The Gladiatorial Exhibition
In the summer of 1959 two major national displays opened under the first cultural exchange treaty: the Soviet exhibition in New York, the American exhibition in Moscow. Tensions rose rapidly as the rivals prepared to put on show for the first time virtually everything they could claim to have achieved—economic, scientific, educational, and cultural—whether in reality, prototype, or dream. Rivalry was intense, competition ferocious: this was the era of Sputnik and Khrushchev’s ‘We will bury you’.
’On both sides’, commented an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (1 July 1959), ‘competition by exhibition contains an important element of international strategy… “cultural exchange” is an item for cold war deployment very much as crimes or missiles are.’ That, indeed, could be taken as our text for exegesis, genre by genre. A dress rehearsal had been staged the previous year at the Brussels World Fair, April-October 1958. The United States Information Service, announcing the forthcoming American exhibit in Belgium, promised: ‘The US Pavilion will be approximately the size of the Roman Coliseum … one of the largest circular structures in the world … one of the lightest buildings ever constructed.’1 In the event, the Czechoslovak pavilion won the architectural competition, while the American structure took fourth place.
Starting in 1851 with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held at the Crystal Palace, London, world fairs had become ‘temples of modernity’ attracting vast interest.2 Control and command of the ‘modern’—with the largely agreed values implicit in that notion—was indeed what the capitalist and Communist systems were now fiercely contesting. The American tradition extended back through the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893.3
Soviet civilization was no stranger to the prestige-yielding imperatives of exhibition culture. Under the management of David Shterenberg, a