USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Tensions of Modernity

On the East Wall of Detroit Industry, Rivera paints a scene of birth. There is a baby, perhaps even a fetus, nestled inside the bulb of a plant. A web of roots surrounds the sleeping child. To the right and left of this scene sit two women. One holds fruits, the other grains—they are the fecundity of the earth incarnate. The figures are recognizable as indigenous, making the connection between nature/earth and indigenous culture. This equation of indigenous with “the natural” or traditional juxtaposes or complements the sophistication of modern industrial society. The East Wall represents the birth or beginning of the great process that is unfolding in the murals. The east holds the rising sun, the beginnings. The foundation of the industrial process, then, is agriculture: the earth and those who labor on it, the peasantry. Here, the earth is fertile; it yields its bounty. Rivera codes it as the female, while industry is coded as male. Like the portrayal or racial unity and that of the amicability of hierarchical industrial relations, the harmony of nature and industry presents modern society in utopian terms. For a counter-perspective, we see the demonic linking of the female and technology in dystopian terms in Fritz Lang's Metropolis through his character of the Robot Maria. Scholar Andreas Huyssen presents his fantastic interpretation of this element of the film in the article "The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis."

Above the industrial scene on the north wall, Rivera has placed another scene of indigenous work, this time two indigenous figures holding minerals mined from the earth. Behind them, a mountain rises up from the background out of which a number of hands protrude, also holding minerals from the earth. Together with agriculture, mining forms the second foundational pillar of the industrial process. That both of these pieces are represented by indigenous figures and motifs forms quite a striking contrast to the hyper-modernity of industrial life.

Questions of the relationship between earth and industry, between indigenous work and industrial work, and between traditions and modernity pervade the murals. The coexistence of indigenous and industrial cultures seems at first glance harmonious. The realities, however, of the status of indigenous agricultural societies were far from utopian. However much modern industrial society might have been rooted in (even dependent on) traditional practices and identities, the ruptures between "modern" and "traditional" life were profound. The period in world history between 1914 and 1945 is defined by this complex relationship.  

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