Geopolitics of the Avant-Garde: Rethinking the Cultural Cold War

Jordy Cummings


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, two distinct constellations of cultural producers, cultural critics and intellectuals enlisted, wittingly or unwittingly, in what has become known as the Cultural Cold War. While the Soviet Union and United States both were entering period of cultural conformity at home, their international stance led them into competition over who could lay claim to the international Avant-Garde. On the Soviet side, luminaries included Georg Lukacs and Pablo Picasso, while Americans counted Jackson Pollock and Dwight McDonald. The Soviet side included a healthy mix of sincere (and often dissident) communists as well as ‘fellow travelling’ liberals and a good chunk of continental intellectual culture, while the Americans counted more than a few Trotskyists and other “non-communist” libertarian socialists like McDonald. Most accounts of the Cultural Cold War rely on a dichotomy, either castigating the latter for collaborating with the forces that would go on to with blood and fire, forge American Empire, or the latter for collaborating with the forces that embarked upon the Moscow purge trials, assassinated Leon Trotsky and repressed free thought at home.
This paper will attempt to move beyond the moralism of these debates, and examine the cultural production ‘on both sides’ as reflective of ongoing debates within the Left in regards to aesthetics and politics, for example, that between Ernst Bloch and the aforementioned Lukacs. Reframing the debate as to one within the Left itself and drawing on Boris Groys and Greil Marcus’s respective works on Soviet aesthetics and “Americana”, questions will be raised as to who was using whom. Were the great powers merely co-opting art and intellectual culture art for great power politics? On the other hand, were artists and critics making use of grants and international support to engage in progressive cultural practice? Does collaboration with a given state render the Avant-Garde toothless, or did artists maneuver their way through these muddy waters, like DaVinci with the Vatican? These are not easy questions to answer but a first step must involve moving beyond condemnation.

The Left - United States - Communism - Culture - Trotskyism - Aesthetics - Bloch - Cold War Politics - Dwight McDonald - Soviet Union  
This article is part of Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres (Wildcat series) - Book launch (A booklaunch on 'Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres (Wildcat series) - Book launch')