American Culture in the 1950s

By Martin Halliwell | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
The Visual Arts beyond Modernism

Through this book I have argued that modernism and the cold war were equally important as shaping forces on cultural production in the 1950s. Some practitioners were trying to move beyond modernist art and others retreating from it, but it remained the controlling aesthetic paradigm of the decade. As a historical mode modernism became institutionalized in the 1950s as the Nobel Prizes for the trio of modernist writers Faulkner, Eliot and Hemingway suggest. But this did not mean that modernism had lost its contemporary relevance. It was just that many realized that art could never be the same after the Holocaust and the atom bomb.

The art critic Clement Greenberg was worried that modernist and popular styles had become increasingly indistinct from each other in the 1950s. He made this case over a decade earlier in his Marxist essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' (1939), arguing that the economic profits of easily consumable kitsch were a major 'source of temptation' for serious artists. Greenberg claimed that 'ambitious writers and artists will modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely', and by the mid-1950s he was concerned that modernism and kitsch had become deeply entangled.1 This opinion that modernist artists should be wary of contemporary pressures was largely due to the ubiquity of visual culture in the 1950s.

Visual culture came to dominate the decade more than ever before, with television, widescreen cinema and musical spectacles increasing the opportunity for visual consumption. Karal Ann Marling argues that visuality pervaded 'everyday life', from the picture windows of suburban houses and glossy ads for kitchen gadgetry to the paintingby-numbers craze of the mid-1950s and the rapid turnover of new colours and styles in women's fashion. Mary Caputi explores the ways in which postwar modernity was so 'filled with noise, activity, and

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