High Art in Low Times
October 5, 2004
Oct 5, 2004
18 Min read time
Two new books on the cultural Cold War.
The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War
by David Caute
Oxford University Press, $39.95 (cloth)
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters
by Frances Stonor Saunders
New Press, $29.95 (cloth)
At an early stage in the Cold War, the governments of the Soviet Union and the United States formalized the “cultural front” as one of their primary theaters of conflict, embarking on a series of alternating cultural exchanges. In 1959 the Bolshoi Ballet brought its Romeo and Juliet to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House; the 49-year-old Galina Ulanova’s incarnation of a doomed teenaged girl seemed a demonstration of the power of an elevated but nonetheless accessible “people’s art” to transform reality. In 1972 the New York City Ballet’s Moscow performance of Theme and Variations and Symphony in C, abstract works unheard of in the Soviet dance tradition, impressed the young Mikhail Baryshnikov; two years later he defected, taking Gelsey Kirkland, the ballerina who had starred in those ballets, as his new partner.
While “low” cultural productions, such as sports and World’s Fair–type exhibitions, were an important aspect of these exchanges, “high” art, especially ballet and music, commanded the most attention in the culture war. The operating assumption was that the world’s finest political economy would naturally produce the world’s finest culture.
In many ways Cold War cultural production was ideologically driven to a degree not seen before or since. The era thus offers an especially productive field for examining the relationship between culture and ideology—between art and politics. But there are dangers as well. To be sure, many of these productions were politically self-conscious, often to a remarkable degree, but it would be a mistake to assume that a given work’s meaning is determined by the creator’s declared political intentions or (in some ways the worse interpretive strategy) limited to government efforts to manipulate its significance and impact.
Following the “cultural turn” that has marked work in the social sciences for some time now, studies attending to the cultural front of the Cold War have been appearing with growing frequency. Since the 1990s there have been studies that read the era’s dance, film, television, literature, and music as stencils for larger political concerns. But attention to this aspect of the conflict is not strictly a post-1989 phenomenon. That attention first was piqued while the Cold War was very much a going concern, owing largely to the mid-1960s revelation that the CIA, through a network of dummy foundations, was a major funder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist but allegedly independent organization that had, at various points in its history, drawn to its cause such writers as Stephen Spender, Katherine Anne Porter, W.H. Auden, Glenway Wescott, and even (though once, it seems, was enough) William Faulkner. (Auden described Faulkner’s performance at a 1952 Paris festival sponsored by the CCF in a letter to his friends Tania and James Stern: “We had an anxious time with [him] for he went into a bout on arrival, shut up in his hotel throwing furniture out of the windows and bottles at the ladies and saying the most dreadful things about coons. However we managed to get him sober and onto the platform on the last day to say that the Americans had behaved badly but that he hoped they would behave better in the future and sit down.”)
Frances Stonor Saunders’s recent, somewhat breathless The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (first published in England as Who Paid the Piper?) has brought this history of covert U.S. government funding into prominence, but the scandal of CIA intervention in various allegedly nonideological cultural organizations was known, and deplored, as early as 1966. The New York Times broke the news of the CIA-CCF connection in April of that year, and the story rapidly attracted international interestas various CCF functionaries (Melvin Lasky, Irving Kristol, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), first tried to deny the connection and then (when denial proved impossible after the boasting of the CIA cultural activities officer Thomas W. Braden) to minimize the fallout by claiming that the money had had no effect on the editorial positions taken by CCF-sponsored journals such as Encounter, Tempo Presente, and Preuves. Despite their efforts, the organization failed to weather the storm.
The scandal received at least two extended analyses well before the 1999 appearance of Saunders’s book: Christopher Lasch’s strongly condemning chapter on the CCF in The Agony of the American Left and Peter Coleman’s more phlegmatic The Liberal Conspiracy. In many ways Saunders’s study can be seen as a long footnote to Lasch’s chapter, which first appeared as an extended essay in a September 1967 issue of The Nation. Writing just a little over a year after reports surfaced of CIA involvement in the CCF (and in many other organizations as well, including the American Newspaper Guild and the National Council of Churches), Lasch responded to CCF claims that the CIA had no effect on its work with this analysis of the American academic intellectual:
Professional intellectuals had become indispensable to society and to the state (in ways which neither the intellectuals nor even the state always perceived), partly because of the increasing importance of education—especially the need for trained experts—and partly because the Cold War seemed to demand that the United States compete with communism in the cultural sphere as well as in every other. The modern state, among other things, is an engine of propaganda, alternately manufacturing crises and claiming to be the only instrument which can effectively deal with them. This propaganda, in order to be successful, demands the cooperation of writers, teachers, and artists not as paid propagandists or state-censored time servers but as “free” intellectuals capable of policing their own jurisdictions and of enforcing acceptable standards of responsibility within the various intellectual professions.
A system like this presupposes two things: a high degree of professional consciousness among intellectuals, and general economic affluence which frees the patrons of intellectual life from the need to account for the money they spend on culture. Once these conditions exist, as they have existed in the United States for some time, intellectuals can be trusted to censor themselves, and crude “political” influence over intellectual life comes to seem passé.
A historian and an intellectual himself, Lasch knew the system from the inside out; his insights were grounded in careful study of Marx, Freud, and Veblen. Saunders, on the other hand, is mostly looking for a juicy story, and she abandons Lasch’s tempered outrage for a tone with more in common with the tabloids, offering nothing so thoughtful by way of analysis in her volume.
Still, the considerable merit in Lasch’s critique (elsewhere in the essay he takes on the smugness of intellectuals who “confuse academic freedom with cultural freedom” and scholars who “criticized interference with art not because they thought that the best art inevitably subverts conventions . . . but because they believed, on the contrary, that art and politics should be ‘divorced’ ”) shouldn’t blind us to its flaws, especially since these flaws, magnified, also subtend Saunders’s work. Lasch’s analysis is based on two assumptions that can’t, in fact, be assumed: first, that the vanity and ideological naiveté of the American academic intellectual is uniform among composers, painters, choreographers, dancers, playwrights, film directors, and actors; and, second, that literary modes of cultural production and consumption prevail in all the arts. One might say, in fact, that Lasch’s privileging of the literary culture to which he himself belonged revealed his own vulnerability to the arrogance he shrewdly diagnosed in the professoriate.
It is true that the United States tried to recruit the works of abstract expressionist painters, ballet and modern dance choreographers, and expatriate Russian composers to the cultural Cold War. In 1954, for instance, the CCF mounted an international conference on 20th-century music in Rome that sought to portray atonal and serial avant-garde compositions as particularly robust examples of “cultural freedom.” No doubt the topic was chosen in deliberate response to the Soviet Union’s 1948 Central Committee Decree on Music, which had condemned such musical “formalism” as “alien,” “anti-people,” “false,” “vulgar,” and “pathological” and which introduced an era of rigorous state oversight of the work of Soviet composers; no doubt Nicholas Nabokov, the CCF organizer who masterminded the conference, counted on mainstream Western journalists to report his remarks and those of other Congress members and to contrast Soviet censorship with free Western musical expression. But can it then be claimed that the very music itself—for example, the work of Lou Harrison, which won a prize at this festival—necessarily promoted the political agenda of the Cold War–era CIA?
To put the question this way is to make clear how quickly a one-to-one correspondence between covert funding and cultural expression breaks down. Lasch’s solution to this problem was to make the ethical burden rest upon the simple fact of whether one had participated at all (witting or not; and there was no room for a take-the-money-and-run mode of subversion) rather than to attempt an assessment of the artistic fruit of such participation (he made mincemeat of the supposedly “impartial” essays that filled the pages of Encounter; again, his comfort with literary culture showed). This is an adroit sidestepping of the issue, but a sidestep all the same. Lasch seemed to understand that the thorny issue of patron–artist relations (whether, how, and to what degree the patron controls the art she buys) was beyond his ken; at the very least, its history extends well past March 5, 1946, the day Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech inaugurated the Cold War. Somewhat less adept, Saunders reproduces the retrospective and self-congratulatory narratives of CIA operatives like Braden, who cast themselves as sophisticated champions of art incomprehensible to lesser minds (the sneers of Michigan Rep. George A. Dondero and the befuddlement of President Truman in the face of abstract expressionism are trotted out), but her analysis wavers between simply noting the “paradox” and attacking a top-down model of cultural production: for music and painting, at best problematic vehicles for propaganda, government intervention led to the production of airless, academic works no sane person could understand, let alone love and admire. “When Hans Werner Henze’s twelve-tone opera Boulevard Solitude was premiered” at the CCF festival in Rome, Saunders writes, “the audience could be forgiven for feeling as if it were traveling along a via Dolorosa.1
Yet if the point of CIA intervention in Cold War arts production was to make people feel good about the United States and the cultural “best of the West,” it is not clear how this sort of aural abuse (according to Saunders) helped the cause. (Serge Guilbaut’s argument in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art  that abstract expressionism found favor with U.S. government officials because it successfully co-opted formal aspects of an earlier activist and strongly Marxist European avant-garde has merit but in some ways is similarly insufficient.)
Though probably the most well-known of the many recent works on Cold War culture, Saunders’s study is insensitive to the differences among (and sometimes within) individual cultural productions that make them such compelling subjects of study to begin with. The Cultural Cold War is commendable for reviving interest in an important but neglected moment in American history, but it fails to rise to the challenges presented by cultural analysis generally and Cold War cultural analysis in particular.
• • •
The most recent study of Cold War culture, David Caute’s The Dancer Defects, gets off to a promising start. Certainly Caute seems to have a healthy respect for the formidable proportions of his project: the preface informs us that, though he initially set out to write one book, Caute quickly found the terrain “so vast” that a second volume is now planned to cover fiction, literary criticism, political theory, and historiography. The Dancer Defects takes as its subject the visual and performing arts only: film, theater, music, ballet, painting, sculpture, and “exhibition culture” (this last is mostly a discussion of the 1959 U.S.–U.S.S.R. exhibits in Moscow’s Sokol’niki Park—site of the Nixon–Khrushchev “kitchen debate”—and the New York Coliseum, though the World Expos could easily have been included).
Caute’s subject is so large partly because of his decision not only to include almost any artifact that could fall under the rubric of culture (television being a major exception), but also to explore both American and Soviet examples of Cold War cultural production, as well as select European works. His complaint, voiced at the end of the book, that current insular research and publishing habits of Sovietologists and Americanists have led to impartial and sometimes flawed analyses has considerable merit. As he notes, the cultural front of the Cold War emerged not because of the differences between the United States and the U.S.S.R. but because of the similarities: “The contest was possible only because both sides were agreed on cultural values to an extent that may seem astonishing,” Caute writes—a point worth keeping in mind today as calls go out for the development of a cultural front in the so-called war on terrorism.2
Unfortunately, The Dancer Defects does not live up to the promises of its founding claims. One could say that, in many ways, the book represents the degree zero of contextual analysis: why talk about the art at all? Again and again, Caute slights the work itself in favor of its reception in the press, the Politburo, and the U.S. Congress. Of course we need to understand this byplay if we are to get a sense of the cultural landscape of the era; but simple reportage is no substitute for analysis itself, and too often Caute cuts off discussion at precisely the point it should deepen. Lavishly detailed plot descriptions—the summary of Grigorii Aleksandrov’s 1949 The Meeting at the Elbe, for example, runs for nearly seven pages—are no substitute for informed cinematic judgment, yet his analyses of film production are little more than sound bites: the editing is “excellent” (or “poor”), the camera work is “ravishing” (or “repellent”), this or that actress is “captivating” (or not). What judgments do appear are often hasty and ill-informed: his assertion that Andrei Tarkovsky would have produced less “self-indulgent” work under a capitalist mode of production is belied by any number of American films (Billy Jack, the entire Rocky series). In the chapters on classical music, the terms “modernist,” “atonal,” “dissonant,” and “dodecaphonic” are used almost interchangeably; Prokofiev’s 1921 opera Love for Three Oranges is many things, but “ultra-modern” isn’t one of them. And surely Caute’s complaint about the “dry and Shavian” language of Temptation (“clogged by phrases like ‘so kindly don’t try to change the subject’ ”) is with the English translation rather than Václav Havel’s Czech.
The title of Caute’s study might lead one to believe that dance, or at least ballet, will enjoy a long-overdue assessment as an especially rich site of Cold War cultural conflict; attention to the Soviet side of the equation would nicely complement Naima Prevots’s excellent analysis of the effects of cultural diplomacy on the American dance scene in Dance for Export (1998). But Caute is interested in defection, not dancing. He describes the disagreement between American and Soviet notions of ballet art as one pitting “modernism” against “realism,” but these terms are notoriously vague and, as he himself notes, there is nothing realistic about the dancing swans, fairies, sylphs, and bewitched princesses of the 19th-century classics beloved by the Soviets. Rather, the quarrel between Soviet and American views of ballet centered on two issues: contemporary ballet technique and the place of narrative in theatrical dance; Caute is not equipped to discuss the former and seems unaware that the latter is even an issue. Certainly it would be churlish to insist that only those aware of the distinction between ronds de jambe en dehors and en dedans are entitled to discuss the political or social impact of Cold War ballet; one does not turn to a study like Caute’s expecting a detailed discussion of the differences between Vaganova and School of American Ballet pirouette preparations. But there is little excuse for slighting the narrative issue, particularly since it had an ideological point.
Balanchine’s “plotless” ballets were a major contribution to the development of the art form, and they were greeted with skepticism not only in the Soviet Union but in the West as well: the British in particular never really cottoned to them (British dance critics frequently described Balanchine’s work as “cold”), preferring Frederick Ashton’s story ballets, Anthony Tudor’s psychological case studies, and their own versions of the Russian classics (the Royal Ballet’s celebrated 1946 production of The Sleeping Beauty being a case in point). What may have been mostly a matter of taste for the British was a political question for the Soviets, who, in a manner similar to that of the Hungarian literary scholar György Lukács, condemned the absence of narrative teleology in Balanchine’s ballets as bourgeois decadence. Furthermore, the artistic constraints of zhdanovshchina demanded not only a proper story but a proper victory; hence the famous (or infamous) Soviet imposition of a happy ending to Swan Lake, perhaps best exemplified in the 1957 Sovexportfilm of the ballet featuring Maya Plisetskaya as Odette/Odile (and now available on DVD).3
Proper consideration of this issue—the mid-20th-century emergence of the role of narrative in dance as a question encompassing both formal and political concerns—does not demand a specialized knowledge of ballet, but it does require a willingness to approach the art form as something worthy of interest in its own right. Caute does not grant ballet this status; he also bypasses important issues outside of dance one would expect him to note. A disdain for recent developments in cultural analysis (expressed in his conclusion, where he attacks “deconstruction” without seeming to understand what the term means) blinds him to the role the Soviet persecution of homosexuality, all-pervasive but particularly strong in the arts, may have played in Rudolph Nureyev’s decision to defect. Caute reports Nurevey’s dismay with Soviet insistence on “rough” male dancing (“they did not believe men could execute women’s steps, and that’s what I was doing”) without appearing to grasp its full implications.
Caute’s attention to historical background is so desultory (we’re told three times in the space of eight pages that the first U.S.–U.S.S.R. cultural exchange agreement was signed in 1958, but the dates of Ekaterina Furtseva’s reign as Soviet minister of culture are never made clear, and a familiarity with the controversy attending Solomon Volkov’s Testimony is assumed) that it is difficult to determine whom The Dancer Defects is intended to serve. The book has the heft and apparatus of a scholarly tome meant for those already familiar with the field (footnotes, bibliography), but the text itself does not hold up well under scrutiny. Indeed, despite its considerable bulk, The Dancer Defects feels like a slapdash job, loosely edited and pocked with errors: we get two different spellings of the last name of the actor Patrick Stewart, two different release dates for Andrzej Wajda’s Pokolenie. The mid-1950s New York Times Paris bureau chief Cyrus L. Sulzberger is misidentified as the paper’s publisher (the nephew of then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, he was rumored to have CIA connections), and we are given contradictory figures for Soviet feature-film production.
On the Soviet side, a researcher tracking the relationship between cultural works and the dominant political line is helped by the fact that Iskusstvo, Sovetskaia kul’tura, Sovetskaia muzyka, and Tvorchestvo served double functions as professional journals and government mouthpieces. The job is more complicated in the West, and Caute rather shirks it. He relies almost exclusively on reports in the mainstream press (The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Le Monde, Figaro, The [London] Observer, The Manchester Guardian), supplementing occasionally with reaction in the communist press, and neglects important cultural organs such as Downbeat, Gramophone, Art in America, and Ballet Review. Dance Magazine devoted almost an entire issue to coverage of the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1959 US tour; in 1970, the American choreographer Agnes de Mille published a memoir in Dance Perspectives of her experiences during American Ballet Theatre’s 1966 and 1969 tours of the Soviet Union. None of this intensive analysis is mentioned in The Dancer Defects.
Caute makes clear his low opinion of Saunders’s study, but in fact the two books have a common flaw: neither The Dancer Defects nor The Cultural Cold War has much interest in the cultural productions that are the ostensible focus of their work. To claim, as Caute does early in his book, that “symphonies and ballets, dodecaphonic serialism, the saxophone and abstract expressionist painting, being wordless, carry their political implications through a contextual web of external factors” is to betray the same contempt for art that led the bureaucrats of the CIA and VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, charged with sending Soviet talent abroad and approving visiting artists) to think it a simple matter to bend all manner of cultural expression to their purposes. Caute is exactly right when he concludes that “Cold War culture can be properly explored and understood only from multiple viewpoints based largely on evidence which resides within the public domain, the extraordinarily copious cultural production of the twentieth century,” yet he has little patience for the “inaccessible” or “perverse” “modernist” work that characterizes much of the century’s cultural production and that often resists reduction to a single ideological line. The Dancer Defects is admirable as a compendium of the important ballets, plays, films, paintings, sculpture, and music produced by Soviet, European, and American artists during the Cold War. But a study that takes the measure of this work in a way that does justice to its multifaceted and fascinating complexity remains to be written.
3) As is well known, a videotape of Swan Lake was broadcast nonstop on Russian television during 1991’s attempted putsch—a final twist on the state’s effort to make art do its work that was an explicit focus of the Estonian Van Krahl Theatre troupe’s production The Swan Lake in its fall 2003 appearance at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop.
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October 05, 2004
18 Min read time