Robert Pells


On his book Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture

Cover Interview of May 29, 2011

In a nutshell

Modernist America is a history of American culture in the 20th and early 21st centuries.  It focuses on literature, painting, architecture, advertising and design, classical music, jazz, Broadway musicals, movies, and movie stars.

Essentially, I argue that American artists and entertainers adopted elements of foreign cultures—especially European high culture in the 20th century—and transformed these elements into a popular culture that spread throughout the world.

Americans were particularly dependent on and influenced by the presence of European émigrés and refugees who fled to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  They had an enormous impact on American painting, architecture, music, and film.

But the global success of American culture always rested from the beginning on its cosmopolitan embrace of others’ values, ideals, and cultures.

In the end, New York and Hollywood replaced London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna as the center of Western culture.  This was because of America’s ability to borrow and adapt other people’s cultures, a talent that made American culture both compelling and familiar for people all over the planet.

Along the way, I hope readers in the United States and abroad will come to appreciate why the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland was so dazzling, why Frank Lloyd Wright and Jackson Pollock were such innovative artists, why Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were such imaginative jazz musicians, why Marlon Brando was such an astonishing actor, and why Orson Welles’s cinematic genius was so influential in creating both a uniquely American and a modern global culture.