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Bohemian Enterprises: Modernism, Creative Labor, and Cultural Production, 1913-1962

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posted on 01.08.2016, 00:00 by Jessica E. Wilton

Contrary to popular images of elite and isolated bohemian coteries of early twentiethcentury Paris, New York, and London, the group of writers and artists known as modernists were surprisingly involved in the popular creative industries of their moment. From the 1910s through the 1950s, modernist writers and artists founded presses, design studios, magazines, theater companies, and architectural schools. They also worked directly with corporate media entities, in order to subsidize independent projects and contribute to the artistic character of the medium. My dissertation asks how modernists positioned their creative enterprises in relation to mass cultural industries, and how their literary and cinematic works characterized creative labor in its relation to dominant modes of mass production at the time. My core argument is that the strategies, tactics, and experiments modernists devised as entrepreneurs and freelancers were consistent with their formal and thematic critique of mass culture, as they explored, critiqued, offered alternatives to, and cautiously collaborated with cultural industries. Wyndham Lewis’s interior design and magazine projects asserted autonomy from culture industries through satire, whereas Gertrude Stein claimed to have devised more advanced self-promotional techniques than Hollywood’s. While Lewis and Stein maintained distance from culture industries, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, and Ben Hecht worked directly for Hollywood studios. They were hardly Hollywood boosters, however, and sought to maintain boundaries between their literary and Hollywood careers by publishing critical fiction about the film industry. Orson Welles, a cinematic modernist worked sporadically in Hollywood, but also pursued independent production solutions through which he allegorized the plight of postwar political and economic exiles from the film community. Taken together, I ask how these efforts may have begun to lay out principles for the kind of flexible, contingent modes of labor that under the banner of creativity have now become pervasive.




Degree Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


David Shumway

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