimposition'" that coexists with ideological conceptions of the dominant classes.[27] Arguments over the efficacy of magic have overlooked the primary function of magic in popular culture: to provide space for ideas reflecting the integrity and self-interest of the lower classes.

Rodia's towers question and refigure the ideology, of the modern city so that it can become an imaginative home for all its residents, not just those with money. For most of the thirty-three years he lived in Watts, Rodia encouraged his neighbors to visit and use his project. Weddings and baptisms were celebrated under the towers; as festive as these uses might be, the setting nonetheless offered no escape from urban reality. Nuestro Pueblo confronts its visitors with images of the jumble of urban life: the towers reflect both church spire and the modern skyscraper and the stalagmites, both a cactus garden and apartment buildings rising up from the ground; the arbor with its incised designs speaks interchangeably of parks, the industrial worlds of automobile parts and construction tools, agricultural products, and pure purposeless beauty.

What we know about the prices of real estate, we find confirmed mythically: Nuestro Pueblo could have been created only in Watts, the Ultima Thule of Los Angeles. If Rodia had had the money to own property in more affluent sections of the city, he would have built real estate developments (or oil derricks) like Edward Doheny, the Irish immigrant teamster fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and become the founder of Union Oil. The towers create a reason for being there (in Watts), a metaphor that applies to human existence as well as to geography. The meta-


phor has particular pertinence to working people, whose legacies to subsequent generations are almost always anonymous. In building the towers, Rodia redeemed not only his own humanity, but also that of others like him, the poorly paid, seldom recognized working people who pass their lives in places like Watts. He showed that creativity does not depend on social privilege.

This brief look at Nuestro Pueblo as a blend of material and ideological culture returns us to the idea of Rodia's creation as a modernist exercise. An ambition to build something like Nuestro Pueblo develops only when working people can accumulate a modest amount of property and can count on leisure time to plan and execute the project. Democratic values must have spread through society so it is neither ridiculous nor dangerously presumptuous for a poor man to plan, as Rodia did, on doing "something big." Yet at the same time, social stratification based on wealth must be so all-encompassing that poor people might feel the need to assert their egos against the forces controlling the larger environment by building a microenvironment that challenges through its very idealism a world built on money. The magic of imagination challenges the magic of money (without incurring the penalties for social rebellion).

By describing Rodia's labors in mythical terms—critics have noted how Rodia worked spontaneously on the towers, almost like a beaver or a spider, without preconceived plan—we avoid considering his project as an action directed toward an end (the affirmative aspect of magic). Nuestro Pueblo is a mythic imitation of a metropolis, but it is also a psychological and social statement that affirms through its very grandeur that a human built this. To deny that statement in favor of the timeless beauty of the myth is to deny Rodia his humanity and to make him an aimless wanderer on the edges of our society, of it but not to be integrated into it. It is in this sense that De Martino defined the magical act as a constant attempt to declare one's humanity so as to achieve a recognizable place in the world: "In reality, the problem of magic is not one of 'understanding' or of 'modifying' the world, but above all of guaranteeing a world in which a being can become present." Magic is a form for asserting the "transcendental unity of self-consciousness"[28] in the face of a world based on social fragmentation and competition. But in modern societies, the tools and conditions for self-expression become more powerful and are in effect democratized, even if they coexist with a hierarchy of prestige and status.

An aesthetics of magic and an aesthetics of scientism were two phases of the same phenomenon, as the modernist fascination with the tarot, Kabbalah, I Ching, Tao, and all forms of mythology attests. For most people science and magic work in unknown, mysterious ways but provide cognitive maps; their prestige is based on their apparent power to predict results. The working methodology of scientific procedure is so different from aesthetic process that the effort of modern artists to appropriate the powers of science functioned as a form of magic, deployed to seize power by narratively redefining the artist's place and function in society. Modernist exploration in the visual arts recreated in a new framework the powers of the modern era, but the effort left unspecified the practical contributions artists hoped to offer their fellow citizens.


For all the powers that science demonstrated throughout the nineteenth century and has continued to demonstrate with even greater effectiveness through the twentieth, there is a fundamental contradiction in the expansion of scientific process in social life, a split that tends to produce a fragmentation of identity and a virtual schizophrenia. In the area of practical contribution to social life, the individual voluntarily becomes the slave of the requirements of the system of purposive rational action. Desired results flow by following predetermined procedures. Yet the expanded powers of science and technology provide increasing numbers of people with the means to pursue their fantasies unhampered by the inefficiencies of pretechnological organization and distribution. Desire in the area of consumption could find more direct satisfaction. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in an extraordinarily perceptive phrase, recognized this interiorizing aspect of the machine age in 1851 when he had a character in The House of the Seven Gables make the at first astonishing claim, "Trains are the spiritualization of travel!"[29]

Science and the machine age had expanded and problematized the question of freedom. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution enshrined the classical idea that freedom devolved from the ability of free-holding individuals to participate in political decisions affecting their communities; this idea was now transformed into an existential question: how might inhabitants of a structured society both achieve practical goals and explore the possibilities inherent in personal fantasies? The scientific method offered no help in answering this question, but religion and humanism did, even if their answers had developed in societies with more rigid limitations on the potential of human action.

The dangers that scientific knowledge posed for humanity became inescapable for Europeans in 1914. Rational organization in the service of equally brutal autocrats and democrats led to the largest bloodbath in history. The frenetic enthusiasm of the futurists and the cheerfully optimistic experiments of the cubists and fauves did not survive the war. After 1918 new European avant-gardes, such as the surrealists and expressionists, looked for alternatives to rationality to give vent to their fear that the continued primacy of reasonable men would lead to even greater horrors. Americans retreated into isolation and maintained, despite social problems, the hope that the liberation of individual creativity would lead to a better world. The depression of the 1930s undermined that confidence, but Americans did not truly confront the ambiguities of progress until 1945, when the blood guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the revelation of the olocaust proved that technology served evil as readily as good. As in Europe twenty-five years earlier, the shock of war opened the gates to a mistrust of rationality. In the changed postwar environment a new vital role for the arts appeared. Art stood, not as an icon for the necessity of personal vision, but as a process that symbolized the freedom of the unique and the irrational. This transformation required little stylistic change, simply a realignment of interpretive value. Instead of casting investigations of visual experience as cognitive experiments, artists found in their work proof of an interior reality that persisted despite external conditions.

Perry Anderson has argued that the critical synthesis of avant-garde cultural move-


ments into a unity marked by the term modernism occurred only after 1945, when the basic impetus of those movements was already moribund. He concluded that modernism as a concept involves an inherent sense of nostalgia for a classic age one has missed.[30] The word "modernism" entered the culture of the post-World War II era as a ghost that haunts those who have followed because it speaks of a classic age of creativity, one equal to the Renaissance in the scope, vitality, and fluidity of the work produced. The greatness of this work springs from the determination of men and women of this period to come to grips with the challenge of science and create a place for themselves in a new world ceaselessly flowing into being. Modernism has been an elusive, muddled concept because it could have no set meaning. The responses to the simultaneous expansion of knowledge and imagination varied across time, place, and position.

As Rodia's work suggests, the challenge of modern life in California was considerably different from that in much of the rest of the world. The Second World War hastened the state's transformation from a provincial society into a metropolitan center. Cold war military spending brought prosperity, and the state's population boom created a new middle class, most of them migrants to the state, many of them young men and women from lower-income backgrounds who benefited from the new opportunities modern society seemed to provide. Freed from limiting if identity-giving geographic, family, and class roots, many during the postwar boom had to create their own lives in a complex world that was often indifferent, if not openly hostile or derisive. The ultimate universal that the arts in California proposed was the ability of each individual to define the meaning of his or her own existence in the relative isolation a new society provided.

Isolated from, but not ignorant of, the main developments of world culture, California's modern artists and poets provided a model for a creative synthesis that could lead to a new contemporary culture transcending modernism. The California modern movement had been so removed geographically, if not in time, from the social problematics of European modernism that men and women interested in European cultural debates in the 1920s and 1930s had already constituted modernism as a whole for themselves. The painter Lorser Feitelson declared himself both surrealist and futurist, even though he knew the movements were antagonistic, in order to create for himself what he considered the essence of the modern approach to art. The critic Lawrence Hart "deconstructed" the work of Eliot, Pound, and the French surrealists into a theory of poetry he called activism. We can view these experiments as evidence of a provincial pseudo-surrealism irrelevant to the "main line" of avant-garde thought, but such a judgment would naively accept the modernist assumption that art was in fact the source of universal, ahistorical truths.

The work California's moderns created often spoke wistfully of dreams to maintain the delicate balance between individuality and membership in a powerful, often anonymous and overpowering, social organization. In 1947, after winning first prize in the


Figure 13
Helen Lundeberg,  Microcosm and Macrocosm
1937. Oil on Masonite, 28½ × 14 m. Private collec-
tion. Photograph courtesy Tobey C. Moss Gallery
 Los Angeles.

annual Los Angeles County Museum art show, Helen Lundeberg (Fig. 13) received a letter from an admirer, who wrote that she saw in Lundeberg's paintings

a sense of humility as well as awe before the majesty of things. There is also, or so it seems to me, an acceptance of the solitariness of the individual in your work. . . . A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems nevertheless to exist—it robs either one or both of his fullest freedom of development but once the realization is accepted that even between the closest of human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up.[31]


The powers that created the modern world augmented and diminished the individual. The poetics of the experimental method ebbed into a celebration of what the lone individual felt. Elegy often marks the transitional work at the end of high modernism, for freedom was achieved by giving up faith in a technological utopia. When modernism passed, the scientific method and engineering were firmly at the heart of the contemporary world, so firmly that the public needed a counterweight. The artist in the post—World War II period then could shed the costume of scientific investigator uncovering universal law and appear as the figure defending desire, imagination, and irrationality in a world shaped by science. As became evident by mid-century, artifice for the sake of pleasure alone could claim to be every bit as important as the accumulation of knowledge. With that transformation, the quest to be modern could end, for the separation from the ancients and from the sacred stability of tradition was complete.

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