Explicit Lyrics Commentary: The Attempt To Invent an American Style

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Skyscraper with Woman Skyscraper with Woman

The Attempt to Invent
an American Style

by Paul Goodman

Since the early thirties, such major arts as music, literature, painting have been pre-empted by American themes in American idiom. By American themes I mean local characters, regional politics, Lincolniana, and folk melodies. By American idiom I mean catalogues of place names, sentences without subordinate clauses, and rhythms and intervals easy for lay choruses. The concept of America is sometimes extended, for obvious reasons, to include Pan-America.

The attempt seems to be to discover, or failing that to invent by main force, an American Style for major artistic creation. During the first quarter of the century, such American themes and idioms belonged to smaller genre studies; now they are thought of as adequate to the resources of intellectual and self-conscious art. The movement is not spontaneous, but encouraged by well known critics, defended by esthetic arguments, and supported by publishers, performers, exhibitors, and public clients. (Both the cause and the purpose of all this is obvious in the social situation.)

Such an American grand style is an impossible monstrosity and its encouragement is a calamity. For a national style to be capable of profound expression, there is required a culture, both in idiom and characteristic subjects, slowly matured and humanized, through long periods of history, feeling, and thought. So it was in the French or Italian national styles. America too had the first beginnings of a national style in the New England writing crossed with frontier ideas. But the continuity of this culture was violently interrupted by the revolutionary technological changes that overwhelmed the mores at the end of the century. It is now impossible to continue the tradition as if it had not been broken.

In general it is now impossible for any folk-culture throughout the world, or for any backward part of an advanced culture, to enjoy the relatively isolated maturation necessary for a humane national style, a style integrated although regional, historical rather than parochial. For the modern technology is overwhelming this folk-culture with its flood; and the culture of the technology itself, whether in science or invention, is not national but international or supranational.
Nations already possessing an integrated culture when they have come to meet the new techniques and altered ways of life have thereby suffered a cultural lag and a hopeless resistance. But on the other hand, just these nations -- though no longer in a national way -- have the greatest chance of selecting from, and humanizing, and giving meaning to the techniques. (An example of this is the French and German International style in architecture.)

But America received the techniques both sooner and in greater quantity than any other nation, and before it had ever developed a secure national culture. And this paradox, of a revolutionary technology without a culture, has left the Americans what they are today: by and large the most ignorant of any major people in history. It is certainly not from American concerns as American that anything humane will be forthcoming. And the most remarkable proof of our misfortune is that America, the youngest of the great peoples, is already the oldest, the most spiritually exhausted, and the most depoliticalized. The first to become a technological giant, it is the first to cease to look for humane possibilities in the technology, just because it lacked the skepticism, the tenacity, and the experience that come from the habit of thought and meaning. It is the first, and perhaps the only, people that now looks to the techniques merely to raise the standard of living and increase the quantity of goods and services, without regarding this as just the means to utopian cultural aspirations. In comparison, even the British are political and full of hope.

Several times recently the hopeless attempt has been made to write the history of some American art, for instance, the American novel. But the attempt is impossible because in fact the chief influence on each surrounding generation, the influence that makes the succession become history, has been some European movement, French naturalism or Marxism, and so forth. However much an American stylist professes allegiance to his American forbears, he is not such a fool as not to draw from the greater stream; but now he refuses to contribute to the greater stream. (Such was not the attitude of Hawthorne, James, Ryder, or the young Gershwin.)

The necessarily thin productions in the American style will have no influence among other peoples longer in memory and richer in hope. Quite the contrary, the fact is that precisely the American arts that have had a cultural influence are those without any cultural pretensions, the pure expressions of technical finesse, where the inventive novelty has superseded any attempt at meaning: namely, Hollywood cinema and skyscraper architecture.

from Format and Anxiety: Paul Goodman Critiques the Media edited by Taylor Stoehr (Autonomedia. Brooklyn, N. Y.:1995). Out of print, but available through Amazon and ABE. Additonal titles are also at Amazon and ABE.

Copyright © 1995 Sally Goodman. Reprinted by permission.