Monday, August 9, 2010

The Once and Future American Classicism

When I worked as the serials librarian at St. Petersburg Public Library, I was in charge of a large collection of periodicals, many of them in old hardbound volumes, spanning a range of time going back to the late 19th century. I undertook an inventory of these periodicals, since the vast collection had never been catalogued and the library needed to know what exactly it had (what we librarians call "intellectual control").

During the course of this inventory (a project which took up many months), I enjoyed glancing through these thick volumes of old magazines, each volume a sort of time machine taking me to a particular moment in the history of American popular culture. As I explored these weighty, dusty volumes with their crumbling, brittle pages, I was struck by the high aesthetic quality of much of the graphic design exhibited in the pages of these old magazines. Particularly in magazine covers, advertisements, or illustrations from the mid-20th century, I admired the simplicity and elegance in these images, whether they were paintings or photographs.

This graceful visual aesthetic, so foreign to the cluttered and gaudy visual culture of our Internet age, is something I see not only in graphic design but also in much of the architecture, furniture, movies, and fashions of roughly the middle third of the last century. This is, of course, what is commonly known today as "midcentury modernism", but what occurred to me as I viewed the wonderful and tasteful images in old magazines such as a 1930s Fortune or a 1950s Collier's is that this midcentury aesthetic is a kind of American Classicism.

When I call it "classicism", I'm deliberately comparing it to the aesthetic culture of ancient Greece and Rome. There have of course been revivals of "classical" aesthetics before, most notably in the Renaissance and later in the Classical Revival of the 18th century. The early American Republic, which consciously modeled itself after the ancient Roman Republic, constructed many of its important public buildings in a modified neoclassical style. But after World War I, and all the more so after World War II, when the United States came of age as a dominant world power, American culture and aesthetics seemed to come into its own as well.

Rather than imitating the style of the Greeks and Romans, it was as if the United States had suddenly discovered its own voice, its own unique style and aesthetic expression. In this way, American modernism was decidedly unclassical, a distinctively modern and forward-looking aesthetic that left the past far behind. However, I came to see that it was fitting to describe this new style as a new kind of classicism. The simplicity, grace, and elegance of this visual culture--interestingly balanced by an energy and movement that the ancient classicisms often lacked in their static grandeur--were simply a new expression of the classical spirit, a new way of formulating these enduring aesthetic ideals in a fast-paced, technology-dominated modern age.

Like the classicism of Greece and Rome, the postwar American aesthetic expressed the highest aspirations of its civilization, a modern civilization of electricity, speed, and the promise of space exploration. Though these qualities may seem uniquely modern, they are just variations of the perennial American values of renewal, freedom, expansiveness, optimism, energy, ambition, progress, and prosperity.

In another sense, of course, this style seems a thing of the past. We find ourselves now in the very future to which midcentury modernism looked forward with such anticipation, but the future is not what we once thought it would be. This is, of course, inevitable because midcentury futurism was a utopian vision, and utopias have a way of never quite becoming reality. What we once might have imagined as the marvelous space-age tomorrowland of 2010 has turned out to be just the same old real world.

But the real world needs ideals, and real life needs dreams. Whatever problems existed in the United States in the mid-20th century--and for those who have forgotten history, there were many--it possessed a wondrous vision of the future that made it seem like, no matter what darkness we were going through at present, a bright and better tomorrow lay ahead. It's true that too much optimism is naive and ultimately leads to bitter disappointment. But a complete lack of hope in the future deadens the soul, of an individual or a nation, and leads to demoralization, defeatism, and despair.

Just as Western civilization once looked to the glorious past of Greece and Rome and was inspired to renew itself, to reach for the future by looking to the past, perhaps the jaded, cynical United States of the 21st century can look back to its glory days in the middle of the 20th and seek once again to attain new heights.

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