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Perspectives USA and the Cultural Cold War: Modernism in Service of the State

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 14, Number 4, November 2007
pp. 729-754 | 10.1353/mod.2007.0080

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

. . . the center of western culture is no longer in Europe. It is in America. It is we who are the arbiters of its future and its immense responsibilities are ours.

—John Peale Bishop, 1941

By the 1950s, modernism was quickly losing its status as a term denoting a rebellious or even revolutionary grouping of artists. Modernism's little magazines could no longer claim to be the harbingers of the new and unfamiliar, blowing up (Blast) or sweeping out (Broom) the old and irrelevant. In the form of abstract expressionism, it dominated painting; modernist, Bauhaus-influenced design was becoming ubiquitous in consumer products; bebop jazz was at its apex. If Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House "made Modernism palatable to the country's social elites," 1951's Lever House marked the beginning of the International Style's ubiquity in institutional and commercial architecture. Modernist hallmarks such as speed, simplicity, and streamlining even filtered into urban planning, as the legacy of Robert Moses still indicates. "Although [in the 1950s] one could always find quotable jabs at Modernism along the extremist fringes of public opinion," Alice Goldfarb Marquis writes in her biography of Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr, "the great moderate mass among educated Americans had by this time fully embraced the notion of abstract—or virtually any other kind of—art."

Modernism as a style or collection of styles had so much become the establishment, in fact, that it was even used to defend the very societies and political systems toward which much modernist art had been, and still was, so relentlessly hostile. In the early 1950s the so-called "free world" in which modernism had gained such ascendancy was powerfully and disturbingly confronted by a social, cultural, political, and military force that insisted it was more modern than the moderns, the advance guard of the avant-garde, the end toward which history was unfolding. The Soviet Union, its satellite states, the revolutionary movements in the developing world, and Marxist ideology in general were, their leaders and adherents insisted, the concrete manifestations of the progress of history, and the "free world" would inevitably fall to their irrefutable logic. In response, the United States and the nations of Western Europe marshaled unprecedented military, economic, and even cultural resources to counter this threatening, competing vision of modernity and the future.

Modernism itself became a weapon in what has become known as the "Cultural Cold War." In the early 1950s, the most important battlegrounds of this war were the sympathies of influential leftist Western European intellectuals, the vast majority of whom scorned what they saw as the U.S.'s shallow, business-dominated culture and its "Coca-Colonization" of the rest of the world but who were also leery of Stalinist authoritarianism and militarism. To these Europeans, American culture was Mickey Mouse and cowboy movies at best and malevolent military-imperialist power at worst. In response, the United States—primarily through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the cultural officers of the State Department—undertook an effort to "increase cultural understanding" between Europe and itself, an effort centered on the construction of an image of the U.S. with an intellectual and cultural life equal to, and in dialogue with, Europe's, an image which the U.S. then aggressively marketed to those skeptical European leftists. Nongovernmental agencies, too, joined the Cultural Cold War, sometimes with official support and funding and sometimes completely independently. The best known of the unofficial groups (largely because of the spectacular revelations of its covert CIA sponsorship) is certainly the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which brought together American and European noncommunist leftists in symposia, conferences, and several journals, most notably Encounter. But as many scholars have shown, there were dozens of other nongovernmental projects dedicated to "increasing cultural understanding" between the U.S. and Europe through such programs as academic exchanges, the distribution of books and films and artworks abroad, and tours by American musicians.

In many of these projects, it was American modernism in art, literature, music, architecture, and even dance that served as evidence of American cultural advancement—but this was a modernism redefined and made safe for...