The Arts and the Cold War

This post is going to veer pretty far from our course material (and jump ahead into the Cold War). Nonetheless, the Soviet Union has been popping up a fair amount in another course I’m taking this semester called Transnational America. It’s my first course in the American Studies department, and it examines how US culture has been formed by our interactions with foreign peoples at home and abroad. We’ve just done a series of readings about American attempts to win over citizens in countries in Africa and the Middle East from Soviet influence, and I’m realizing that some aspects of American culture can be seen as a reaction to the Soviet arts.

One example we read about was the use of jazz music as a tool for spreading American values and goodwill abroad. In the 1950’s, the US sponsored the first of a series of jazz tours in the Middle East and South Africa. Up until this point, jazz music was scorned and marginalized as an art form because it was practiced almost exclusively by African-Americans. US policy makers had no partiality towards jazz music, but they selected it simply because they knew it was unlike anything else the Soviet Union could offer. The US knew that they couldn’t compete with Russia when it came to the arts – they lagged far behind in theater, dance, and classical music. However, they also recognized that whereas Russian art forms such as ballet and classical music were beautiful in their rigidity, jazz encouraged freedom of expression – a value that could not be found under Soviet leadership.

The dichotomy between freedom of expression and adherence to state-issued rules can also be seen in the visual arts. In my Transnational America class, we looked at works of art by Jackson Pollock and compared them to the idea of Soviet socialist realism. Whereas the Pollack pieces were abstract and welcomed myriad different interpretations and analyses, the socialist realist paintings were, as we can all guess, realistic depictions of quotidian Soviet experiences. My knowledge of art history is limited, and anyone who is well versed in it would probably cringe at my claim that abstract American art is a reaction to soviet art, but I think it is safe to say that modern American art was a weapon in the fight against the Soviet union in the cold war. A New Yorker article I found while researching this topic puts it well: “[American modern art] was avant-garde, the product of an advanced civilization. In contrast to Soviet painting, it was neither representational nor didactic… Either way, Abstract Expressionism stood for autonomy: the autonomy of art, freed from its obligation to represent the world, or the freedom of the individual—just the principles that the United States was defending in the worldwide struggle.”

The examples I’ve presented barely scratch the surface of the lasting effects of US-Soviet interactions in the Cold War, and they’re definitely the most benign – our most recent reading in Transnational America examined how US strategies to defeat Russia in Afghanistan planted the seeds for 9/11.  As we move forward into the Cold War in our study of the history of Russia, I’ll be interested to learn more about how this period in history has shaped our world today.

New Yorker article for anyone interested:

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