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  • Popular Culture, Childhood, and the New American Forest of Postmodernism
  • Leo Zanderer (bio)

In 1924 the respected arts and culture critic Gilbert Seldes turned his back on high culture. In his The Seven Lively Arts he announced his commitment to popular forms of art: he cherished their vitality; he found them as important as the traditional higher forms. He seemed particularly aware of the fact that the new and more popular arts were a largely American phenomenon. As a kind of cultural propaganda, we might liken Seldes's book to Van Wyck Brooks's more pointed study of developing American culture, America's Coming of Age (1915). In describing American artists and entertainers, Seldes places continual emphasis on their childlike spontaneity and energy. It leads us to think of the advent of the twentieth century as the advent of two significantly related ideas: America as a cultural entity and childhood as valuable state-of-mind. From the respectable Chaplin to the somewhat less respectable Jolson, Cantor, Fanny Brice (who would one day win radio reknown as Baby Snooks), and even Krazy Kat, the protagonist of George Herriman's celebrated "high-brow" comic strip of the same name, the American artists' power to captivate and enchant is associated with a childlike naturalness, an apparent closeness to primary processes and inner needs.

We might now conclude that that popular, pristine and organic American style of spontaneous, energized, and even "innocent" expression has continued to develop into what we have come to call an Americanization of the world. Europe has given up its proud claims on not only economic but cultural leadership.1 Thus recently, France's prime minister, cajoled by his teenage daughter, in turn cajoled an unhappy major of a small and proverbially quaint French town into allowing Madonna to hold a concert in a heretofore sacrosanct old park. Not only the mayor, but others have expressed unhappiness with a perceived American co-opting of European culture. French critic Serge Guilbart describes New York's replacement of Paris as the center of the art world as How New York Stole The Idea of Modern Art. Guilbart asserts that New York's rise is a triumph of American self-advertising and quasi-political propaganda. Surreptitiously borrowing from cold war propaganda, American artists and critics [End Page 7] created an impression that American abstract expressionism was buoyed by a uniquely American energy and honesty. It was uniquely free of the rigidity of Franco-European versions of abstraction, which blandly continued the tradition of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Whatever the validity of Guilbart's assertions, one recognizes in the thinking of critics Greenberg, Schapiro, Rosenberg and in the statements of De Kooning, Pollack, Gottlieb, Rothko, and Hofmann an attempt to claim for their art a basis that is at once American and fundamentalist, and at last free of the structures of traditional standards and the conventional values of museum curators. American artists were naturally gifted children; they could create their own standards, find their own audience; spontaneous, original, blessed by the unique setting that America offered to free and unharnessed spirits, they were, in a sense, the artistic equivalents of Henry Ford and Edison, young scions of technique and craftiness, new American Adams, who, thanks to their Edenic surroundings and imaginations, had the right to begin the world anew.

Postmodernism may be seen as in part the culmination of the two related kinds of Americanizing and popularizing of art, found in Seldes's laudatory description and in Guilbart's critical history.2 The first indicates how popular culture as a merging of tendencies toward a purely American kind of cultural expression begins to gain ascendance and legitimacy in American life; the second shows how the tradition of high art itself became Americanized and, by corollary, popularized. Put otherwise, postmodernism is an expression of a leveling tendency in culture which approximates the spirit or ideology of American democracy and which privileges the common and everyday, the ordinary, unpretentious and natural. In this sense we recognize that postmodernism is still romanticist, and to some extent even humanist—even while it condemns such concepts as noxiously linked to authoritarian and colonialist ideas.3

Perhaps the main...


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