Sinking Statue of Liberty: Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

Is Louis Menand Right About the Death of Art and Thought in America?

For intellectual historian Louis Menand, the Cold War gave rise to prospects and paradoxes in America, and Art was given status through essential criticism.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 2021

There are two narratives about the relationship of the past to the present: things are getting better. And: things are getting worse.

The first part of the Cold War, from about 1947 to 1968, might also be the primal scene of the contemporary culture war that the American Left and Right have been waging since then-candidate Donald Trump unveiled his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”.

Again? When was it great, and when did it stop being so? The answer, never made explicit, seems to trace America’s “greatness” to the immediate aftermath of World War II, a golden age for the country that coincided with the rise of the suburban, car-driving, TV-watching, white working-class nuclear family, concomitant with the prospect of nuclear war. “Again” suggests that things have been getting worse ever since.

The flipside to this argument is, of course, the identities and rights of the many people excluded from this Golden Age narrative: women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, people with disabilities, those struggling with addiction and mental health, and perhaps, anyone related to them. When these groups agitated for further rights through the activism of the 1960s, then, things started getting better: “Forward Together”, according to one of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogans.  

What if, however, as Louis Menand implies in his extraordinary, voluminous work of intellectual history, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, it was during the Cold War, a period nearly synonymous with conformity, paranoia, redbaiting, and McCarthyism, that American thought, film, music, art, and literary criticism thrived? Despite, as Menand is quick to note, poverty, disenfranchisement, restrictive immigration policies, and that “American citizens were persecuted and sometimes prosecuted for their political views,” what if it was also a Golden Age, not for regressive reasons, but because, as Menand declares, in what is for me his thesis statement and manifesto moment, “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered. The way people judged and interpreted paintings, movies, and poems mattered.”

For Menand, the Cold War gave rise to prospects and paradoxes. While the book indeed discusses ideas, painting, films, poems, and more, Menand’s real interest and emphasis are on the very act in which Menand himself is engaging” emphasizing the importance, the value, and urgency, of criticism. “The way people judged and interpreted paintings, movies, and poems mattered.”

It is not just, or even primarily, the improvements in the production and distribution of art, music, and books that compels Menand. “Most striking,” he writes, “was the nature of the audience: people cared.” Even more so, as Menand sneaks into parenthesis, he wants to validate the point and purpose of his own endeavor. As he tells us in what is ostensibly his chapter about political theorist Isaiah Berlin, “Intellectual history explains art and ideas by examining the conditions of their production and reception (as this book tries to).” 

And so, the book chronicles topic after topic, chapter by chapter, famous name by famous name—Hannah Arendt, Jackson Pollock, Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Elvis Presley, John Cage, Andy Warhol, Pauline Kael – and that’s just cherry-picking the blurb, just scratching the surface. But instead of analyzing their work, Menand humanizes these larger-than-life personas through insightful, deft mini-portraits, even if the effect is, frequently, to shrink them.

So, the early chapter about French Existentialism, ostensibly meant to foreground and connect multiple meanings of the title’s “freedom”—freedom from Nazi occupation, leading to Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of radical freedom—focuses far less on philosophy than, say, the aspects of Sartre that, not surprisingly, might not come across from reading Being and Nothingness, worth quoting at length:

Sartre was five feet two inches tall. He had lost almost all the sight in his right eye from a cold he caught when he was three of four—hence the strabismus, which made him wall-eyed. He dressed in oversized and flamboyant clothes, with no sense of fashion, and he was indifferent to hygiene. He was conscious of his ugliness—he often talked about it—but it was the kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it…. He was also smart, generous, mild-mannered, extremely funny, and a great talker. After the war, when he had acquired a reputation as a formidable intellectual, strangers were often amazed by his affability. Sartre liked other people to like him—which, in social situations, can be almost as good as liking other people. He was a gifted mimic, he looked surprisingly good in drag, and he did a great Donald Duck impression.

I’ve read and taught Sartre, and thought I knew Sartre, but much of this paragraph was news to me. Menand, as evinced here, is after much more than these giants’ intellectual and artistic contributions, which, if you weren’t familiar with them, you won’t learn about them here; the book grew out of a college course Menand taught at Harvard, where, presumably, students viewed, listened to, and read the primary sources, in conjunction with learning their backstory and connections. The title’s “freedom”, then, becomes a kind of nonfiction McGuffin; in searching for it, the idea of “freedom” allows Menand to write about the people and topics that simply interest him, in the way that interests him, and in a way that lets him celebrate and elevate cultural criticism and intellectual history.  

His chapter ostensibly on Jackson Pollock becomes about the painter”s relationship with art critic Clement Greenberg, and the coterie of critics who, for Menand, made Pollock who he is today. In August 1949, when Life magazine ran an article with the headline “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” that is the moment the artist breaks through. Without critics, without context, without analysis, Pollack instead may have been remembered as the guy who merely spattered paint, if he was remembered at all.

Similarly, but in far more detail, involving a mind-boggling amount of research (the Notes alone number 84 tiny type, double-column pages), we learn that art critic Leo Steinberg was instrumental to the reception of Jasper Johns, that Robert de Graff’s launch of Pocket Books in 1939 ultimately led to Samuel Beckett’s fame in America, and that New Criticism and university English departments led to the poetry anthologies that would shape the American canon and college curriculum for decades to come.

In keeping, the chapter about Elvis is as much about rock reception and criticism as it is about music and musicians. Like all of the chapters in The Free World, this one is about the subject’s big personality. But digs much deeper; in this case into the rise of youth culture, music publishing rights, race, and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, and Elvis’ eclipse by the Beatles.

Billy Joel lamented that “you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine”, but for Menand, Creem, Melody Maker, and Rolling Stone “established the persona of the rock critic,” and the rock critic “is someone who understands the music as part of a narrative of postwar social history.” “Rock criticism,” Menand again semi-sneaks in, considering the potential controversy surrounding this idea, “is what made rock ‘n’ roll a cultural winner.”

The penultimate chapter is one of the best of many set pieces in this work. It’s also a reversal of nearly everything in the previous 670 pages, with the behind-the-scenes analysis of film critic Pauline Kael’s revisionism of the up until then much-maligned 1967 film, Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie and Clyde. “It has sometimes been said that with that piece [her 7,000-word essay in the New Yorker], Pauline Kael saved Bonnie and Clyde. That is not what happened. What happened is that Bonnie and Clyde saved Pauline Kael.” But in either case, the relationship of the critic and the art is symbiotic and indispensable.

Why did this golden age of criticism and its audience end? When I began The Free World, I was not sure why Menand opened with a biographical chapter about George Kennan, architect of American Cold War policy. Yes, it set up his framework, but compared with the cavalcade of artists, writers, and musicians who follow, it seemed like burying the lede, if such a thing can be said of an 850+ page tome.

However, 700 pages later, the point became clear. American culture, even artistic and intellectual opposition, had been part of the CIA and US policy Kennan instituted: “The Agency believed, not unreasonably, that the fact that dissent was tolerated in the United States was a major Cold War selling point.” Menand, then, concludes with the damage the Vietnam War had on the reputation, the selling point, of the United States: “It meant that a whole generation grew up looking on the United States as an imperialist, militarist, and racist power.”

Meanwhile, “the Vietnamese Communists did what totalitarian regimes do: they took over the schools and universities; they shut down the press; they pursued programs of enforced relocation and reeducation; they imprisoned, tortured, and executed their former enemies.” Perhaps, in the face of atrocity, and after a decade of assassinations and the loss of trust in institutions, it was too hard for “the way peopled judged and interpreted paintings, movies, and poems” to continue to matter.

Menand, then, would also like to make America great again. His brand of nostalgia is, of course, very different from Trump’s. Or is it?

At the end of the Preface, Menand tells us that “as you have probably guessed, this is the period I grew up in. I was born in 1952.” Trump was born in 1946, Hillary Clinton in 1947. When Gen Z writes its own nostalgic intellectual history, in whatever medium people are expressing ideas in, say, 2070, perhaps they will look at the YouTubers, the Instagram influencers, the Twitter verified users, and the TikTok celebrities, and revere the interactions between content creators and consumers, the porousness and permeability between performers and fan cultures, the immediacy and powerful emotional resonance that art and entertainment has. The way Pandemic People judged and interpreted memes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and miniseries mattered, they will elegize.

Who knows what the world will look like by then? Things are getting worse. Things are getting better.