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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Greenbergian Modernism II

By Alexandra A. Jopp


In the July-August 1940 issue of Partisan Review, the Marxist-Trotskyist intellectual journal, there appeared an essay on modern art by Clement Greenberg titled Towards a Newer Laocoon. The arguments in this essay, T.J. Clark writes, “stake out the ground for Greenberg’s later practice as a critic and set down the main lines of a theory and history of culture since 1850 – since Courbet and Baudelaire.”1 The essay, then, is a historical explanation of the course of avant-garde art since the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the arguments in the essay reappear in Greenberg’s 1960 theoretical study Modernist Painting.


Greenberg’s conservative writing reflects on artistic “quality,” “taste” and value. He essentially links “high modern” art with artists who worked to perfect a medium, who took a specific approach to their work. Although he does not mention names, he prefers, above all, Abstract Expressionist painters. For Greenberg, the highest form of art was that which concerned itself so strictly with its medium and essential materials that the work was about the medium and nothing else. Painting should be about painting – not subject matter, not space, not forms, just painting. Thus, the work, according to Greenberg is “rendered pure, and in its purity finds the guarantee of its standard of quality as well as of its independence.”2


According to Greenberg, it is a historical characteristic of the modern arts that each has had to define itself in terms of the limitations of its proper medium. At a time when claims were being made for the “realism” of various forms of figurative art, Greenberg aimed to both establish the quality of certain abstract art and “justify abstraction as the fulfillment of an inexorable historical tendency.”3 For Greenberg, every historical epoch has its own particular aesthetic requirements, and artists who overlook those requirements risk becoming artistically weak and useless. “The imperative,” he concludes, “comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art. This conjunction holds the artist in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambition and returning to a stale past.”4

Greenberg offers little explanation of the reasons for his abstract art apologetic beyond the historical argument. While I understand the value to art history of his work, I disagree with some of his methods and views (especially regarding Cubism and Surrealism, as it seems he did not approve of any movements that did not move toward purer art forms.) I also found disturbing his comment that Romantic painters lost respect for their medium. For the first time, he argues, academicism emerged, and while academicism produced some good artists, painting on the whole sank “to a level that was in some respects an all-time low.” But while Greenberg argues that abstraction was a movement whose time, for whatever reason, had come, he acknowledges that he has “offered no other explanation for the present superiority of abstract art than its historical justification.”5

“Yet it seems to me,” he adds, “that the wish to return to the imitation of nature in art has been given no more justification than the desire of certain partisans of abstract art to legislate it into permanency.”6


Notes


1: T.J. Clark, “Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art,Critical Inquiry, Vol. 9, No. 1, The Politics of Interpretation (Sep., 1982), pp. 139-156
2: Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Paiting”
3: Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” From the Collected Essays and Criticism.
4: 
Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” From the Collected Essays and Criticism.
5:Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” From the Collected Essays and Criticism.
6:Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” From the Collected Essays and Criticism.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Thoughts on Surrealism II

By Alexandra A Jopp




In the 1930s, Surrealism ceased being merely a Parisian phenomenon as political instability and impending war in Europe led members of the movement to travel overseas. Andre Breton, for example, moved to Latin America to promote French culture and continue his efforts to build the Surrealist movement internationally. While in Mexico, Breton and other members of his group worked with Leon Trotsky to try to create a worldwide political and ideological movement in which Trotsky would be the chief player. Their “International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art” was short-lived, however.

Some of the Latin American Surrealists, in addition to transferring the experience of the French school to their native lands, wrote in French. This commitment to the movement’s Gallic origins made it more difficult for Surrealism to deepen its roots in Spanish-speaking countries. For instance, when I think of Latin America, I associate it with Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who said, “In Mexico surrealism runs through the streets,” meaning it is reality – not surreality – that is of interest to him. In addition, I have not seen much influence of Freudian psychology in Spanish literature.

It is interesting to note the effects that new environments had on Surrealists in exile. For artists, the move could have been liberating, since the change could provide new sources of inspiration. Also, it is noteworthy that we see more women artists in Mexico than in Paris. Was this because the times had changed or because in Mexico, Europeans felt freed from the stereotypes of feminine identity that were standard in their countries of origin? Or was it a combination of time and place? I would have been interested to learn more about the roles and conditions of women artists and writers living in places other than their places of birth.

Thoughts on Surrealism


By Alexandra A Jopp

When the innovations of a movement become routine, artists, poets and writers look for new motifs and sources of inspiration. For instance, Picasso developed an interest in primitivism and colonialism after his 1907 visit to the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris (now the Musee de l’Homme). As the artist wrote:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. … I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting. (Foster 91)

The connection between Surrealism and primitivism – African masks, in particular – is not, however, as direct as it might, at first, seem. Unlike Cubism, which had its roots in the discovery of African objects, the automatism that is at the heart of Surrealism has nothing in common with primitive art. African masks and similar items were not products of free improvisation, were not expressions of the unconscious but, rather, were objects that were created according to cultural norms.

In the 1930s, international Surrealist exhibitions were held in many of the world’s major cities, including Copenhagen (1935), New York (1936), London (1936), Tokyo (1937) and Paris (1938). This last exhibition may have been a culminating moment for the movement in Europe. For all of Breton’s energy, for all of his efforts to show that Surrealism was thriving, the movement on the continent was dying. Times had changed. The vitality and passion that accompanies revolution began to diminish with mainstream acceptance. Plus, the movement that grew out of the war to end all wars was being hampered by the beginning of the next war. But Surrealism was not dead. It had found its new motif, its new inspiration. It had moved to America.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Clement Greenberg: Modernist Painting

By Alexandra A Jopp


“I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant,” 1 the formalist critic Clement Greenberg writes in his 1965 essay “Modernist Painting.”  I am inclined to agree with Greenberg that Kant and his ideas provided a revolutionary introduction to the self-critical power in philosophy. Kant, who hated Romanticism, detested every form of extravagance, fantasy, exaggeration, mysticism, vagueness and confusion. His philosophy asserted that it is our reason that invests the world we experience with structure. In his works on aesthetics, he argues that it is our faculty of judgment that enables us to experience beauty and understand our experiences as being part of an ordered, natural world with a purpose. While Kant focuses on perception, Greenberg focuses on painting, and he sees enormous potential in the concept of essential limits when applied to the history of painting. Greenberg argues that there is logic to the expansion of Modernist art and, in particular, Modernist painting, which he sees as innovative, autonomous and experimental. To Greenberg, these “external things” that both establish the limits of the act of painting and enable painting to become “an independent power” have an ideal value. The conceptual place of these external things is occupied by the medium in Greenberg’s system; a medium that itself has a limit because a flat surface such as a canvas forces an image to become two-dimensional. In other words, Modernism confirms the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. First, we see the work as a painted surface, and later as a picture. Thus, the history of Modernist painting, as constructed by Greenberg, consists of bringing together the act of painting with its intrinsic limitations.

Although Greenberg’s main ideas about formalism and the way that art progresses are somewhat dated, he remains something of a historical phenomenon. He focuses much of his analysis on flatness, an essential element of Modern painting, and he discusses the limitations of painting as a medium. The Old Masters, according to Greenberg, were trying to liberate themselves from these limitations and add depth to their art. “The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture,” Greenberg wrote. “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”
In his essay, Greenberg redefines Modernism, moving it from a system of formal novelty toward an experimental exercise. Its style originated with Kantian philosophy and Enlightenment principles, and its values of color and flatness were most clearly expressed, in Greenberg’s view, in the Neo-Classical portraiture of David and Ingres. However, this movement in which Western art questioned its own underpinnings did not have any subversive purpose. Instead, as Greenberg writes, the “essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but … to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”



1. Greenberg, Clement, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1960)
2. Pisarro, Joachim, “Greenberg, Kant, and Modernism,” Notes in History of Art
Vol. XXIX No.1, pp 42-48, 2009.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Elusive Sue Bridehead

By Alexandra A Jopp


The complex relationship of love, sex and marriage that Thomas Hardy explored more than a hundred years ago is a very modern theme. The hardest thing for many persons in the modern world is to deal with their desire for personal independence and how that relates to the structure of mutual dependency in a relationship within the constraints of pooled finances and sexual restraints. In the last fifty years women have had jobs outside the home, university degrees and other credentials, professional careers and economic advances putting unprecedented stress on the institution of marriage and the willingness of women to bear children while advancing their careers.


The nineteenth century understanding of marriage that formed the backdrop for Jude the Obscure was a relationship with the man working in a factory or office and bringing home the income while the woman stayed at home keeping house. Under this view of marriage, the woman’s sphere was her home where her primarily responsibilities were cooking, cleaning, sewing, raising kids, and having some culture in the house such as playing piano for entertaining the guests. It was male’s responsibility to bring in the income, and the men owned most resources and engaged in political activities.

In Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy is assaulting that structure of nineteenth century society by presenting Sue Bridehead as a main character who did not want to get married to a person she loved. She wanted to be independent and did not want to rely on a man’s income. She is not much interested in marriage as an interpersonal relationship, and marries in order to advance her career. She apparently does not use sex to attract the attention or the financial support of men. Hardy is making a strong point that love and marriage are not synonymous.

In A Perspective of One’s Own, Elizabeth Langland concludes that Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead is more than a narrative device to illuminate the development of Jude’s personality. She argues that Sue had integrity and her own personality embodied primarily in her attitudes towards sex, marriage and independence from reliance on a man. Sue had a clear idea of the difference between love and marriage. She loved Jude but she married Phillotson for the reasons of economic advancement. Jude on the other hand married Arabella because he had sex with her and he identified sex and marriage, although Arabella lied to Jude by saying she was pregnant.

Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure depicted complex psychological problems, dualistic feelings and emotions, and the feelings of persons in emotionally unstable situations. Between Jude, Sue, and Arabella, the three main strong personalities – Sue is the most unpredictable and emotionally unstable, but the most intelligent. Critics have called her character “childish, selfish, sadistic, masochistic, narcissistic, and frigid, all in explanation of what has been defined as her dominant trait - inconsistency” (Langland 13). Sue’s inconsistencies are moral, mental, and sexual and that makes her very human. Langland, however, concludes that “Sue remains an unevenly conceived character” due to Hardy, at once sensitive to ambiguity, having extended his narrative art to its limits (Id. at 25). All the same, the character of Sue does not appear more inconsistent than the common woman of the twenty-first century attempting to deal with its swirling stew of religious and moral precepts and social norms. If modern Americans can disavow their earlier positions on the war in Iraq, how can we criticize Sue’s minor shifts of views on day to day matters.

Sue Bridehead’s inconsistency and elusiveness reflects difficulties in Hardy’s narrative techniques. She has contradictory impulses and spontaneous actions where feelings dominate her mind. But she is consistent where her views of the central issues of love and marriage conflict with the prevailing norms of English society.


Langland, Elizabeth. “A Perspective of One's Own: Thomas Hardy and the Elusive Sue Bridehead.” Studies in the Novel 12 (1980): 12-28.


Jude Fawley


[last lines] We are man and wife, if ever were two people on this earth.

Sue Bridehead


Haven't we been punished enough?

Please don't call me a clever girl, Mr Phillotson, there are too many of us these days.

[Sue has just spurned Jude again] Promise me you'll never stop trying.

It's right that I suffer.

They locked me up for being out with you, so I jumped out of the window, climbed over a fence, crossed the deepest river in England and here I am!

Dialogue

Sue Bridehead: Why are you looking at me like that?

Jude Fawley: Does it scare you?

Sue Bridehead: No. I am not afraid of any man.

Jude Fawley: Why?

Sue Bridehead: Because no man would touch a woman unless she gives him a reason to. A touch or a look that say come on. If you never look, they'll never come. You are the timid sex.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sue Bridehead: I would have liked to have talked with her before she died.

Jude Fawley: She would have enjoyed that.

Sue Bridehead: What did she say?

Jude Fawley: She said we both make bad husbands and wives.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The American National Exhibition in Moscow 1959: Purpose and Politics

The Kaiser Geodesic Dome, at the American National Exhibition, Moscow 1959 
Photograph
 

                                                  




By Alexandra A. Jopp

One can argue that all exhibitions have political aspects to them; some, though, are more politically driven than others. One such example was the 1959 “American National Exhibition” in Moscow. The International Cultural Exchange and Fair Trade and Participation Act that was enacted in 1956 established a cultural diplomacy program in the United States, and the American National Exhibition was the most ambitious project implemented after the signing of an East-West cultural exchange agreement in 1958. The exhibition, which was held in Sokolniki Park, was perhaps most famous for hosting the impromptu “kitchen debate” between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary of State Nikita Khrushchev, in which the two men argued the advantages of their respective economic and political systems. The exhibition’s official goal was to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, but it seems that the real purpose had more to do with showing the benefits of American life to the Soviet people, who, exhibit organizer George Allen observed, were interested “in anything foreign, but particularly in things American.”[1] I will argue that this exhibition used a combination of expressionist art, consumer goods and machinery to propagandize for freedom, democracy, capitalism and the “American dream.”


In the 1950s, during the early stages of the Cold War, the United States sought to promote its ideals behind the Iron Curtain. This was not an easy task. The 1958 cultural exchange agreement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., however, gave the United States an opportunity to present its society, lifestyle, and policies to the Soviet people. President Eisenhower had often “envisioned a people-to-people exchange” of exactly this type.[2]
Under the agreement – which was renewed biannually – educational, technical and cultural connections between the countries would increase, reaching a high point with the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in July-August 1959. In addition to this event, the Bolshoi Ballet performed in the United States, Benny Goodman played in Moscow and the film “West Side Story” was shown in the Soviet capital. It was at a meeting between Khrushchev President Eisenhower at the presidential retreat in Maryland in 1959 that the decision was made to present a full look at life in each country through an exchange: the American Exhibition in Moscow and the Soviet Cultural Exposition in New York. This was a first for the U.S. government. Unlike many other nations, the U.S. had traditionally opposed making cultural contracts with other countries.[3]
The American exhibition, which was arranged by the United States Information Agency (USIA), opened on July 25, 1959. The public intent of the show as stated in the Official Training Book for Guides at the American National Exhibition in Moscow was, “To increase understanding in the Soviet Union of the American people, their land, and their life, including science, technology, and culture in the United States.”[4] Though there may have been some undercurrents of competition in the Moscow exhibit, the exhibition’s director, Harold C. McClellan, emphasized in a New York Times interview that, “I’m not trying to prove that we’re better than they or that they’re worthless. I’m trying to show them what America is like, to give them some understanding and appreciation – and I’ve been fighting to keep the ‘cold war’ out of this thing.”[5]

The exhibit space covered 400,000 square feet of Sokolniki Park, and, over the course of six weeks, an estimated 2.7 million people attended, more than double the 1.1 million who viewed the Soviet Cultural Exhibit at the New York Coliseum in the summer of 1959. The American exhibition’s displays covered 11 themes of American life: America’s Land and People, America Lives, America Works, America Produces, America Consumes, America Learns, America Explores Man and Universe, America Creates, America Travels, America Plays, and America’s Community Life.[6]
At the center of the exhibition space was an 80-foot-high, geodesic dome, which housed eight exhibitions, including the ones on space exploration, nuclear research, medical research, agricultural research, American labor, chemical research, basic research and education: exhibits that were intended to demonstrated the success of the American educational system.
The displays also included pictures of the 34 American Nobel Prize winners in science between 1943 and 1956, a report on the American-discovered science of radio astronomy, and studies by the National Institutes of Health on the aging process. One of the most popular exhibits at the dome was at its entrance: IBM’s mechanized diplomat, RAMAC 305. RAMAC was a stylish, state-of-the-art computer programmed to answer more than 3,000 questions about American life, values and ideas. Questioners waited in line for as much as two hours to ask RAMAC questions, with the most popular including, “What is the Liberty Bell,” “What is jazz music,” “What is the price of American cigarettes,” “What is American rock ’n’ roll music,” “What new ceramic material is used for cooking and serving food in the United States,” and “What is meant by the American dream.” Though RAMAC had been displayed at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, this marked its first exhibition in a communist society.[7]
Notwithstanding the long lines to talk to RAMAC, the computer was not the most popular exhibit. The Soviet people were most interested in American automobiles – 22 cars representing the latest 1959 models from Detroit’s leading automakers were included in the exhibition. Other popular displays included color television, a book exhibit, a fashion show, a recreation of the interior of an American house and an exhibition of contemporary American art.
The art and consumer goods exhibits were grouped together and shown in a 4,000-foot-long glass pavilion behind the dome.  Edith Halpert and Richard McLanathan organized the American contemporary art exhibit, with the selection of works made by Lloyd Goodrich, Franklin C. Watkins, Theodore Roszak and Henry Radford Hope. President Eisenhower had the final say on what pieces would be included. The exhibit included about 50 paintings and 25 sculptures from 1930-1959. The artists included many of the country’s best-known painters, such as Pollock, Weber, Davis, Sheeler, Marin, and the regionalists Benton, Curry and Wood. Among the sculptors were Zorach, Laurent, Smith, Roszak, de Creeft and Calder.  Thus, the selection included works of early New York realists, American scene painters and American founders of modern art, including abstract expressionism. “The committee feels justified in saying that it is the broadest, most balanced representation of recent American painting and sculpture so far shown abroad by our government,” Goodrich said.[8]
About 10,000 to 20,000 people visited the art exhibit each day.[9] This relatively small collection was carefully chosen to serve as an expression of American “democracy” and “freedom.” There is some irony here, since in the 1950s, many artists were persecuted for communist ties during the Red Scare.
Art had an important role in communist revolutionary activity in Europe between the wars through “socialist realism,” a movement in which communist officials tried to “dictate form as well as content to those artists who were Party members.” [10] This approach was formulated in 1932 by Stalinist apparatchiks, and it covered all spheres of artistic activity – literature, drama, cinema, painting, sculpture, music and architecture.
Helena Lewis affirms the main principles of socialist realism: “It was to be a historically truthful and concrete depiction of reality with a thematic emphasis on the coming of the revolution.”[11] It was also important for artists to make their works consistent with the themes of socialist ideological reforms and the education of workers in the socialist spirit. As British art critic Herbert Read said, “Socialist realism is nothing but an attempt to stuff intellectual or dogmatic objectives into art.”[12]
Some American and European artists during the interwar period claimed the revolutionary mantle and asserted that their principles were compatible with the ideas of Marx and Engels. Lenin, though, “rejected the possibility of any kind of liberation” and insisted that, “Today, literature, even that published ‘legally,’ can be nine-tenths party literature. It must become party literature.”[13] The repression that began with Lenin grew even worse under Stalin, with some writers and artists being killed for failing to demonstrate the proper revolutionary spirit. Later, Khrushchev, faced with new, unorthodox artistic expressions, would take it upon himself to redirect the artists of his country toward socialist realism. Young poets reciting verse in Mayakovski Square and artists abandoning realist forms for incomprehensible abstractions confused and worried Khrushchev and his comrades. Upon viewing the abstract works in the American exhibition, Khrushchev is reported to have said that, “People who paint like that are crazy, but people who call it art are crazier still.”[14]
Art and politics have long overlapped, and not just in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, anti-surrealist sentiment emerged in the art world and took the form of concrete art or hard-edged abstraction (the Cercle et Carré group). Many of these artists were also anti-fascist; some were anarchists and some were aligned with the Communist Party. What is interesting, though, is that there does not seem to be a correlation between political philosophy and the style of artistic expression.
In the 1950s and 1960s, abstract expressionism swept away all before it. Much has been written about abstract expressionism as being representative of American freedom and being used as a diplomatic tool in the Cold War. Some young Russians were familiar with the Ashcan school and many American artists including Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and others. “You in America have inherited the leadership, and you represent freedom and the future,” one Russian reviewer wrote. In the Soviet Union, all art that did not adhere to the rules outlined by the Supreme Soviet and was not in the category of socialist realism was repressed, and those young Russians who were exposed to American abstract art saw in those works the possibility of new ideas.
Lenin said that art should stand next to the proletariat since, “Art belongs to the people. It must with its widest stretching roots go out into the very thick of the broadest masses. It must combine the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them.” In his view, then, art and culture must be synonymous, and it should be impossible to separate either from the people. Given this, a government that seeks to control its people – as the Kremlin certainly did – would, obviously, consider controlling the production of art to be crucial.
American art in the 1940s and 1950s came under its own political pressures, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others claimed to have uncovered communist sympathizers throughout the United States, especially in the art and entertainment communities. Conversely, Soviet abstract artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s – who did not follow the state-mandated rules of socialist realism – were thought by the communist regime to have ties to capitalistic and materialistic American influences.[15]

Perhaps because of the political nature of the works of art displayed, Khrushchev had little good to say about the exhibition.
“The show was not successful because the attitude of the organizers was not serious,” he wrote. “The exhibition was purely propaganda and does not meet our guidelines of economic, technical and party cadres. We treated it meticulously ... In my view, there was nothing that we could practically use.”[16] Khrushchev was, apparently, not impressed by the IBM computer, the color television, the Polaroid camera, the American model home stuffed with domestic appliances including a microwave and dishwasher or the American automobiles. He also, however, wrote, on the page following the previous comment: “I saw many interesting things ... The Americans wanted to show how comfortable life in America is, seeking to impress Russians. In part, they succeeded. There were many new products that were worth bringing them into the everyday life of the Soviet people.”[17]
What is the reason for this contradiction? The negative reaction to the show was almost certainly political; Khrushchev would surely have been reluctant to praise unequivocally a rival that Soviet doctrine held was inferior in all aspects to the communist regime. Concerns about showing the Soviet people American wealth and success likely also explains the lack of coverage of the exhibition in the Soviet press and the tight control maintained over exhibition tickets: visitors were selected by the government and no tickets were made available to the general public. At the same time, though, Khrushchev probably could not help but be intrigued by the wonders of everyday American life. In his improvised speech at the opening of the exhibition, in fact, he actually admitted feeling some jealousy.
 It should also be remembered that Pepsi was first advertised in Russia by Nikita Khrushchev during the show. Nixon, skillfully playing the role of a host, invited Khrushchev to try a Pepsi. The photograph of the Soviet leader holding a cup with the Pepsi logo was on the covers of many Soviet newspapers and magazines. That fateful moment in the history of the brand is considered a birth date of Pepsi in Russia. Free glasses of Pepsi, dispensed from a kiosk between the glass pavilion and the model home, were consumed at the rate of 10,000 per hour for the 42-day duration of the show. Though it allowed Pepsi to be distributed, the Kremlin, however, strictly forbade the distribution of free red lipstick made by Koti.[18]Lipstick was seen as a much greater threat than Pepsi: Whereas soda was immediately consumed, the lipstick would had been visible to everyone.
In touring the exhibit, Khrushchev skipped past the voting machine – dismissing it by saying, “We are not interested” – and expressed little wonder at the RAMAC 305, telling Time magazine, “To shoot off the rockets, we have computers, and they are just as complicated as this.”[19] But he seemed to be struck by the model home, particularly the kitchen.
While Khrushchev and Richard Nixon viewed the room’s features, the two men got into a debate in which appliances became representatives of each nation’s success, power and political and economic philosophy. The full debate was shown on American TV, but Soviet papers published only an incomplete transcript of the exchange. At one point, Nixon observed, “Isn’t it better to be talking about the relative merits of our washing machines than the relative strength of our rockets? ... Isn’t this the kind of competition you want?”[20] Khrushchev abruptly changed his tone in response. Nixon recalled: “At this, he gave the appearance of turning angry and, jamming his thumb into my chest, he shouted: ‘Yes, that’s the kind of competition we want, but your generals say they are so powerful they can destroy us. We can also show you something so that you will know the Russian spirit. We are strong, we can beat you.”[21] Historians can debate whether this aggressive reaction resulted from true pride in the Soviet system or was false posturing driven by jealousy.
The exhibition contradicted some of the most dearly held tenets of Soviet dogma, such as the supposed impending collapse of capitalism and the characterization of the U.S.S.R. as a “worker’s paradise.” Khrushchev insisted that all new Soviet apartments had facilities similar to those found in U.S. homes, but the Soviet exhibition in New York included only mockups of Soviet apartments that did not really exist, at least not for the average person. Kremlin officials were accustomed to having American nuclear weapons pointed at them, but washing machines, dishwashers and microwaves presented a whole new – in way, more dangerous – threat.

Model homes, automobiles and color TVs were important Cold War propaganda items that offered tangible and compelling support for claims of the superiority of the American economic system. Although official U.S. government policy held that displays of consumer goods were intended to inspire businesses in underdeveloped countries to produce devices suitable for the vast American market and to open new markets for American companies in nations still recovering from World War II, these displays also seem calculated to arouse jealousy and dissatisfaction among people on rival nations.
The items on display in Moscow – the model home, the fancy cars, the pretty clothes – all came from the everyday experience of Americans. They were not abstractions or constructs. They were the very definition of “the good life” in the United States in the 1950s. The Moscow Exhibition was “an American Showcase,” a business journal concluded. It was also a shopping center on a grand, international scale. And what was for sale was nothing less than “the American way of life.”[22]
Meanwhile, the he picture of America that had been carefully constructed by Soviet ideologists – one in which the working class was oppressed and the bourgeoisie were bathed in gold – melted before Khrushchev’s eyes. What he saw at the show did not make sense to him, and the reality somewhat traumatized him. From the Soviet perspective, private life in general, and consumer comforts in particular, had been somewhere on the far periphery of the interests of the state (if they were ever in its scope). As a result, Khrushchev’s attack on abstract expressionism actually extended to the entire exhibition. One sculpture in the art exhibit was especially disturbing to him: a sculpture of a woman. Speaking of the avant-garde construction, he exclaimed: “I am not artistically eloquent enough to describe what I was exposed to: a woman-monster, without form. It was simply impossible to look at.”[23] In response to questions by American journalists, he said, “What would the sculptor’s mother’s reaction be? This man is probably a pervert. I think he is probably crazy, because a person who sees nature in a conventional way, cannot depict a woman in such a way.”[24] This critical theme extended to the entire art exhibit: “It seemed to me that the show had a negative effect on the majority of visitors, and was repulsive. Of course, there were also fans of such art. In every society and at every stage of its development, all sorts of new ideas are produced: the progressive and the other with distortions. Perhaps it is the latter that were liked by individual visitors.”[25]
Art was not the only thing that Khrushchev did not understand. For example, in the model American kitchen, he decided that an electric juice maker was a useless thing, because, in his mind, a few drops of lemon juice could have been squeezed into a cup of tea without it. While Khrushchev never admitted it, the exhibition as a whole had a huge impact on him. He walked by the American car exhibit with his eyes wide open, thought he suddenly informed those who were present that “we will be making automobiles for America.”[26] In his memoirs, however, he described the exhibition as “useless.”
Despite all of this, in Moscow in the summer of 1959, there arose a new atmosphere change, of the birth of something new and significant. It grew out of the “Khrushchev thaw” and gave hope to the masses of educated people in the country. These people wanted to speak to their American counterparts and learn more about them. They were familiar with U.S. achievements in science and American abstract art and were open to “new ideas,” but they had long been oppressed and persecuted.
To his credit, though, Khrushchev’s vision of communism came with the idea of peaceful coexistence, and the ice of the Cold War melted somewhat. In 1960, Khrushchev met with Eisenhower in Paris and praised the American president for his wisdom and love for the world. Such a step was unprecedented for a Soviet leader. Two weeks later, however, the U.S.-Soviet talks broke off following the U-2 spy plane incident. The American plane was shot down by the Soviet Union and pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured. This incident became one of the single biggest conflicts in the Cold War. However, even this did not stop Khrushchev from substantially reducing Soviet armed forces. Both leaders, Khrushchev and Eisenhower, personally knew war and deeply hated it. The personal attitudes of the two men had a crucial role in bipolar relations and made the American National Exhibition – and all of its resulting effects – possible.

Notes


[1]Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997): 161-2.
[2] Yale Richmond, Cultural Exchange and The Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003): 14.

[3]Hans N. Tuch, "Remembering Sokolniki Park," Speech (Moscow: Whirled View, July 23, 2009)
[4] Dorothy Tuttle, "Official Training Book for Guides at the American National Exhibition in Moscow," USIA (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 25, 1959): 11.
[5]  Barrie Robyn Jakabovics, Displaying American Abundance Abroad: The Misinterpretation of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow (New York: Barnarad College, 2007):
[6] Tuttle, Official Training Book, 9.
[7] James Schwoch, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-6 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008): 95.
[8] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon, Making American Art (London: Routledge, 2009): 83.
[9] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon, Making American Art (London: Routledge, 2009): 83.
[10] Helena Lewis, "Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists: Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars ," Art Journal 52, no. 1 (1993): 61-68.
[11] Helena Lewis, "Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists: Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars ," Art Journal 52, no. 1 (1993): 61-68.
[12]  Sang Hun Lee, New Essentials of Unification Thought: Head-Wing Thought (Tokyo: Unification Thought Institute-Japan, 2005).
[13] Robert Short, "The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-36," Journal of Contemporary History 1, no. 2 (1966): 3-25.
[14]  Monroe C. Beardsley, "On Art and the Definitions of Art: A Symposium on the Definitions of Art," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 2 ( 1961): 175-187.
[15] Gretchen Simms, The 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and the Soviet Artistic Reaction to the Abstract Art, Dissertation (Vienna: Kunstgeschichte, 2007).
[16]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[17] Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[18]  Karal Ann Marling, As seen on TV: the visual culture of everyday life in the 1950s (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).
[19]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[20]Life, Kitchen Talk in Moscow (March 16, 1962): 100.
[21] Life, Kitchen Talk in Moscow (March 16, 1962): 100.
[22] "Made in USA - in Red Capital," US News and World Report, August 3, 1959: 38.
[23] Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 5, 2010).
[24]  Nikita Khrushchev, Time, People, Power: Memoirs., Vol. 3, 4 vols. (Moscow: Moscow News, 1999): 376.
[25]  Nikita Khrushchev, Time, People, Power: Memoirs., Vol. 3, 4 vols. (Moscow: Moscow News, 1999): 375.
[26]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 8 5, 2010).