The Cold War and the avant-garde
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Wed Feb 14 10:57:01 MST 2001
NY Times, February 14, 2001
ARTS IN AMERICA: 'Avant-Garde' Artists Come in From the Cold (War)
By STEPHEN KINZER
WELLESLEY, Mass. Although the 1950's are often described as somnolent
years in the United States, they were also a time of artistic ferment, when
dissonant music and abstract painting burst into the public consciousness.
But in recent years some scholars and curators have come to believe that
this ferment was not really so radical, and that although these artists
considered themselves consummate outsiders, their work often served to
promote rather than subvert mainstream values.
The case is made at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley
College here in an exhibition called "Cold War Modern: The Domesticated
Avant-Garde." The show, which runs through June 17, links artistic
innovators not to a tiny adventurous audience but to the mass culture of
"Was there really an avant- garde?" asked Judith Hoos Fox, the museum's
curator, as she walked through the exhibition recently. "You had new music
being commissioned by government agencies. Jackson Pollock paintings were
being used as backdrops for fashion pictures in Vogue. We're really
questioning the avant-gardeness of the avant-garde."
Artists represented in the show include Pollock, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner,
Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. But this is not a
traditional art exhibition. To demonstrate how experimental culture flooded
into the public consciousness during the 1950's, it focuses on topics
ranging from the development of the long-playing record to the way the
press covered radical artists.
The exhibition includes pieces of furniture like Eero Saarinen's 1948 womb
chair and Isamu Noguchi's 1954 rocking stool, as examples of how the ideas
of modern art were penetrating the American home. A Calder mobile hangs
over a glass table that reflects its curves. Artifacts include an array of
jazz records with covers in abstract styles; an advertisement from a 1954
issue of House and Garden magazine offering reproductions of primitive
masks, ready for hanging, for $5; and dinnerware inspired by modern art
A wall panel introducing the exhibition asserts that during the 1950's
cultural innovations like modern music and abstract painting were "absorbed
into mainstream middle- class culture and contained within the process of
middle-class identity formation."
"Advanced music and art produced by cultural outsiders and often as acts of
resistance to bourgeois complacency came to represent the civic values of
free expression and autonomy," the introduction reads. "Cold war rhetoric
and politics provided the conduits through which this `American triumph'
was made manifest."
The exhibition opens with a video that cuts from one iconic 1950's scene to
another, including the "kitchen debate" between Vice President Richard M.
Nixon and the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev and a civil defense film
in which a stern voice warns that atomic bombs are "powerful enough to
break windows all over town."
In one scene in the video, Walter Cronkite reports on the television news
that Nixon and Khrushchev agreed on a single point: "Both don't like jazz."
But the exhibition also includes an extended recording that features the
music of Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis along with that of Stravinsky and
John Cage and the soundtrack to "The Manchurian Candidate." This exhibition
is the culmination of a seminar at Wellesley College taught jointly by an
art history professor and a music professor. "We became very interested in
the rise of the avant-garde and how it related to the vortex of consumption
that had its center in the home," said Martin Brody, a composer and music
Mainstream culture and its journals and museums, he said, looked favorably
on modern art and music because they reinforced the central cold war
argument: that American- style democracy provided true freedom.
"When these artists started talking about freedom of expression," Mr. Brody
continued, "that fed right into what the political machine was saying about
suppression in the Soviet Union. That's why many of them were encouraged,
legitimized and introduced into the mainstream of the emerging middle class."
Among the books on display beside a video monitor in the exhibition is "The
Cultural Cold War: The C.I.A. and the World of Arts and Letters" by the
British writer and documentary filmmaker Frances Stonor Saunders. The book,
published by the New Press last year, says that the Central Intelligence
Agency supported the cultural avant-garde and considered it an ally in the
struggle against Communism.
This is not a new discovery. As early as 1974, an article in Artforum
magazine asserted that abstract artists had been promoted by "some of the
most influential figures controlling museum policies" as part of "cold war
tactics designed to woo European intellectuals."
The C.I.A. developed and sponsored projects to bring modern American art
and music to Europe to promote the idea that these works reflected a
vibrant free culture preferable to the Soviet model, with its drab
conformity, Ms. Saunders's book relates.
While such abstract artists as Motherwell, Calder and Pollock joined the
C.I.A.-backed American Committee for Cultural Freedom (Pollock later said
he had enlisted while drunk), the artist Ben Shahn, whose Social Realist
work graphically depicted injustice, bitterly denounced it.
"This was a time," said Patricia Gray Berman, who teaches art history at
Wellesley and helped assemble the show, "when pillars of the establishment
like Henry Luce were describing Abstract Expressionism as a sort of
cultural free enterprise."
"The existence of abstract art was used, both at home and abroad, to make
the case that we had a kind of freedom here that was alien to the Soviet
person," she said. "It's normal for avant-garde ideas to be assimilated
into mainstream culture, but usually there's a time lag between when new
art is produced and when the consumer culture absorbs it.
"In the 1950's, fortunately or unfortunately, that half-life was shortened
incredibly. You could be on the outer edge one day and in living rooms the
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