Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

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to a no longer viable European modernism, associated with a functionalist and ideological agenda that was considered outdated as well as incompatible with US values.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.