The Artistic Triumph Of New York

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The germ of truth that Gilbaut elaborates (and distorts) is to be found in this oracular utterance of Clement Greenberg: “Some day it will have to be told how anti-Stalinism which started out more or less as Trotskyism turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” What I have against Guilbaut’s theory is its onesidedness, the way it simplifies and exaggerates for the sake of a sensational effect or an idée fixe . Readers of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art —and there are many, since it is in wide use as a college textbook—must imagine that Abstract Expressionism was immediately welcomed by the wielders of American power. Not so. Harry Truman made his one famous crack about modern art in 1948: It all looked like “scrambled eggs” to him. (He made the remark when an exhibition of contemporary American painting organized by the State Department and sent to Europe was returned home in disgrace after the work had been denounced by a rightwing congressman from Michigan.) Government support of the arts helped the next generation: New York-school poets and second-generation painters were direct beneficiaries of enlightened government programs, such as the GI Bill (which sent O’Hara and Koch to Harvard) and the Fulbright fellowships (which sent Koch and Ashbery to Europe). “I was a GI Bill bard,” says Koch. But first-generation Abstract Expressionists had no such luck.

 

I have no trouble accepting the notion that the Abstract Expressionists embodied American freedom, though Serge Guilbaut makes that sound like an unsavory CIA conspiracy. In fact, the painters defined themselves in Emersonian terms of self-reliance, on the strength of their conviction, unsponsored, free. Guilbaut claims that “artistic rebellion was transformed into aggressive liberal ideology” by “politicians” who “assimilated, utilized, and co-opted” the values of the avant-garde. This bald statement implies a relationship between politicians and paintings that did not exist. Indeed, the identification of Washington with the cause of modern art would have baffled and probably antagonized both sides of the issue. Far from regarding Abstract Expressionism in the light of the propaganda advantage it might bestow in Europe, Washington had banished modern art from the banquet table.

As for the artists, with the exception of Clyfford Still, they remained leftists. The painters in rejecting political art were not exactly embracing the values of the Eisenhower administration. “Politics per se, the news of the world at large, were often a passionate concern, but these considerations were apart from the passionate concerns of art,” Helen Frankenthaler recalls. “Striving to make beautiful new paintings that worked was one issue; McCarthyism, the Cold War, were something else. When art is really beautiful and moving, it brings with it not only growing pleasure but also a sense of truth. This truth, this reality—something so spiritual and unnameable, unprovable—is and has always been a political force in itself. Any other kind of political persuasion is usually empty fashion, or dangerous, or. both.”

The repudiation of a political mandate was one of the grounding principles of Abstract Expressionism. The New York school liberated painting from the social agenda of the 1930s, which had been ineffectual politically and had led to mediocre art. The painters had grasped the radical idea that an embattled avant-garde needn’t have any political orientation, just as painting itself needn’t be (and shouldn’t be) mere illustration. It is a sharptoothed irony that this school of painting, so intent on emancipating the aesthetic from servitude to the political, so emphatic in asserting the rights of the individual, should be subjected to a study in art history that virtually eliminates the artist in favor of the political forces manipulating us all.

The triumph of Abstract Expressionism is to be understood not as a minor instance of Cold War politics but as a major moment in the creative and intellectual life of New York City at its zenith as an art capital. We today might look at this moment with wonderment and nostalgia. But understanding what happened involves more than a heady whiff of the risk and the thrill of new possibilities refreshing the arts. It also means confronting some decisive changes in the very nature and purpose of art. As the twentieth century began, art was charged with a function it had never had before: It was to be a substitute for religion. By mid-century, art was being asked to serve as a replacement for politics as well. This was perhaps a burden that no art could ultimately bear, and the relative poverty of the visual arts today admonishes us to be a little skeptical of the claims made forty and fifty years ago, though it is easy enough to get intoxicated in the atmosphere of that era, so recent yet so far away.