Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

Synopsis

In the thirty years after World War II, American intellectual and artistic life changed as dramatically as did the rest of society. Gone were the rebellious lions of modernism--Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky--and nearing exhaustion were those who took up their mantle as abstract expressionism gave way to pop art, and the barren formalism associated with the so-called high modernists wilted before the hothouse cultural brew of the 1960s. According to conventional thinking, it was around this time that postmodernism with its characteristic skepticism and relativism was born.

In Late Modernism, historian Robert Genter remaps the landscape of American modernism in the early decades of the Cold War, tracing the combative debate among artists, writers, and intellectuals over the nature of the aesthetic form in an age of mass politics and mass culture. Dispensing with traditional narratives that present this moment as marking the exhaustion of modernism, Genter argues instead that the 1950s were the apogee of the movement, as American practitioners--abstract expressionists, Beat poets, formalist critics, color-field painters, and critical theorists, among others--debated the relationship between form and content, tradition and innovation, aesthetics and politics. In this compelling work of intellectual and cultural history Genter presents an invigorated tradition of late modernism, centered on the work of Kenneth Burke, Ralph Ellison, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Jasper Johns, Norman Brown, and James Baldwin, a tradition that overcame the conservative and reactionary politics of competing modernist practitioners and paved the way for the postmodern turn of the 1960s.

Excerpt

In April 1949, the San Francisco Art Association held a three-day “Western Round Table on Modern Art,” bringing together an eclectic group of artists, critics, and curators to discuss the state of modernism in America. Held at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the round table was designed “to bring a representation of the best informed opinion of the time to bear on questions about art today,” with the goal of achieving progress “in the exposure of hidden assumptions, in the uprooting of obsolete ideas, and in the framing of new questions.” The boldness of this agenda was matched by the boldness of the participants, which included art historian Robert Goldwater, artists Marcel Duchamp and Mark Tobey, composer Arnold Schoenberg, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While the organizers of the conference tried to structure the discussion around specific themes such as the function of the artist, the roles of the critic and the collector, and the purpose of the museum, the participants, regardless of the topic, tended to return their comments to a statement made by Marcel Duchamp early in the proceedings in which he distinguished between “taste” and what he referred to as the “aesthetic echo.” According to the famed artist and provocateur, taste simply referred to the commonplace “likes and dislikes” of the average consumer, while the aesthetic echo referred to the willingness to forgo the familiar for the mysterious or unknown. “While many people have taste,” argued Duchamp, “only a few are equipped with aesthetic receptivity.” For Duchamp, the popular attacks against modern art in the postwar period signaled that most individuals lacked both the education and temperament to appreciate the work that he and his fellow artists were producing.

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