Dialogs: Louis Menand Commingles Art, Ideas and the Cold War in CHF Discussion

A parade of artists and pop art, literary and music figures from mid-century America populate Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. The book looks at the beginning of the Cold War era, covering the two decades from 1945 to 1965. The Chicago Humanities Festival hosted another in its series of virtual author events this week with Menand in a conversation with fellow New Yorker staff writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus. The two journalists talked about the atmosphere in the arts in that era as well as some of its chief figures.

Menand, left, and Lewis-Kraus. Screenshot of CHF event.

The first salvo in that war, Menand says, came when President Harry S. Truman spoke to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. Menand describes in the book’s introduction how Truman defined two ways of life. One of them was a nation of freedom “distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.” The other was totalitarian–“based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” He described totalitarianism, not communism, and he didn’t mention the Soviet Union or use the term Cold War. (Presidential adviser Bernard Baruch coined the term a month later.) The U.S. and the Soviet Union had been allies by necessity in World War II because Nazi Germany had to be defeated. But the alliance ended and Truman was not ambiguous about the new relationship, Menand says.

Those ideas became known as the Truman Doctrine and the speech was, effectively, the beginning of the Cold War, which lasted 44 years. The Cold War was not just a contest of military and geopolitical power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense—economic and political, artistic and personal. Menand points out that art and ideas became a battleground in this struggle to maintain the free society that Truman described. And that’s how his book came to be.

The book isn’t a cultural history, Menand said in answer to a question from Lewis-Kraus. That would be at a high level of abstraction and wouldn’t get into the deeper questions of why [these events] happened. I wrote it at street level, he said, describing how he developed the book chapter by chapter, character by character.

One of the first people he chose to write about was George Orwell, because the most widely read book on totalitarianism was a work of fiction: Orwell’s 1984. Then he turned to existentialism, which developed in Paris right after the war, and its authors and creators Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. “I was basically kicking the carpet and seeing where it rolled” as I wrote the book, he said. And that’s how he hopes readers will come to the book.

He writes about Jackson Pollack, who wasn’t having much success as a painter until he and his wife Lee Krasner bought an old house in the Hamptons (when such property was affordable). He wanted to stretch large canvases but they wouldn’t fit on the walls of his studio so he spread his canvas on the floor—and the rest was history, of course. Pollack used buckets of paint, sticks and brushes, to create his drip paintings; they were well-received by critics and then purchased by collectors.

Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg was not seeing success as a painter. He got a showing at the Stable Gallery (formerly an actual stable) on 7th Avenue in the 50s, if he agreed to work as a janitor too. One day, walking in the neighborhood, he met Jasper Johns, another aspiring painter, and they became partners and collaborators on what were called neo-Dadaist works—and they created adjoining studio spaces.

In music, two white guys (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) wrote a song called “Hound Dog” about a woman mourning her man; it became an R&B hit performed by Black artists such as Big Mama Thornton (her recording sold 500,000 copies) and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. But then Elvis Presley covered it with modified lyrics, and played it in Las Vegas and on the Ed Sullivan Show. His recording sold millions of copies.

Lewis-Kraus asked about Menand’s use of the term “infrastructure” to describe essential factors in these artistic developments. In the 1930s and early ‘40s, there was no market for American painters; U.S. art collectors looked to Europe for artists to buy. There were few small galleries to promote the work of new artists and art criticism was just developing as a field, Menand said. Then critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg began writing about new artists and influenced art collectors. Galleries began to open as the work of these artists became saleable.

Image courtesy of the author.

The infrastructure of the music business changed when the FCC opened up radio licenses to small local stations in the 1940s; previously the radio world was made up of large national networks. These small stations were able to play R&B and other emerging artists. Then new jukeboxes were designed to play 200 songs rather than 25; and cars were built with radios installed, further changing the music infrastructure. These were incidental changes that we take for granted but taken together they changed the nature of the arts.

Artistic rivalries also arose as artists “competed to be the voice of something.” Menand points out that James Baldwin was introduced to Richard Wright, already a successful novelist; Wright became a mentor to Baldwin. One of the first things Baldwin wrote after he moved to Paris was an essay attacking Wright’s successful novel, Native Son. Baldwin eclipsed Wright, becoming a successful novelist and essayist and a civil rights icon. Pauline Kael had trouble keeping a job writing film reviews until she wrote an article attacking critic Andrew Sarris, film critic for the Village Voice. That article made her reputation and she was hired as film critic for the New Yorker.

Every artist has a moment, Menand said. The artist works for years but suddenly critics notice the work, and the larger audience notices the artist, whose work becomes “hot,” then it’s over. Many scholars wrote books on totalitarianism, but Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Voltairianism, became the significant work on the subject. Pollack’s period of creating the paintings that made him famous only lasted three or four years.

During the two decades that Menand explores, the U.S. government covertly funded cultural programs in other countries to show the variety in American art and demonstrate America’s freedoms. In 1950 the CIA created the Congress for Cultural Freedom to counteract the Soviet Union’s efforts. The CCF had operations in 35 countries, published prestige magazines such as Encounter, and produced festivals and other artistic events. American artists such as Louie Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington toured the world for the CCF  to promote American culture and racial progress.

Menand is also the author of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2002; he’s a regular contributor to the New Yorker.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is available in hard cover, paperback and e-book from Macmillan/Farrar Straus & Giroux/Picador. Buy it from the Seminary Co-op, the CHF bookstore partner, or your favorite bookseller. Read Menand’s introduction here and view the discussion on YouTube.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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