The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


David Caute's doorstop book THE DANCER DEFECTS is one of those books that I have to read for my current scholarly project. Its subtitle is "The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War," and Caute has really done his research. He covers most of the important artistic "struggles" between the Soviets and the Americans/West from 1947 to the 1980s, and is particularly good with his overviews of things like the Soviet film industry (although his synopses of Soviet films do tend to go on a bit), the defection of Nureyev and Barishnikov, the use of Abstract Expressionism as Western propaganda, and the drama scene, especially in East Germany and Russia in the 1950s. It's not an academic book and thus isn't particularly grounded either in a theory of history (which is okay) or in a particularly sophisticated understanding of the competing philosophies of art in the two worlds. But as a collection of research that I would never have been able to conduct, it's invaluable. In one of his only forays into academic debate, Caute strongly takes issue with the lefty critics of the 1970s and 1980s (Cockroft, Kozloff, and Gilbaut in particular) who argued that the CIA "adopted" Abstract Expressionism as its preferred form of cultural propaganda and then made all of the US's cultural propaganda modernistic/abstract. He persuasively shows that that wasn't true, and it was especially untrue in the period (1947-1955) that the lefty critics point to. After 1956, he grants, American art sent abroad by official bodies was dominated by abstraction, but in the period preceding that, he very persuasively argues, there was relatively little avant-garde art, and people such as Andrew Wyeth, not Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman, were the international face of American art. Rather than the government, Caute says, it was foundations and the wealthy who were sponsoring this art--MoMA and the Rockefellers, for instance. I like this argument that he makes; it's important not to simplify and to understand that there are great variations among those with cultural power in this field. The CIA, the USIA, the State Department, universities, and foundations were all doing similar things but there were very important divergences among them. And while the CIA's small interest in art and culture (which has probably become disproportionately famous because of the Congress for Cultural Freedom scandal) did tend to back modernism and abstraction, we also need to keep in mind that many of the other cultural-diplomacy efforts undertaken by State and USIA and Ford and so on were NOT devoted to modernism.


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