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  • The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War
  • Harvey Klehr
David Caute , The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 788 pp.

The Dancer Defects is David Caute's ambitious effort to examine the cultural Cold War. Ranging over a variety of cultural forms but focusing primarily on the performing and fine arts, as well as architecture, Caute's sprawling and often overly detailed book is as comprehensive an account of the cultural conflict between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies as we are ever likely to have.

Caute suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not only military and economic but cultural as well. Despite the genuinely talented cultural figures who either were Russian or embraced Communism—composers like Dmitrii Shostakovich and Sergei Prokof'ev, artists like Pablo Picasso, dramatists like Bertold Brecht, extraordinarily gifted dancers and musicians—Communist ideology stifled creative talent, repressed individuals, and prevented experimentation and progress. Although the Cold War also affected American culture, particularly during the McCarthy era, its impact in the United States was far briefer and far less damaging. [End Page 151]

Both Communism and democracy laid claim to the heritage of the European Enlightenment. Each saw the cultural productions of its system as validation of its way of life, and each viewed the cultural life of its enemy as riddled with flaws. Soviet critics sneered at American commercialism and vulgarity, and Americans denounced Soviet censorship and crude propaganda. Each trumpeted its cultural life as a reflection of its achievements and values.

The Soviet Union made no secret of the fact that cultural life was subsidized and controlled by the state. American cultural life, on the other hand, was far more diffuse and privatized. In recent years, a spate of books and articles have appeared accusing the United States of bad faith and "exposing" the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in promoting magazines, cultural events, and even genres such as abstract expressionism in art. Caute observes that it is useful to know "who paid the piper," but he insists—rightly—that it is more crucial to understand who wrote the tune. He emphasizes that Western cultural figures, including artists and playwrights, enjoyed far more freedom to create what they wanted and to offer their own visions. Caute focuses on the individuals who produced the art, music, plays, and other cultural artifacts of the Cold War era. On all of this, his judgment could not be clearer. The West, he argues, won the cultural Cold War in large part because its governments allowed artists freedom while the Soviet Union imposed a crushing conformity that froze artistic developments and repressed artists.

The Soviet authorities insisted on politically correct themes and messages in all Soviet cultural productions. This encompassed not only the proper heroes and villains in plays and art, but the correct attitude toward the world. Despairing, angst-ridden art or music was fiercely criticized. Just as dangerous, however, was the wrong form. Remarkably, for a political movement so identified with revolution, the Soviet cultural czars were implacable opponents of modernism in all its forms. Andrei Zhdanov's post-World War II strictures anathematized atonality and dissonance in music, forcing Prokof'ev to grovel and Shostakovich to heap abuse on Stravinsky. Soviet critics were forced to denounce the "Theatre of the Absurd," typified by Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Even though the East German government created a theater for Brecht and emphasized his acerbic criticism of capitalist democracy, his plays were not performed in the USSR until the late 1950s, after his death. One of the great ironies Caute highlights is that Picasso, Brecht, Aaron Copland, and Jean-Paul Sartre remained sympathetic to a regime that persecuted their friends and either banned or censored their own artistic creations.

Another irony Caute notes is that modernism was also widely disliked in the West, where it was denounced by traditional critics and shunned by much of the public. Art for art's sake and deliberately off-putting artistic products appealed mainly to an avant-garde in the West. In the Soviet bloc these forms of art...