From Bauhaus to Barack's House
Top of the Weimar, Ma!
Two articles appearing today explore the period when modernism crashed and burned -- Jonathan Last writes about how its politics failed us in the 1970s, but first up, James Lileks explores the collapse of modernism as an art form:
[M]odern architecture is the break from the past that everyone experienced. You didn’t have to read the books or the poems or hear the music to know that there was a schism between the old and new orders; nothing had a trace of classical ornamentation, stone was replaced by glass, grace replaced by sheer overwhelming scale and bulk. A skyscraper of the past had fizzy Gothic tracery unraveling in the clouds; the buildings ended with a fist. And it fit. The new world was corporate, technocratic, computerized, arranged on our behalf by minders and betters, and all this would take us to the moon and make us live for a hundred years. Science!
The lobbies had enormous pieces of modern art, but Muzak wasn’t Schoenberg. Most likely massed strings playing anodyne pop.
That world failed us all, but the best modern buildings still have appeal. Not because we imagine Robert MacNamara sitting in the penthouse with a Univac calculating the precise number of B-52 sorties to arrange an incremental rollback of Communism, but because we now imagine Don Draper in suit and hat and a Lucky idling in his knuckles, and think about a certain freedom we’ve lost, a standard of adulthood that got its face pushed in the mud at Woodstock. Of course that’s nonsense - Don Draper’s freedom consisted of Don Draper’s freedom to be Don Draper, a rather select club - but it seems as if we swapped modernism for youth culture, for yammering infantile babblings that shoved all the marginalia into the center of our field of vision and demanded that we pretend it mattered just as much as the serious concerns of previous eras.
But modernism was youth culture. It had the same old predictable motivation: down with Daddy.
While we can question his rabid support of FDR over four terms, by and large, Dad did OK in 1930s through the 1950s: he survived the Depression, World War II and the first decade of the Cold War, and was determined to build a better, safer world for his kids. Not surprisingly, his kids hated being beholden to Daddy, and rebelled against all of his values.
Which brings us to the decade that followed, whose endless Clockwork Orange-style Horrorshow is nicely encapsulated by Jonathan Last in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard:
One prelude to the ’70s did have lasting consequences. During the “long, hot summers” of 1964-68, 329 “important” riots took place in 257 U.S. cities, according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s authoritative America in Black and White, with a toll of some 300 dead, 8,000 injured, and 60,000 arrested. The riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Newark, and, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Washington, D.C., were only the most famous. These eruptions helped drive the middle class out of urban cores in the ’70s, sending cities into decline and making the new underclass permanent.Violent crime was almost nonexistent in the 1950s, but by 1973 it was rampant, and the Department of Justice had to create a new accounting system to keep track of it all. As Frum reports, in 1973 the FBI found that “37 million Americans—meaning one household out of every four—had suffered a rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or auto theft.” In cities, the victimization rate was 1 in 3. In 1960, there were 9,000 murders in America. By 1975, the number was in excess of 20,000. (In 2010, with America’s population 50 percent larger, there were 14,000 murders.) Perhaps the most evocative statistic concerns schoolchildren. In 1979, 1 out of every 20 public school teachers reported being physically assaulted by a student during the previous year.
Mind you, the kids had a lot to be angry about. During the 1970s their families were falling apart. Cohabitation, which only a few years before had been looked down on as “living in sin,” began migrating upward from the lower socioeconomic rungs during the 1960s. In the ’70s it became so commonplace that by the end of the decade nearly half of all couples who got married had lived together first. Of course, lots of couples never bothered to marry at all—during the ’70s the percentage of men and women tying the knot dropped by roughly 10 percent. And marriage was becoming an increasingly frail institution. In 1960 there were about 400,000 divorces annually. By 1979, the number was just shy of 1.2 million.
(All of this leaves aside abortion. In 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade made it every woman’s right, there were 900,000 abortions in America; five years later the number was 1.5 million, a 66 percent increase.)
The prevailing sense one gets is of a civilization unspooling. Even the environment seemed on the brink of calamity, with smog descending on Los Angeles and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire, not to mention the toxic waste scandal at Love Canal, or the floating garbage barge outside of New York City, or the scare at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. This witch’s brew conjured the return of neo-Malthusian thinking about the dangers of “overpopulation,” which came to dominate both public discourse and public policy. (More on this in a moment.)
If people weren’t worrying about overpopulation, it was something else; a constant cloud of eschatological alarm loomed over the decade. A new Ice Age was coming to end our way of life—that is, if the comet Kahoutek or the killer bees that were en route from Mexico didn’t wipe us out first. On the New York Times op-ed page, editorial board member William Shannon wrote about “a new spirit of nihilism” and observed—with only a slight flourish—that “there are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar Republic of 1932-33.”
Well, yes. But the Timesmen and other midcentury American liberals were the citizens of Weimar they had been waiting for, even if they didn't know it, to torture Barack Obama's vapid 2008 campaign slogan.
The Weimar Republic bequeathed America modern architecture, thanks to the German emigres fleeing Nazi Germany who were embraced by American universities in the 1930s and '40s as "The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!", as Tom Wolfe memorably wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House. But in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom noted that there were plenty of other White Gods besides the Bauhauslers descending upon American academia during the Depression and World War II:
This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
Which brings us to the pop culture of today, which is even more Weimar-esque than the 1970s, as Bill Whittle recently explored:
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At the end of his video, Whittle asks what comes next, given the box canyon of nihilism our leftwing elites have trapped themselves in. On the economic front, thanks to our runaway "Quantitative Easing," we have the potential to really finish the job, Weimar-style. Fire up the printing presses, boys -- all our imagined environmental woes will be solved when toilet paper costs a million dollars a roll!