A New Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

By Jan Baetens

On:

Jeffrey Lieber

Flintstone Modernism Or The Crisis in Postwar American Culture

Flintstone Modernism

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018

 

I was very jealous of this book’s title, which immediately caught my eye (the dust cover, available in three colors, is no less intriguing) and now, after reading it, I am even more than jealous of the author since Flintstone Modernism is a great read and a brilliant example of the holistic approach of art and history that represents, for me, the best of cultural studies.

Lieber’s book opens with Hannah Arendt’s The Crisis in Culture (1960), the crisis being that of the gap between a lost tradition and an uncertain present as well as our difficulties of building a new future inspired by this past. It ends with deeply moving reflections on Louis Kahn, the visionary architect whose work of the 1950s and 60s is now seen, but only now and certainly not during his lifetime, as the most stimulating illustration of such a bridge between a faraway past and a present aimed at lasting forever.

Yet Flintstone Modernism is not about Arendt and Kahn, but more generally about the paradoxical cultural crisis in postwar America during the two decades after WW2 (there will be other crises to come after these years, but that is not the scope of the book), when the US, as the new world power, tries to give new meaning to a no longer viable European modernism, associated with a functionalist and ideological agenda that was considered outdated as well as incompatible with US values. Lieber’s book analyzes different answers to this fundamental cultural problem, which he frames in terms of the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns (in the 17th Century, this quarrel was between those who considered the models of Ancient Greece and Rome, rediscovered in the Renaissance, as eternal and impossible to surpass and those who stressed instead the inventions and achievements of modern culture). During the postwar period, the US attempts to go in directions other than the European models of the 1920s and 30s. However, common to all these attempts is that the Ancient, which has to be reinvented in Modern times, is no longer that of a totally destroyed and morally bankrupt Europe (and even less of the new evil that was the Soviet Union), but that of the ancient roots of European civilization, namely Egypt, Greece and Rome. More specifically, it appears that the newness to which the US feels attracted cannot be separated from the dream of greatness and monumentality exemplified by the three Ancient cultures, with their Pyramids, their Parthenon and their Forum.

The most original part of Lieber’s book is, however, not his critical stance towards what he calls “Flintstone Modernism” (the popular Flintstones TV series of the early series being such a –funny but also sharp– corporate and petty-bourgeois mix of the Ancients and the Moderns), but his decision to match the analysis of architecture, a typical representative of high art, with an analysis of popular culture, mainly the magazine press (Time, Fortune, shelter and lifestyle magazines) and the immensely popular “sand and sandal” peplums of the period (it will be the same type of movies, think of the infamous 1963 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cleopatra, that will play a decisive role in the bankruptcy of the Hollywood studio system in the early sixties). This comparison is dramatically instructive, for Hollywood and Fortune show us much more directly what is at stake in the great social debates of the era than the successive styles and fashions of skyscrapers and corporate or private buildings, which Lieber also reads in light of shelter magazines and big screen escapism. Besides, the comparison also demonstrates the honesty and seriousness of pop (pulp?) culture as well as its major impact on society at large.

Flintstone Modernism is definitely a book on architecture, but it is also a wonderful contribution to the cultural studies take on art and history (and, in that sense, very different from both art history and cultural history). A must-read, I say, and I do hope a future classic.

ART@VSAC

By Ana Schultze

ART@VSAC is an exhibition of artworks selected as a part of the seventh edition of the Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC), which takes place in Leuven from 21 to 24 August 2019. It is divided over three locations – BAC Atelier, KADOC and the University Library – all venues whose history is closely linked to the university thus forming a peculiar blend of art with science. The artworks on display were invited or submitted to fit in with the conference which is targeted at scientists from several disciplines, interested in visual science and visual art, and also dedicated to encourage interchange between them.

Although the selected artworks all share similar traits, they are also diverse in many respects. The used media vary from paintings and photography, to video and film, installations, performance, as well as hybrid or mixed forms. The contributing artists are also in different stages in their career: they range from emerging to well-established. The common interest of the different artists in the fascination of how the eyes and brains of the beholders create the art experience, unites them and makes the collective ART@VSAC exhibition more than the sum of its parts.

The exhibition is open to the public as well, since the artists and scientists involved are eager to share their findings and also want to open up the scientific dialogue on visual art. One third of the human brain is dedicated to the processing of visual information and many of us get pleasure out of visual stimulation. The visual brain is full of opioids for a reason. So come and enjoy what you see at ART@VSAC! Open your eyes, look and walk around, and get your senses triggered, brains stimulated and hearts touched.

More information & opening hours: http://www.vsac2019.org/artatvsac.

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What a difference the book makes!

By Jan Baetens

le fait diversFrédérique Toudoire-Surlapierre

Le Fait divers et ses fictions

Paris : éd. de Minuit, 2019, 192 p.

ISBN : 9782707345448
18.00 €

There is no real English translation for the French word « fait divers », which refers to the smaller news items, often purely anecdotal and without any special interest –except for the  public that has always devoured them (another French term is “les chiens écrasés”, the crushed dogs being also the traffic victims, of course). These news briefs often have a strongly melodramatic or sensational content (celebs’ divorces, kidnappings, bank robberies, murders) and their ubiquity is generally condemned as a symptom of depoliticizing and streamlining of a mind-numbed audience.

The book by Frédérique Toudoire-Surlapierre questions these prejudices, not by rereading the news brief from a new perspective, but by examining what happens –not in the text but in the mind of the readers– when serious literature takes such news items as its starting point. This general interrogation emerges in a special context, that of the alleged fading-out of literature as a socially relevant cultural practice (why go on reading literature?) and that of the book as a living host medium (why read texts in print if there are screens?). That contemporary literature frequently turns toward the “fait divers” could be seen as a an attempt to reestablish a dialogue with the audience, no longer interested in literature but still fascinated by the news brief. But this is not at all the author’s purpose, who claims instead that the merger of serious literature (be it fictional, autofictional or nonfictional) and the “fait divers” tells us something vital on the present status of literary writing, while also highlighting a key function that no other type of cultural practice can accomplish better than literary texts. On the one hand, the spread of “news literature” demonstrates a shift in the relationship between literature and social commitment: writers are no longer “engagés” (engaged, devoted to a specific cause and putting their texts at the service of this cause; today, this would be considered mere propaganda), but “impliqués” (which does not mean “implicated”, but “involved”, being part of what one is describing or commenting and doing it in a sense that goes with certain obligations). On the other hand, if literature does not change the content matter of the news item, it invites –and in many cases encourages, if not forces– the reader to change his or her mind, since its special take on the news brief confronts the audience with a case of “cognitive dissonance” (Leon Festinger), in other words a way of thinking that diverges from the public opinion. Contrary to other forms of social communication, literature has the right, and perhaps also the duty, to go against the grain and to challenge the doxa or general beliefs, often in shocking and scandalizing ways.

Using a variegated corpus of crime-based news items as rewritten in modern and contemporary literary texts (from Proust to Duras, from Genet to Giono, from Foucault to Bon, among many others), Le Fait divers et ses fictions offers a convincing demonstration of its double basic claim: first, the reinvention of literature as a socially relevant practice in an era of information overload and screen culture; second, the special link between literature and the more general issue of social belief and common opinions as well as the critical role of literature in the mechanisms that make us question the apparently unquestionable.