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· HUMANITIES 507 Serge Guilbaut. How New York Stole the Idea ofModern Art University of Chicago Press. 276. $25.00 us The title of Serge Guilbaut's study of the social and political context of avant-garde painting in the United States following the Second World War is nothing if not provocative. Images of theft, with all their connotations of conspiracy, greed, and violence, would seem to announce a book in which the author's parti pris outweighs his sense of critical judgment. Yet despite occasional forays in this direction, this work comes as an important contribution to the literature on Abstract Expressionist painting. Drawing upon an impressive body of research, Guilbaut analyses a number of the political and ideological conditions that paved the way for the acceptance and promotion of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and others between 1946 and 1951. The author argues that within the context of the early history ofthe Cold War, the liberal ideology exemplified in Arthur Schlesinger Jr's The Vital Center converged with notions ofartistic freedom, risk, and universal significance thatlaybehind the work of the Abstract Expressionists. As a result, the paintings of Pollock and his colleagues could be used in official exhibitions in Europe and elsewhere as symbols of American freedom and democracy: only in the United States, the literature accompanying these shows proclaimed, can such adventurous and individualistic art prosper. Somewhat less convincingly, Guilbaut maintains that because this development took place at a time when the United States was assuming a position of economicand political superiorityinthe Westernworld, the simultaneous shift of artistic hegemony from Paris to New York must be seen as an integral part of the same process with all the attendant strategies and interests at play. The major strengths as well as the shortcomings of Guilbaut's book derive from the author's wish to inject I art history with a dose of real history.' The history of American modernism has all too often been seen solely in terms of its internal aesthetic development. Yet Guilbaut errs too frequently in the opposite direction by succumbing to the temptation of conflating the fields of art and politics rather than focusing on the more difficult task of analysing their interrelationship. The American avantgarde , according to this logic, becomes engulfed in a teleology of Realpolitik, bringing Guilbaut perilously close to the I conspiracy theories' from which he explicitly attempts to distance himself. Elsewhere, he has recourse to an unconvincing historicism which relates the genesis of Jackson Pollock's I all-over' style to the development of the atomic bomb, and whic~l identifies the artistic theories of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb with an ideology of global technology. It is at such points that Guilbaut's 'real history' threatens to obliterate 508 LETTERS IN CANADA 1984 his art history. This objection has little in common with what the author terms'the resistance to the idea of dragging art's ideal values through the mud of politics and ideology.' Such an arbitrary separation is inevitably distorting and misleading. Nevertheless, the weaknesses of Guilbaut's work derive from an insufficientrecognition of the extent to which artistic ideologies and practices form real yet relatively independent historical forces in their own right, and not merely thin veils over political and economic interests. His intelligent and illuminating account of the depoliticization of the American avant-garde during the Second World War fails to deal adequately with the question of how the succeeding ideology of artistic modernism possessed its own historical momentum while at the same time interacting with the broader fields of politics and social ideology. For this reason, Guilbaut's substitution of a political interpretation for the traditional formalist version ofAbstract Expressionism , while introducing much new and essential material, results in an equally one-sided and incomplete history. (BRIAN GROSSKURTH) John Unrau. Ruskin and St. Mark's Thames and Hudson. 24°,38 colour plates, 128 bw illus. £12.50; $19.50 The task of unravelling and clarifying the writings of John Ruskin that focus on the church of St Mark's in Venice has recently been undertaken by John Unrau. This task is unusually difficult. Ruskin was a polymath and a neurotic, prey to attacks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 507-508
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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