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
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
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
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
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
For details on the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, and many
reviews of it, see:
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.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.