Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1872:
RELIVING 1953

by John H. Lienhard

Today, this is not a movie review, but ... The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just seen the new Julia Roberts movie, Mona Lisa Smile. The story is about an avant-garde art history instructor from UCLA, joining the Wellesley faculty in 1953. She's faced with a very bright, very conservative, class of wealthy young women.

The movie got mixed reviews. Many of the various objections are valid. But I was then just finishing my master's degree, and this movie captures my recollections with dazzling and disturbing, accuracy. Whether Wellesley was once the hothouse of finishing school values shown in the movie, I have no idea. But the movie was not about Wellesley -- it was about 1953.

World War Two had ended eight years before. Seven million American troops came home, and the impact had been stunning. They all wanted the country they'd left. The mood was extremely conservative in the older sense of that word. We ached for the kind of home and hearth that we falsely remembered from the 1930s.

During the war years, Norman Rockwell had described an ideal of peacetime America. Now we tried to claim his vision of picket fences and perfect mothers managing spotless kitchens. Doris Day became the icon of American womanhood. Women donned gloves, veils, and ankle-length skirts.

This was the America in the movie. The conservative mood was morphing from the sweetness of Norman Rockwell to something far more grim. McCarthy's purges had begun a few years earlier; the government was intensifying its use of religion as a political tool. Naturally rebellion was now welling up. A decade later, the Viet Nam conflict and civil unrest would tear America apart.

So I watched this movie in which art was the vehicle for revolt. The answer to Norman Rockwell would be Jackson Pollock with his lovely textured paintings of random nature -- dots and splatters evoking an organic world, beyond our control.

I first saw Pollock's art in 1952, at the University of Washington. The University was reeling from pre-McCarthy purges and Pollock was rebellion. Now the movie shows a class of young women being taken to a warehouse to see a new Pollock painting being uncrated. Their faces reveal horror, prurient interest, fascination, disgust, disbelief -- revelation. The camera swings from painting to faces and back, lovingly caressing the textures in both. That scene perfectly captured my own first viewing of Pollock.

So the aftershocks of the most terrible war the world had ever known caught up with us. We started to oscillate wildly between poles of left and right -- struggling to find our center once more.

The first force that arose to pull us back into alignment was art. Later it would be sit-ins, marches, and civil disobedience. But art is always first. And I remember back across a half century, to a time when I was privileged to watch as art called us to pull back onto saner middle ground.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For details on the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, and many reviews of it, see:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0304415/

For more on the texture of the 1950s, see: J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, Chapter 15.

What I saw at the University of Washington was not Pollock's art itself, but a series of noon movies on contemporary art. The one on Pollock had a strong impact upon me.


1950s woman


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.