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  • Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy by Greg Barnhisel
  • Kamran Javadizadeh
Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy. Greg Barnhisel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 322. $50.00 (cloth).

What use is art? I suspect that I have not been alone, among this journal's readers, in asking that question recently. What use, in particular, might have been imagined for a kind of art that, in its heyday, defiantly insisted on its autonomy, its aestheticism, a form of art that seemed to express, at every turn, hostility towards bourgeois society and the political institutions and economies of utility upon which that society was built? What use, in other words, might have been imagined for modernism? Greg Barnhisel's latest book, Cold War Modernists, gives that question a richly researched and intricate answer, one with important implications for our understanding of the history of modernism's reception and endurance in midcentury American and European culture. If we have come to talk about modernism's arc over the course of the twentieth century as one that extended from its initial, fractious appearance in little magazines and urban subcultures into its eventual embalming in academic tweed and broad dissemination as a style, then what Barnhisel's book supplies us with is a detailed account of a crucial cover it assumed in the years in between. Modernism, it turns out, was put to work as an American agent in the Cold War.

Well, in a way. That the story Barnhisel has to tell is not quite so simple is surely part of its appeal, the ballast to its cloak and dagger intrigue. Indeed, "Cold war modernism," as Barnhisel defines his book's key term, is, from the beginning, a messy arrangement: "the deployment of modernist art as a weapon of Cold War propaganda by both governmental and unofficial actors as well as … the implicit and explicit understanding of modernism underpinning that deployment" (28). The book's sensitivity to both sides of these binaries (official and unofficial, implicit and explicit, theory and practice) and to their mutual imbrications makes for a narrative whose accounts both of successes and of false starts and instructive failures build to a persuasive thickness. That thickness distinguishes this project from some earlier scholarship on the topic, which, as Barnhisel writes, has often run the risk of "read[ing] a large, diverse, and messy set of official and nongovernmental programs as a sleekly efficient covert CIA project" (8). While the CIA does indeed have a role to play here, the truth, Barnhisel reminds us (and this is a truth whose consequences his book traces with great care), is "that there is no 'government' per se" (8). Instead, there is an alphabet soup of agencies, departments, and individual actors, all of whose archives Barnhisel has plumbed, "all with their own values, constituencies, priorities, shifting concentrations of power and influence, and personal rivalries and agendas" (9). Nevertheless, it makes sense to talk about these disparate forces as contributors to a coherent diplomatic effort because they shared a fundamental yoking together of ideology and aesthetics: across the period covered in Barnhisel's study, modernism is promoted either as the fruit of, or as a crucial precondition for, Cold War liberalism. Modernism and liberalism's putatively tight association was offered—primarily to the Western European intellectuals who were fretted over as potentially sympathetic to appeals from behind the Iron Curtain (an effort, Barnhisel tells us, "the CIA informally called … 'the battle for Picasso's mind'")—as evidence that the United States was not, contrary to Soviet propaganda, a nation of racists and philistines (27).

In telling the story of modernism's rhetorical repurposing as cultural diplomacy, Barnhisel winds up addressing a question whose contours (both chronological and topical) extend beyond those of the Cold War: How, precisely, did what began as an antibourgeois movement become, a half-century later, "the house style of the American bourgeoisie" (218)? The book's answer comes in two parts. First, in searching for what it needed in modernist literature and art, the Cold War modernist project suppressed or ignored certain aspects of the modernist movement [End Page 424] that...


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