Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America by Robert Genter (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 375 pp. $49.95.

Although the category of "modernism" gets a heavy workout in this rigorous specimen of intellectual history, Robert Genter divides the development of aesthetic and philosophical concerns into "high" and "romantic" versions. The "threat of totalitarianism drove most political discussions in the 1950s," he argues (p. 14); and late modernists were not exempt from the pressures of public life. But the high modernists, like Theodor Adorno, Lionel Trilling, and Dwight Macdonald, upheld the liberal tradition and the humanities against the demands of the garrison state and invoked an ideal of independent thought against the incursions of mass society. The romantic modernists, like Norman O. Brown, Norman Mailer, and Willem de Kooning, were especially attuned to the perils that totalitarianism (very broadly defined) posed to the [End Page 225] psyche and insisted on the primacy of creative urges and bodily desire in offering resistance to the administered society. In Genter's assured and fluid reading, late modernism lacks a birth certificate. But by the 1960s, the fears generated in the immediate postwar era had receded; and last rites were performed by the likes of Andy Warhol, Michel Foucault, and the drug gurus and hippies of the counterculture.

But what, the reader may wonder, does this history have to do with the Cold War that is announced in Genter's subtitle? He does sometimes connect aesthetic claims to the larger geopolitical framework. After all, in a world threatened with a nuclear showdown between East and West, what could be more tempting than to retreat into the refuge of art? What could be nobler than to testify to the contrast between the brutality and cruelty of relations between sovereign states and the sublimity of pigment on canvas, of poems on pages? As warfare became even more destructive through technical sophistication without moral restraint, as the Enlightenment faith in rational meliorism became perverted into the scientifically sophisticated pursuit of mass murder and genocide, why not tap instead the instincts of the artist and release feelings that could spur enchantment? Late Modernism can certainly be read as displaying a postwar tendency to buck the vocation of public intellectual and as seeking to find order in the imagination rather than to redress the disorder of politics. But Genter's own attempts to show that culture was a function of the Cold War are exasperatingly sporadic and erratic, and he fails to develop or sustain any argument along such lines. Perhaps he realizes that a case for the distinctive effect of geopolitics would not be persuasive. After all, as he well knows, the first great critical analysis that an American undertook of modernist disengagement was Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931), set in the 1920s.

Without a coherent claim for the recognizable influence of the Zeitgeist, Late Modernism ricochets from one topic to another with no obvious direction or explicit logic. Genter makes almost no effort to justify why particular thinkers and painters (but not composers or sculptors or architects) have been selected for scrutiny. Not that his figures are eccentric. Indeed most of them (David Riesman, Clement Greenberg, James Baldwin, etc.) would tempt the reader to quote Captain Renault's instructions to his police force in Casablanca. But there are a few surprises—above all the space that Late Modernism gives to the literary theorist Kenneth Burke and to the sociologist Erving Goffman, neither of whose work is conventionally understood to be politically inflected. Instead they and the other figures in this book are treated in terms indigenous to the formal properties and historical oscillations of the fields that these writers and artists enlivened. Genter thereby forfeits opportunities to show how the postwar anti-Communist consensus was consolidated or later enfeebled. Here the obvious case is C. Wright Mills, whose 1956 challenge to democratic pretensions, The Power Elite, was soon followed by pamphleteering against the Departments of Defense and State in The Causes of World War Three and Listen, Yankee. Yet Genter prefers to focus on the radical sociologist's uncertainties about his academic discipline and about his place...