Books

Dismantling the Narrative of Soviet Socialist Realism Versus American Abstract Expressionism

A new book injects nuance into reductive historical interpretations of how the Cold War affected global art in the second half of the 20th century.

<em><Global Art and the Cold War</em> by John J. Curley (image courtesy Laurence King Publishing Ltd)
Global Art and the Cold War, by John J. Curley (image courtesy Laurence King Publishing Ltd)

It’s easy to characterize twentieth-century Cold War history as simply two master narratives pitted against each other: American-style democratic capitalism versus Soviet-style communism, both struggling to fill the power vacuum left in Europe after World War II. 

In all of its various stages — the Korean War in the early 1950s, the various Soviet invasions and CIA-orchestrated events in the 1950s-60s, the détante of the 1970s, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — the Cold War was as much a battle over the interpretation of the world and a harbinger of postmodernism as it was the defining political-military struggle of the late 20th century. In virtually every industry, from science and technology to literature and philosophy, each extreme worked to define the other.

In art, the binaries of the Cold War were stylistically codified as American Abstraction versus Soviet Socialist Realism. But like so many things, the continuum between these two Cold War master narrative endpoints is complex and nuanced. There is no better way to understand how global art movements reflected and refracted their socioeconomic and political contexts than to peel back the matryoshka-like layers of these contexts. And there is no better book to do so than John J. Curley’s Global Art and the Cold War (Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2018.) 

While there are plenty of military, political, economic, and social histories of the Cold War, Global Art and the Cold War might be the first comprehensive account of how the Cold War impacted global art between 1945 and 1990. Through its analysis of over 100 works of art from around the world from America, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, it offers a truly international perspective on diverse cohorts of artists. It goes beyond analysis of various works, offering a crisp, thought-provoking history of how each artwork was made and tracking its legacy in the decades after its creation. 

“The Cold War is the central story of the second half of the twentieth century – essential for explaining what happened around the world and why,” Curley notes in the book’s introduction. “While the global situation was more complicated, this binary conception of the world [American Abstraction versus Soviet Socialist Realism] nevertheless wielded significant historical consequences.” 

Global Art and the Cold War is organized chronologically, opening with Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” painted in 1950, which, Curley writes, “came to emblematize a specifically American freedom of expression.” Pollock’s abstract expressionist work is juxtaposed with its aesthetic opposite:  Fedor S. Shurpin’s “The Morning of our Native Land” (1948), a glorifying portrait of Josef Stalin standing in a fertile field. “Such dreamworlds are the stuff of Socialist Realism, which dictated that artists should paint not how things actually are, but how they should be,” Curley writes of Shurpin’s work, which, upon its completion, was awarded the Stalin Prize, then the highest honor for artists in the Soviet Union.  Curley’s careful study of each painting builds connections, for the reader, between artists and related paintings around the world. 

In other words, it’s not enough to just categorize works into specific genres; it’s necessary, Curley argues, to understand the shared beginnings of each genre in order to understand their sometimes criss-crossing trajectories.  This approach requires analyzing details in each art piece with painstaking specificity. But it offers a rich history to readers through the shared historic nodes of particular exhibitions, publications, and showings. 

Perhaps the most compelling chapter of Global Art and the Cold War is “The Cold War and Global Pop Art,” in which Curley explains how inextricably intertwined technology was with the Pop art of the Cold War. (For readers interested in a detailed history of the political dimensions of science and technology during the Cold War, I recommend Audra Wolfe’s recent book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle For the Soul of Science, reviewed here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.) 

Curley’s analysis of the Pop art movement during the 1960s is particularly fascinating as it reaches one of those shared moments of history — the Pop movement — and shows how it “dismantled the Cold War’s rigid boundaries, both artistic and political” as well as serving a “didactic function” to “slow down vision and educate the Cold War eye.” By introducing science, technology, and a global popular culture as hybrid-media subjects in Pop pieces (for example, Andy Warhol’s “Green Disaster #2,” 1963, or Ilya Kabakov’s “Pipe, Stick, Ball, and Fly,” 1966), Curley underscores the universality of artists grappling with the uncertainties that ideologies of the 1960s offered.  Curley’s inclusion of pieces like Raúl Martínez’s “Oye America (Listen America),” 1967, from Cuba; El Anatsui’s “Writing on the Wall II,” 1979, from Nigeria; and many other global artists demonstrate that Cold War art is not simply the prevue of only the United State and the former Soviet Union. 

In shifting our understanding of Cold War art away from easy binaries (communism versus capitalism; American Abstraction versus Socialist Realism) and towards nuance and complexity, Global Art and the Cold War offers an important and timely examination of how art helped shape history in the mid-to-late twentieth-century. 

Global Art and the Cold War by John J. Curley is available from Amazon and other selected booksellers. 

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