Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The American Century

I don't remember writing this, but I ran across it while looking for something else, and I decided it wasn't bad, so I'll reproduce it here, now that the disastrous Bush presidency is winding down, and dragging the American Century into ashes with it. Let's hope Obama proves a phoenix, and meanwhile, this must have been my New Century piece for the Woodstock Times, since that's the folder I found it in.

The US emerged from the American Century as the military superpower, the dominant mercantile power. And the arts? How did we compete on the world stage? A better question would be what did we contribute, but hey, it’s the fin du siecle Americain, so let’s go for it.

Because of the limitations of language, literature is always parochial. But Modernism, which dominated the first half century, brought American players to the world stage. In poetry, they included Pound (who encapsulated Modernism in three words: “Make it new”) and Eliot, but these colossi have faded in influence as the century wanes, to two of their contemporaries, Stevens and Williams. Actually, the American figure who most influenced international modernism in poetry was Whitman, whose work only began to be widely known as the century turned.

In fiction, the century belongs to Proust and Joyce, though Hemingway’s impact on short fiction is international. In drama, O’Neill was important, but the real American Century in drama happened between the 20s and the 50s, with the new musical theater of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein.

The last burst of modernism, in the 40s, was the first significant appearance of American painters on the world stage, an era that began with Pollock and the abstract expressionists, and ended with Warhol and the pop artists. One of the biggest stories of visual art in the century, though, was the collection of it, and the prices paid for it, which was an American/imperial/mercantile-driven phenomenon.

Dance is something we mostly imported, except for modern dance, where Duncan, Graham and Cunningham defined world forms.

Movies are the American form (starting with British immigrant Chaplin), and in film it’s been so totally an American century that one starts looking for exceptions. How many Americans have the vision of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa? But with the probable exception of Bergman, their influences were American.

In music, it’s been an American century, and the course of music is perhaps the most instructive. Armstrong was one of the most important figures of High Modernism, though no one knew it at the time. Music in the first half-century was assimilationist, European immigrants like Gershwin and Berlin consciously trying to make an American tradition.

But a funny thing happens to imperial cultures. They become dominant through military/mercantile might, and at a certain point, they begin to realize that they may have lost their souls, and at that point, they often turn to the cultures they’ve subjugated. So it was with America: the empire strikes back, and from the most systematically oppressed American subculture came the greatest American art form, the most important world art form of the 20th Century: the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. I’ll go out with a few names: Armstrong, Handy, Smith, Ellington, Johnson, Leadbelly, Jordan, Holiday, Parker, Coltrane, Domino, Williams, Little Richard, Presley, Franklin, Mayfield.

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