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Late Modernism

Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

By Robert Genter

Publication Year: 2010

In the thirty years after World War II, American intellectual and artistic life changed as dramatically as did the rest of society. Gone were the rebellious lions of modernism—Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky—and nearing exhaustion were those who took up their mantle as abstract expressionism gave way to pop art, and the barren formalism associated with the so-called high modernists wilted before the hothouse cultural brew of the 1960s. According to conventional thinking, it was around this time that postmodernism with its characteristic skepticism and relativism was born.

In Late Modernism, historian Robert Genter remaps the landscape of American modernism in the early decades of the Cold War, tracing the combative debate among artists, writers, and intellectuals over the nature of the aesthetic form in an age of mass politics and mass culture. Dispensing with traditional narratives that present this moment as marking the exhaustion of modernism, Genter argues instead that the 1950s were the apogee of the movement, as American practitioners—abstract expressionists, Beat poets, formalist critics, color-field painters, and critical theorists, among others—debated the relationship between form and content, tradition and innovation, aesthetics and politics. In this compelling work of intellectual and cultural history Genter presents an invigorated tradition of late modernism, centered on the work of Kenneth Burke, Ralph Ellison, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Jasper Johns, Norman Brown, and James Baldwin, a tradition that overcame the conservative and reactionary politics of competing modernist practitioners and paved the way for the postmodern turn of the 1960s.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: The Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America


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Introduction: A Genealogy of Postwar American Modernism

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pp. 1-17

In April 1949, the San Francisco Art Association held a three-day “Western Round Table on Modern Art,” bringing together an eclectic group of artists, critics, and curators to discuss the state of modernism in America. Held at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the round table was designed

PART I: High Modernism in America: Self and Society in the Early Cold War

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One: Science, Postmodernity, and the Rise of High Modernism

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pp. 21-53

In July 1945 Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, submitted a presidential report titled Science: The Endless Frontier in which he detailed a plan for federal support of scientific research in peacetime. With a certain utopian flourish, Bush argued...

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Two: Reconsidering the Authoritarian Personality in America: The Sociological Challenge of David Riesman

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pp. 54-89

In a 1961 revision of an Art News article, “New York Painting Only Yesterday,” Clement Greenberg, reflective and triumphant, proclaimed that “someday it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared...

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Three: Psychoanalysis and the Debate over the Democratic Personality: Norman Brown’s Freudian Revisions

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pp. 90-124

In his 1955 book Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture, Lionel Trilling, enthusiastic but slightly concerned, noted that psychoanalysis had surprisingly become “an integral part of our modern intellectual apparatus.”1 Pointing to the use of Freudian ideas in every part of American culture, from...

PART II: The Revolt of Romantic Modernism: Beatniks, Action Painters, and Reichians

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Four. A Question of Character: The Dramaturgy of Erving Goffman and C. Wright Mills

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pp. 127-163

In William Burroughs’s 1952 novel Queer, the narrator, William Lee, travels from Mexico City to South America in search of a plant called yage, which, as Lee explains, is used by Russian leaders “to induce states of automatic and ultimately, of course, thought control.”1 Noting that officials...

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Five: Beyond Primitivism and the Fellahin: Receiving James Baldwin’s Gift of Love

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pp. 164-196

During the first testing of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, the scientific personnel who witnessed the explosion related how they were unable to translate their experience into adequate words. Those who did offer words realized that even...

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Six: Masculinity, Spontaneity, and the Act: The Bodily Ego of Jasper Johns

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pp. 197-235

At a 1960 solo exhibition in New York, the abstract artist Jasper Johns presented his bluntest statement about the hostile atmosphere of the New York art scene. Having recently achieved notoriety for his 1958 one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, where he exhibited his infamous ...

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Seven: Rethinking the Feminine Within: The Cultural Politics of James Baldwin

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pp. 236-270

In 1954 Jack Kerouac completed his only science fiction story, “cityCityCITY,” a portentous, dystopian vision of America. Written during the Army-McCarthy hearings and reflecting his concerns about the excessive use of power by the Wisconsin senator, Kerouac’s story, as he described ...

PART III: The Challenge of Late Modernism

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Eight. Rhetoric and the Politics of Identification Writ Large: The Late Modernism of Kenneth Burke, C. Wright Mills, and Ralph Ellison

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pp. 273-308

One late summer evening William Burroughs appeared in front of the Moka Bar, a London establishment that had recently offended him through poor table service and unappetizing cheesecake, and blasted a tape recording of street noise and other assorted sounds.1 Burroughs...

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Conclusion. The Legacy of Late Modernism

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pp. 309-324

On April 21, 1964, Andy Warhol held a public party at the Factory, his fifth-floor art studio on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. For the first time, Warhol allowed art critics and New York socialites to view his new studio, which he and his assistant Billy Linich had spent several...


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pp. 325-362


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pp. 363-371

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pp. 373-375

Like most academic works, this book took much too long to write. In many ways, I should offer an apology to everyone in my life for having spent so much time completing this. I have been very lucky that a seemingly endless number of people have stood by me over the years, and I am...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200072
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242645

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: The Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America
Series Editor Byline: Casey Nelson Blake, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700601
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Late Modernism

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Subject Headings

  • Arts, American -- 20th century.
  • Arts and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Arts -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Art) -- United States.
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