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Modernism and Modernity, I

The traumas of World War II and the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, like the traumas of World War I, hard to absorb and represent in any realist way, and the turn to abstract expressionism on the part of painters like Rothko, Gottlieb, and Jackson Pollock consciously reflected that need. But their works became central for quite other reasons. To begin with, the fight against fascism was depicted as a fight to defend Western culture and civilization from barbarism. Explicitly rejected by fascism, international modernism became, in the United States, ‘confounded with culture more broadly and abstractly defined’. The trouble was that international modernism had exhibited strong socialist, even propagandist, tendencies in the 1930s (through surrealism, constructivism, and socialist realism). The de-politicization of modernism that occurred with the rise of abstract expressionism ironically presaged its embrace by the political and cultural establishment as an ideological weapon in the cold war struggle. The art was full enough of alienation and anxiety, and expressive enough of violent fragmentation and creative destruction (all of which were surely appropriate to the nuclear age) to be used as a marvelous exemplar of US commitment to liberty of expression, rugged individualism and creative freedom. No matter that McCarthyite repression was dominant, the challenging canvases of Jackson Pollock proved that the United States was a bastion of liberal ideals in a world threatened by communist totalitarianism. Within this twist there exested another even more devious turn. ‘Now that America is recognized as the center where art and artists of all the world must meet’, wrote Gottlieb and Rothko in 1943, ‘it is time for us to accept cultural values on a truly global plane’. In so doing they sought a myth that was ‘tragic and timeless’. What that appeal to myth in practice allowed was a quick passage from ‘nationalism to internationalism and then from internationalism to universalism’. But in order to be distinguishable from the modernism extant elsewhere (chiefly Paris), a ‘viable new aesthetic’ had to be forged out of distinctively American raw materials. What was distinctively American had to be celebrated as the essence of Western culture. And so it was with abstract expressionism, along with liberalism, Coca-Cola and Chevrolets, and suburban houses full of consumer durables. Avant-garde artists, concludes Guilbaut, ‘now politically “neutral” individualists, articulated in their works values that were subsequently assimilated, utilized, and co-opted by politicians, with the result that artistic rebellion was transformed into aggressive liberal ideology.” Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 36-7

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