Over the last twenty some years I have worked out that I'm pretty much not a neoconservative in matters of foreign policy. Walter McDougall's writing, probably best summed up in the book Promised Land, Crusader State, helped me get a clearer idea that the "crusader state" approach to foreign policy is pretty much the opposite of where I now land. I'm probably never going to go as easy on Nixon as he does but that's a comment that isn't meant to lead to a post's worth of content or commentary. I mention that web of ideas as a way to transition into the topic of how the Cold War is a historical lens through which we can understand what is sometimes called postwar modernism in American and more particularly European arts.
For as much criticism as can legitimately be written about Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music one of the things I like about it is that he foregrounds the second half of the twentieth century history of what we colloquially call classical music in terms of the Cold War. Whether we consult Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer or Frances Stonor Saunders' The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, there are histories of the postwar arts scenes in the United States and Europe that demonstrate that there was a CIA influence on cultural production in the arts. There is some room for vigorous debate about how extensive and influential that work was and I'll leave it to specialists to get into all of that, but in the generations since the end of the Cold War it may help us more clearly understand how what we colloquially think of as the "culture wars" in the United States were primed to erupt as a consequence of how the Cold War ended.
In American poetry we could possibly bracket out schools of thought as emanating from T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, which is what Philip Jeffery does in an article at National Affairs.
William Carlos Williams offered a more thorough, and more personal, criticism of Eliot's new position as "American poet laureate." Williams and Eliot had long represented two oppositional strains in American poetry. While Eliot had expatriated himself to the United Kingdom after the First World War, Williams (a small-town New Jersey doctor) spent his entire career in the United States. Eliot and Williams shared influences, most notably their mutual friend Ezra Pound, and used poetry to address some similar problems, such as the rootlessness of modern life. Eliot dealt with that rootlessness by uprooting himself in search of a deeper-rooted European tradition than his St. Louis home could supply, while Williams turned to local experience as a poetic resource, writing from a perspective of intense attention to details and to people. Williams knew that his American roots were shallow, but believed it was possible to deepen them with time and attention.
From Williams's perspective, Eliot's Eurocentric traditionalism undermined the project of deepening American roots by encouraging poetic trends that contravened the burgeoning American tradition. The Waste Land, Eliot's 1922 masterpiece, amazed and disturbed Williams for this very reason. He called it, in his autobiography, a "great catastrophe to our letters." The project of developing a democratic American tradition rooted in local experience "staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot's genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him." The Waste Land set the tone for modern poetry — an academic tone, stuffed with references to a European tradition that most lay people, especially lay Americans, couldn't claim without joining Eliot in uprooting themselves, and despairing of the modern world in which Americans had to learn to live. [emphasis added]
Williams saw in Eliot's 1948 lecture a reminder of The Waste Land's brilliant cosmopolitan pessimism, and had a similar reaction. He responded with a lecture of his own, delivered at the University of Washington and later published as "The Poem as a Field of Action." In it, he took the opportunity to outline his own view of where poetry might go. Instead of a shift from subject to technique, Williams foresaw a broadening of both. He argued that poetry could respond to modern life by becoming more capacious. Indeed, the job was already halfway complete, as American poets (like himself) already explored subject matter once thought too grubby and trivial. The remaining task would be to similarly expand poetic structure, and the only place this development could happen, Williams argued, was America — a young nation that offered a "new language" for creativity.
Since I have liked a good chunk of poetry from both Eliot and Williams I would venture that here in the early 21st century we don't have to view them as necessarily opposed now, but it may be helpful to understand how their different views on what American art could and/or should be guided artistic activity, literary aims, and arts policy across the last century.
I'm going to hazard a suggestion that shifts in poetic schools of thought may be marginal compared to comparable shifts and positions in music and film, both in terms of production and reception history (i.e. criticism). For instance, should we really say that the emergence of the blockbuster film in the 1970s and its culmination in the emergence of films like Star Wars was really a "cultural disaster" as some British film critics have had it? Why would it be a disaster? For whom was it really a disaster? Anyway, let's get back to other excerpts of the article because this is the kind of essay on arts policy as a reflection of foreign policy that, the books mentioned above withstanding, rarely seems to factor into discussions of art history.
It's far from common knowledge that the United States ever had a cultural policy, much less that it currently has one. Conservatives and radicals alike might join Olson in recoiling at the very idea of federal entanglement with the arts, thinking it would mean the proliferation of state propaganda (as, admittedly, it often has, even in America).
Eliot's 1948 lecture was not the first time the federal government took an interest in promoting a certain view of American culture, but it did represent the opening of a new chapter in the story of the relationship between our politics and culture. Following the Second World War, the government took steps to promote American culture (or rather, a certain vision of it) overseas to create solidarity with a rebuilding Western Europe. But a larger concern, and one which became more acute as the Cold War dragged on, was to establish a cultural contrast between the free West and the totalitarian East. [emphasis added] This was where former expatriates like Eliot came in handy — celebrity artists who already had credibility in Western Europe — and why a lecture that established continuity between American and French poetry (giving priority to the latter) was worth public patronage.
During the mid-20th century, culture policy was foreign policy. Before the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the agencies that executed American culture policy were the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. The State Department's primary contribution was a series of art and music tours around Europe. In 1946, it purchased 79 contemporary paintings, including works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and Arthur Dove, for an art show that went to Prague, Brno, and Bratislava, but the show was canceled before completion.
More successful were State Department-funded concert tours for musicians like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Historian Michael Kammen wrote that jazz tours in particular "achieved undeniable popularity wherever they went, and they were perceived as the music of individualism, freedom, pluralism, and dissent — fundamental qualities obliterated by communism." The contrast with communism was key, and it also motivated the CIA's involvement in culture policy. The CIA famously backed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international organization launched at a 1950 conference in West Berlin to organize anti-communist intellectuals. The CCF held conferences, published journals, and sponsored exhibitions in 35 countries; Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, Arthur Schlesinger, Irving Kristol, Bertrand Russell, and many others were involved at various points in its formation and operation.
An agenda of "individualism, freedom, pluralism, and dissent" meshed well with the ethos of mid-century American criticism. Leading liberal intellectuals in New York established academic cosmopolitanism as anti-communism, and a number were involved in the CCF. Art critic Clement Greenberg set the tone for mid-century criticism — he demanded that art remain abstract and independent from the political realm and avoid being "about" anything. "Art for art's sake" was the prevailing doctrine. The instincts Eliot described as la poésie pure migrated into painting with the emergence of abstract expressionism, lauded by Greenberg for its focus on the individual artist's process and technique.
Our Cold War cultural policy did its job as long as the Cold War lasted. But it didn't take long after the fall of the Soviet Union for it to become incoherent to the point that we forgot we had a cultural-policy agenda. Supporting a mixture of academic avant-gardism and individual expression tailored to promote the idea of a free society as opposed to a planned one not only stopped looking like a public priority, but in the late '80s and early '90s it looked like an absolute waste of public resources. [emphasis added]
As soon as there was no international culture war to fight, a domestic one began over Robert Mapplethorpe's erotic photography (especially one self-portrait with a bullwhip) and Andres Serrano's piece "Piss Christ" (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in what Serrano alleged was his own urine). The NEA had issued a grant to the Institute of Contemporary Art to display a Mapplethorpe exhibit, and a grant of $15,000 through an affiliate to Serrano for "Piss Christ," inevitably raising the question of why the public sector was putting money toward something so offensive and inaccessible to most Americans, or why the public sector should fund the arts at all.
While it's almost certain that Eliot would have disapproved of Mapplethorpe and Serrano, there's a degree of continuity between what he described at the birth of the U.S. government's Cold War cultural agenda and the pieces that became so controversial in the early 1990s. The NEA granted funds, directly or indirectly, to thousands of artists, but the ones that sparked controversy happened to be those that placed the artist's bodily functions at the center of the creative process. Despite stylistic differences, they placed the individual artist in the foreground of the art, in the same way that Eliot saw in Mallarmé and Valéry. The visceral presence of the artist in the process — vestigial remains of individualistic Cold War-era expressionism — carried a certain self-importance that could only fuel opposition from the "un-artistic" masses. Perhaps art less in the ethos of the elitist, individualistic Cold War paradigm wouldn't have sparked so much controversy. Domestic distaste for the official modernism became overwhelming, as did the distance between official modernism and American life.
So, in summary, the end of the Cold War brought with it the end of a coherent arts policy on the part of the United States because its arts policy, to the extent that we could describe one, was essentially adopting a mixture of art-for-art's-sake esoteric modernism adopted for its symbolic opposition to totalitarian regimes and associated aesthetics in the Soviet bloc (although, to be a bit careful here, there was more to Soviet bloc arts ideals than socialist realism and the Soviet bloc nations had their own avant garde schools of thought). But for the sake of Cold War narratives, what we could call "high modernism" was bankrolled because it symbolically represented those forms of art that could be presented as in opposition to the conformist tendencies of Soviet totalitarianism. Within the Soviet bloc nations, however, the high modernist art movements could be presented as the decadence to which capitalist societies inevitably succumb to due to a combination of innovation for its own sake and market behaviors and the refusal of the monied classes to take more proletarian abilities to understand music (or not understand modernist styles) seriously.
Without a Soviet bloc against which to explain what and why this or that high modernist art could be considered a response to, a variety of types of art in the United States began to be seen as no longer being anti-communist as much as being against middle America.
When I was younger I loved Eliot's poetry and I still admire his poetry. But I also came to respect the poetry of Williams and Wallace Stevens who, as a friend from college described them to me, could be thought of as having explicitly set themselves against Eliot's ideals for literature and that they're all great American poets. It is hardly a radical statement to say that many a conservative on literary and cultural issues now tends to have praise for Eliot and there's a lot we can praise him for but ... I realize that in some key respects I may be more of a Williams partisan in my approach to the arts as an American.
I think there are better ways for Americans to spend their time than to pay any attention at all to French cinema. If you're into them, well, alright, but I am not convinced that Americans have to hold up French cinema as a pillar of art when Americans can consider our homegrown work. I admit to being a fan of animation as an art form and I own Persepolis and The Long Way North, both fine French language animated features I heartily recommend. One of my relatives and I have been on a Miraculous binge, watching Ladybug and Cat Noir beat a variety of absurd villains. The resemblance Ladybug and Cat Noir have to early Lee/Ditko era Spiderman is not at the level of visual style but relational dynamics and emotional nuance. Anthony Lane was recently writing that when he looks back on the last few decades of American cinema the Toy Story films hold up as more emotionally complex and nuanced than half of the allegedly "grownup" films he's seen since Pixar's feature was released. I don't feel the least bit bad having never bothered with Game of Thrones or Mad Men. I remember Christina Hendricks chiefly for her voice-over work as Lois Lane in All-Star Superman, her cameo in Rick & Morty, and recently as Gabby Gabby in Toy Story 4. I figure it's more in the spirit of William Carlos Williams than T. S. Eliot that I regard animation as a serious art form and that I've seen more compelling art in animation on either side of the Pacific than I have in arthouse cinema of the sort to get positive notices in magazines like The New Yorker.
Jeffery proposes that the culture war about American arts botched their bids at culture war victory for the simple reason that no side had a clear grasp of why arts organizations existed in the United States in light of its foreign policy, as distinct from what the partisans for and against the NEA were hoping to achieve in the "here and now" back then:
Both sides of that culture war completely missed the specific, historically contingent character of the NEA's function. Both saw it as a question of whether the government should support arts per se. To one side, the NEA was synonymous with pure waste, something that government has no interest being involved with; on the other side, the agency was synonymous with art itself, as if artistic priorities were necessarily the cosmopolitan academicism and personal self-expression (both equally removed from the experience of boorish Kansans who happened not to appreciate seeing their Lord in urine) promoted by Schlesinger, Greenberg, and Eliot's description of Valéry. Both sides conceded the triumph of what Eliot described as legitimate modernism, and both missed the fact that the United States has a particular cultural policy. The NEA and NEH were never meant to be neutral promoters of pure art; they had an agenda for a particular moment.
Obviously the case presented in the article is that once the Cold War was over there was a real crisis of purpose for the NEA that was not based so much on a crisis of the legitimacy of the arts or even necessarily a crisis of legitimacy for what we might call high modernism in the arts. No, the crisis could be thought of as why the United States would bankroll at home and abroad what could be thought of as high modernist art now that the Cold War was over. It's at this point that Jeffery proposes that we no longer have to treat the existence of the NEA as bound to cultural war paradigms from the post-Cold War period in which neither the conservative nor the liberal agendas of the early 1990s should, in his estimation, be regarded as having accurately understood the purpose and possibilities of the NEA.
But this is not the only cultural agenda America could possibly have. The current approach was tailored to be effective in a particular global moment that has now passed. Before the Cold War, the most significant federal intervention into American culture was the Works Progress Administration, a flagship New Deal agency. The WPA's approach to culture was, in many ways, the opposite of what the government later adopted during the Cold War. Its goals were, like later iterations of culture policy, tailored for its own particular historical moment, of course. But those goals were oriented toward the domestic realm, not the foreign.
I've seen writers who argue for traditionalist art and music, and by that I mean music and literary and artistic activity not steeped in some kind of post-Clement Greenberg notion of what could be called avant garde, by trying to argue that in the "zero hour" era there have been attempts to destroy the arts of the past by declaring it associated with the activities of National Socialism. That narrative is appealing for some who want to make a defense of more tradition-steeped artistic activity. I'm partly able to appreciate that kind of plea but ...
I would venture to say that advocates of traditionalist art, nebulously defined in many cases, might want to highlight that one of the problems with what has become a high modernist tradition is not necessarily that there's some postmodernist response to the perceived power plays inherent in high modernism, though that comes up in some writing against postmodern tendencies; a simpler and actually historically grounded argument against the funding of music by a John Cage disciple or a Pierre Boulez advocate could be based on something simpler, that American and European arts were funded at a variety of levels by American interests in dealing with the Soviet Union's political and social legacies by way of presenting art that represented an alternative to totalitarian social life and that, absent a Soviet Union as of forty years ago, there are newer, other, better ways to invest in the arts in Western cultural contexts that don't involve bankrolling the kinds of esoteric modernist art that was in key respects bankrolled by the CIA.
Now that the Cold War is over, there isn't really any geopolitical necessity to bankroll a Pierre Boulez style composer (not that we even have here in the U.S., that I can think of or am aware of off the top of my head) in the sense that that kind of music was appealing to intellectuals in the West as some kind of alternative to what was thought of as the lockstep conformity of a faux-heroic style that emerged from the constraints of socialist realism. The problem with that sort of myth-making venture is that if you do even a modicum of digging around into the history of Soviet arts and music you'll find out how short-lived socialist realism actually was as a formal ideology regarding the arts in the Soviet bloc. Whether we seek out the early dissonant works of Penderecki of the polystylistic experiments of Rodion Shechedrin or Alfred Schnittke we'll find that the Stalinist thaw opened up a variety of more or less modernist tendencies in Soviet art, literature and music. In other words, there was probably not even a "real" need to bankroll high modernist styles in the West as an alternative to the stifling strictures of Soviet socialist realism. To the extent that a good deal of high modernist artistic activity was bankrolled for its symbolic opposition to Soviet aesthetics, the degree to which socialist realism collapsed as long ago as 1952 could be the degree to which a Boulez was held up as the alternative to a long-ago burned up paper tiger in artistic and aesthetic theory.
Jeffery makes a case that the NEA doesn't have to be and should not be abolished or abandoned but that the United States should consider, instead, that it needs an actually coherent national arts policy that is no longer vestigially tied to battles over the arts that emerged in the wake of an NEA and arts cultural paradigm that had been so tethered to Cold War foreign policy there was relatively little by way of truly domestic policy concerns in what the American national arts policy was to be. A return to an arts approach more like the WPA is, to put it briefly, what Jeffery suggests as a better alternative to re-litigating culture wars about the arts that got things wrong the first time as outlined in the article quotations and commentary above.
Jeffery closes the article with an observation about a propensity in traditionalist partisans on the arts in America, and it could arguably be said to be the case about traditionalists in America, the U.K. and Western Europe:
Recently, traditionalism in America has tended to mean following Eliot into Anglo- or Euro-philia. Encouraging distinctly American artistic habits stands a chance of making art more accessible without making it unserious or "middlebrow." The arts are so irrelevant to most Americans' lives in no small part because they have diverted so sharply from that tradition. Without reconnecting to the "soil" of the life experience of most Americans, the art world exists with and for the Hamptons.
Using the existing instruments of culture policy to bring about a new paradigm in American culture policy is more likely to produce positive results than simply cutting the whole thing. There is no guarantee, of course, that a suite of new government programs would change American culture, but it only takes one masterpiece to move the arts in a new direction, as Williams noted about The Waste Land. ...
For a Roger Scruton, of course, the possibility of revitalizing classical music by access to more vernacular idioms seems like a doubtful enterprise. He's entitled to that opinion but after decades of writing he has more or less only staked out that stance as an opinion. I don't see that the prescription of Eliot and the prescription of Williams have to be regarded as either/or. The arts, if confined to what might be thought of as highbrow or "elevated" art, music, and literature, is certainly peripheral to many Americans' lives. The trouble I have had with a Roger Scruton is that in spite of his opposition to Adorno's Marxist-Leninist commitments he more or less succeeds in replicating Adorno's highbrow condescension toward the unwashed masses without coming up with anything like a compelling alternative other than to tell his audience to cast themselves back on an Eliot-esque Anglo or Euro-philia steeped in some kind of Matthew Arnold style art religion.
I am certainly convinced the postwar (whether World War II or World War I) experimentation in the arts in Europe and the United States went down a lot of blind alleys and into a lot of dead ends. I agree with George Rochberg a good deal of what can be thought of as high modernist art, literature and music foredoomed itself to historical oblivion by dint of never working within the constraints of human cognition--the highbrow has become insular and self-contained.
I find arguments against esoteric highbrow modernist art to be made in bad faith by attempts to cast the perceived vices of high modernism in terms of a rejection of tradition in some universal sense, or in some "destroy the West" sense. Even people who write about the whiteness of the classical music tradition as something stifling can still revere the music of J. S. Bach. The more I survey the battle lines drawn within musicology in America about German canons and European legacies the more it strikes me that the battle doesn't have to be about the musical canon itself but it would help to clarify that the battle may be between those who are committed to a 19th century conception of artistic canon and those who regard the cumulative legacy of German idealism in the arts as damaging to the possibilities of developing art in a post-Cold War world.
I think a more compelling and sensible approach traditionalists could take with respect to high modernism is to highlight the foreign policies of the Cold War powers that informed the evolution of what is now looked back upon as 20th century modernist tendencies in the arts. It's not that a John Cage or a Pierre Boulez made music or developed styles that are necessarily "bad", it's that there's no longer a geopolitical context within which there's any clear argument as to why the United States or the Western powers "need" that, if ever they needed that. It is at precisely this point I think contemporary traditionalists and progressives can find common cause by way of a shared observation, the beneficiaries of the high modernist regimes in the Cold War period tended to be white guys with the leisure and luxury to get involved in ostensibly revolutionizing musical art.
Even if they thought they had to "blow up" the traditions of Beethoven or Wagner because their works had been co-opted by Nazis, there's not a clear reason why here in 2019, decades after the end of the Cold War, the music of a Cage or a Boulez can even possibly represent to us now what it purportedly represented to arts establishment journalism and academics back then. This is not to suggest there can't be beauty in some of that work, it's to suggest that there's good reason for us, nearly half a century after the end of the Cold War in global geopolitical terms, to regard the Cage and Boulez styles as footnotes, potentially valuable contributions in response to certain geopolitical events but not something we have to regard ourselves as bound to.
Phillip Jeffery's article seems of a piece with Richard Taruskin's observation that we need to understand the second half of the 20th century musical art more explicitly in terms of the Cold War interests and power dynamics that informed the artistic activity that developed within that context. If we should learn that what's thought of as high modernism in music evolved in response to patronage from the United States that aimed to finance art that could be regarded as symbolically anti-Soviet and anti-totalitarian then there should be at least a question as to whether we "need" that kind of art in the here and now in the same way or maybe even at all.
If traditionalists continue to frame discussions about 20th century modernist movements only in terms of an "attack on tradition" rather anchoring the evolution of those artistic traditions in terms of Cold War American and other national patronage systems then those traditionalists will be beating a dead horse. I'm writing on June 30, 2019 and I do not for even a minute wonder whether more people will be watching Toy Story 4 in the United States right this minute than would be going to the opera. It's a charming, adorable movie, I can assure you, whether you'll believe me or not. Bunny and Duckie rock.
The arguments traditionalists have been making have struck me as in bad faith and I write that as someone who is hugely sympathetic to contributing to and preserving what's thought of as traditionalist art. The Philip Jeffery article has helped me, I think, get a clearer sense of how and why so many arguments made by traditionalists have seemed to fall apart regarding the arts in the West and in American contexts in particular--the reason may simply be because American arts policy was so obsessively geared toward the concerns of the Cold War that once the Cold War was over American national arts policy was adrift and the esoteric high modernism that made sense in a Cold War context began to come across as insular, elitist and the purview of, to invoke Jeffery's way of putting it, art in any highbrow sense of the term was seemingly made by and for the Hamptons. We don't have to, and shouldn't, frame debates about traditionalist vs any kind of modern or popular or even populist elements in the arts in terms of some cosmic good vs. evil master narrative in which high art is assaulted by the impulses of populism or popular art. That can't honestly account for the learned technique and popular appeal of Haydn and Mozart in their era. We're on firmer ground if we make a case that the need for high modernism has waned in the nearly half century that has elapsed since the end of the Cold War. The Jeffery article lays out a case that the insular high modernism can be thought of as an outworking of T. S. Eliot's philosophy about art and literature applied to arts patronage in the United States and abroad in the West. The alternative, of course, that Jeffery offers is a path delineated by William Carlos Williams and rather than attempt to keep going, I'll just leave things at that.