Puzzling Hopper's intentions in his changing America
Beneath the humor and anger of Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere is his desperate plea that Americans historicize the ills of our human habitat and that we act to change it with a new vocabulary he develops throughout the book. We haven’t reached his plan for the ultimate re-imagining of the American Landscape, but we needn’t look much further than his introduction, full of small-town nostalgia, to know where he’s going
One of the comments I found most intriguing comes from page 86: "A civilization completely dependent on cars, as ours is now, was not inevitable." As Kunstler narrates it, there were several opportunities to avoid our present catastrophe, and perhaps none better than the Great Depression, when America (and the world) became entangled within capitalist crises produced by unsustainable fordist production and unabsorbable wealth. During those hard years America failed to ditch the car (and, Kunstler wryly notes, the means of production, distribution, and exchange which was the inevitable cause ) because: Gas was cheap; Roads were integral to the WPA; and the car became a symbol that was absorbed into the America Free Range and Mobility philosophy. The Plague that it actually was could not breach the level of cultural myth.
It wouldn’t make sense to say that Americans of my generation have gotten used to modernity, that technological and social changes are less amazing, discomforting, reifying. But certain indexes of ‘modern American’ that came about as a result of the changes Kunstler talks about have become Americana, objects, images, pastimes seeming to belong to a ‘hazy before.’ I quite often forget how new the bridges, the highways, the Coca-Cola bottles seemed to the American Moderns in ‘the moderns’ days.
There were many great documenters of that modern ‘moment of potentiality’ in American Art. Their subject matter ranges from town, city, and country life to portraying new American institutions that came about as a response to the car(93). One painter who worked from the beginning to the mid-century was Edward Hopper. Above is his oil painting "Route 6, Eastham." Of the "Eighty percent of America has been built in the last 50 years" in Kunstler's introduction, I believe that is the other 20%--painted in 1941 when were not quite "a nation of overfed clowns in a cartoon environment" (10).
“Route 6, Eastham” is one of Hopper’s landscape/architecture portraits-aka, no humans. I shouldn’t generalize on an artist I know little about, but the people in his paintings always strike me as uncomfortable with their surroundings; performing (not for us, maybe for themselves); geographically-existentially lost; trying to be absorbed, or to absorb themselves; blitzed by the New. Their psyches are obviously victims of America’s restructuring, but there’s something else. There is a stillness in the figures, their arrangements, and the light on the buildings, as though the painter knew a stillness before the wheels of America started turning. Hopper was there when America pressed the Gas pedal down.
Regarding the painting itself, we have a large house, placidly sitting (standing; stressfully waiting; idling?) by a New England Highway. A few other houses and a string of transformers stretch in the distance along a two-lane highway. The houses look 'vernacular,' made out of local materials to fit local needs.
One is compelled to ask: Is it morning or twilight on this NE scene? Are we traveling (if we are traveling) east or west? Where is the viewer—are we passing by and thus leaving the culture of agriculture (of NE in particular) behind, or are we approaching the future, guided by a string of transformers (and if it’s a race who will win out).I’m not sure that Hopper ever specified, and I get the feeling that Hopper never gave narratives to the people or places in his portraits; Perhaps he saw that there was too much potential.