EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center. It first appeared in their journal American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2014, Volume 31, Number 4.
There was a time in America when virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party… resulting in a disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life, in which the character of American liberalism and radicalism was decisively – and perhaps permanently – corrupted.*
—Robert Warshow (1947)
Several years ago, I was having lunch with Henry Hope Reed, the author of The Golden City, one of the most important books of twentieth-century architecture criticism. At some point, he exploded with frustration, asking “Where did all this awful modernism come from?” Frankly, I was surprised. It never occurred to me that a scholar of Reed’s capabilities and knowledge would confess ignorance about such an important topic, but he was serious. The rest of our conversation focused on a vain attempt on my part to identify the course of events that led to the destruction of the academy and the classical tradition, the rise of modernism and its spawn, postmodernism. It was too long and complex a topic to explain over lunch, especially to a scholar afflicted with a hearing impairment.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, the question lost its relevancy. But postmodernism, with its ironic, anti-American, anti-religious ideology, continued to shape Western culture. In the twenty-five years since that collapse, with two dozen emerging nations subsequently freed, little serious discussion has been devoted to communism and its liberal off-shoots. However, the tsunami of postmodern culture has not only undermined the quality of the fine arts, but deconstructed the last redoubt of American creativity, popular culture – movies, comic books, theater, music, photography, fashion, interior design. The twenty-foot puppy atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a plastic Christ submerged in a vial of artist’s urine, inane poetry, the decline of education, and the rejection of timeless standards of aesthetics and beauty have opened a vast chasm in American civilization. The elimination of right and wrong, beauty and craft, and the criterion of excellence have effectively dumbed down popular appreciation of values that contributed to making this nation great. In hindsight, it was American popular culture – not high culture – that more truly preserved aesthetic standards during the 1950s. Unfortunately, it was mostly teenagers who recognized the creative value of that culture. Adults, mostly parents and the critical establishment, deplored “low culture,” referring to it as trash. One exception was Robert Warshow (1918–55), a much-admired critic for the Partisan Review and Commentary.
As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education. During the same period, loyal Americans responded similarly with their own political agendas.
To understand the infiltration of political ideology into American high culture, one must recall that it was the height of the Cold War. It was the period of the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Revolution, Russia’s stealing of atomic bomb secrets, the Rosenbergs, Whitaker Chambers’s Witness, the Hollywood Ten, and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities hearings, the banning of comic books, rock-n-roll and “salacious” movies, and the stifling of students’ expressive behavior in schools. During this time, Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, testified before a congressional sub-committee chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver about comic books’ subversive effect on children. Wertham and other “experts” singled out the burgeoning publisher EC Comics, a small publisher that employed highly talented, creative artists and writers – many of them teenagers just out of art school, particularly Cartoonists & Illustrators in New York City. It was an unfortunate setback for American popular culture. Similar attacks were pressed against pop music, particularly rock-n-roll. Wertham and the subcommittee did not criticize the big publishers, including Dell, DC Comics and National. Unfortunately, even astute critics such as Hilton Kramer regarded comics and most movies as “trash.”
In the beginning, it was hard to separate the politics of patriotism from the Marxist propaganda that seeped into every aspect of American life, undermining the pillars of society, mores, religion, and patriotism. Those who opposed the infiltration of propaganda, especially in the arts, mass media, movies, newspapers, television, and radio, included stalwarts such as Hilton Kramer, T.S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Dector. It seemed to me, even as a student, that the issue was not solely a political matter, but also aesthetic. Later, postmodernism would leave a gaping hole in American cultural and civic life with its unrelenting attack on aesthetics, beauty, and sacred iconography.
It was no coincidence that, during the subsequent fifty years of the Cold War, it was not possible to create a successful memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the National Mall. One proposal for four towering, white-concrete, monolithic slabs drew the outrage of the Roosevelt family. Plans for the memorial were put on hold for decades. The installation of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 restored interest in projects for the Mall. The controversy over appropriate styles has yet to be resolved, however. In 1997, President Bill Clinton dedicated the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, created by American sculptor George Segal. The artist’s approach was to literally pour wet concrete over living models, let it harden to the point that it could be removed and made into casts. So grotesque was the outcome that many websites devoted to the memorial avoid reproductions of the statues, focusing instead on the memorable words uttered by Roosevelt during his administration, carved into blocks of stone framed by small waterfalls. Half a dozen modernist-style memorials, some even worse, have since been installed on the National Mall.
The problem is not limited to the memorials’ ugliness, but includes the mundane, meaningless themes and iconography used in honoring the great people and heroic events we mean to celebrate. In contrast, the success of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is based on the themes of honor and respect to those who served. The beauty and gravitas of these works derive from their intent. The FDR Memorial resembles a cartoon park designed by Jeff Koons. No doubt someone at this moment plans to contract Koons to create a future memorial. Recent doubts about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial call into question whether postmodern artists can create fitting memorials.
During the 1950s, neither Russian dictators nor patriotic Americans were all that interested in aesthetics or civic beauty. The City Beautiful Movement of the nineteenth century was over, and their primary focus was political and ideological. The Cold War – occasionally hot in places such as Korea, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa – was a distraction from cultural events. The communists promoted narrative realist paintings, which gave an unrealistic picture of the revolution of Lenin and Stalin. Americans, to the degree that they paid attention to the arts, accepted modernism, if only to prove to the world that American art was more progressive than fascism, Nazism, and communism. An old joke shared among artists at the Russian Academy (who were well trained in traditional academic skills): if you painted dour Soviet life as you saw and experienced it, you were sure to be sent to a slave camp in Siberia. Modernist abstraction was dealt with more harshly. The abstract, Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich was sent to the Gulag prison to be “re-educated.” When he emerged, tortured and disheartened, this great artist was ordered to paint scenes of smiling peasants with brand new (nonexistent) harvesters, while millions of farmers in the Ukraine starved. During Glasnost, under Mikhail Gorbachev, abstract artists were tolerated as long as all the money derived from sales to the West were turned over to the government. For a while, they did a thriving business with Western collectors, even though modernism in the West was dead by the 1970s. The corruption of the art market continued, fueled by the rapacious business market and hundreds of modern art museums, galleries and art departments at U.S. universities.
American Arts Quarterly (AAQ) has long followed the decline of Western modernism and the need for a new vision to spark a renaissance in all the arts. Ironically, Russia – or what is left of the Soviet Union – finds itself in a similar bind. In June, Radio Free Europe broadcast that the Russian government had created a major new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects. Its first national conference was held in the city of Krasnadar, on the Ukrainian-Russian border, near Crimea, which Russian military forces had just invaded.
According to the Russian website, monitored by Radio Free Europe, the directorate will be controlled by the Russian President. Its mission is to strengthen “the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society” and to improve “government policies in the field of patriotic upbringing.”† The ministry will be under the direct control of the Russian President. Interestingly, the core of this proposed revival of Russian culture, which is especially focused on youth, does not include communist propaganda, but pre-revolutionary values. Its purpose is nationalistic: the reclaiming of ancient Russia’s spiritually and aesthetically rich heritage and culture. Commentators on Radio Free Europe said the new agency could prove instrumental in filling the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet collapse, to correcting mistakes made under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin. Sadly, the present regime, socially oppressive and aggressively militaristic, seems ill-suited to the task.
In the years after World War II and the Cold War, we ignored the task of revitalizing American culture and education. During the 1990s, I served on the President’s Committee for National Standards for American Education K-12. Its members were composed primarily of business people and professional educators who had never heard of the word “renewal.” Traditional visual-art education and skills were shunned. The report, National Standards for Arts Education (1994), was prepared and published under a grant from the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and authorized by Congress.
Today, we find ourselves in another race with Russia and the Eastern nations, most obviously economic but, more crucially, cultural. We face two obstacles: much of American cultural history in the twentieth century was shaped by left-wing and liberal values; and the cognoscenti, the business community and government have been indifferent to the great decline in American standards and values, especially in education. Too many young people are falling into functional illiteracy. As Weird Al Yankovic sings in his brilliant pop music parody “Word Crimes”: “Your grammar’s errant … you’re incoherent.” Does anyone appreciate the irony that it is the inheritor of the communist empire, a former KGB officer of the Cold War, who seeks to “restore national pride, promote patriotism and strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society”?
Our nation was founded on the ideals and rights promoted by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and those principles evolved through the growth of American culture. The primitive tiny group of independent states and territories – not yet a nation – gave birth to the architecture that distinguishes our nation’s capital. The painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) and Thomas Jefferson, as architect, initiated the patriotic, neoclassical style that not only inspired American art, but influenced the evolution of the French Royal Academy – from the eighteenth-century Rococo style to the neoclassical spartanism of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), which prevailed until World War I. President George Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris that he believed virtue, the arts and humanities were permanently interconnected, and that Americans should act accordingly.
AAQ has devoted so much time to the failures of postmodern art that clutter museums, universities, and our public and civic spaces, that I will spare the reader further jeremiads on my part, except to note one important issue: the future of the National Mall. The monuments of the last sixty years (with the exception of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers, both part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) have been artistic and thematic failures, detracting from the gravitas and sacredness of this hallowed ground. On a brighter note, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House in July. BAM is noted for eclectic film series, including classic American movies that highlight the twentieth century’s most important art form, which grew out of the American popular culture. As he handed the award to the academy’s president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president remarked: “The moments you help create – moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow – they add texture to our lives, they are not incidental to the American experience – they are central to it. They are essential to it.”‡
Throughout our history, American culture has been fueled by creative anti-establishment energy. But that spirit of rebellion found a counterbalance in deeply rooted respect for traditional values, in a taste for direct storytelling and humor, and in community and civic pride. We have a healthy skepticism of officialdom, and any attempt to engineer much-needed changes in the arts through dogma and censorship will fail. But cultural institutions and the government can support and foster the individuals and groups that, for the last few decades, have worked to reclaim skills, communicate with an aesthetically engaged public, and promote beautiful and meaningful public spaces. In the best American tradition, that enterprise should encompass both the fine arts and pop culture – a powerful antidote to totalitarian agendas.
*Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Popular Culture (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962), p. 33.
† Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, “Putin Creates Agency to Restore Russia’s National Pride” (June, 2014).
‡ The Brooklyn Paper (July 29, 2014).