Friday, May 14, 2021

American art and thought during the Cold War

George Scilabba, Free and Worldly, The Baffler, May 2021, reviewing Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.

Some people and ideas:

Menand gives a lengthy but concise and penetrating sketch, both biographical and intellectual, of Sartre and Beauvoir. That is his modus operandi. Though there’s plenty of connective tissue, the book essentially consists of a very large number of profiles of such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, David Riesman, Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg, C. Wright Mills, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Claude Lévi-Strauss, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin, I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Ralph Ellison, Pauline Kael, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Tom Hayden, as well as quite a few only slightly less luminous figures. In addition, there are many sketches, pretty full and mostly even-handed, of influential institutions, movements, and doctrines, such as the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, UNESCO’s The Family of Man exhibit, “Action” painting, structuralism, the Beats, the New Criticism, deconstruction, Industrial Art, Cahiers du Cinéma, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the rise of the rock-and-roll industry, the rise of the paperback book industry (with special attention to Grove Press and Olympia Press), the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Vietnam War, and Bonnie and Clyde. It is possible to quibble with some of his judgments (as I’ll do in a moment). But it’s not possible, I’d say, to read the book without learning a vast amount about twentieth-century intellectual history.

Menand plays his cards pretty close to the vest, ideologically. He is however, notably indulgent toward eminent centrists. Kennan is one example; another is Isaiah Berlin.

Some reservations:

I’m afraid Menand didn’t convince me that Warhol is even worth arguing about—I half-suspect he made those extravagant claims for Pop Art just to get a rise out of reviewers. Susan Sontag is another matter. “She had been educated at Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford . . . She had a command of the Western literary, philosophical, and classical music canon; she was up to date on Continental thought; she was a dedicated cinéaste who often saw two or three movies a day; and she followed the avant-garde . . . She also wrote experimental fiction.” Menand, who is strictly measured in his praise of nearly everyone else, is unmeasured in his praise of Sontag. “There was no one like her.” She was “in the forefront of American letters.” “Every other American critic of the period looks provincial by comparison.”

How good was Sontag? Her experimental fiction, as Menand half-admits, was barbarously bad. Her conventional fiction was good but not outstanding. On Photography, Illness As Metaphor, and AIDS and Its Metaphors were intermittently interesting, but hardly the brilliant revelations some of her admirers claimed. Her most interesting and enduring work is in her five essay collections. Many of the essays are fine: on Bresson, Camus, “The Pornographic Imagination,” Riefenstahl, Walter Benjamin, Victor Serge, “On Style,” others. There are quite a few political pronouncements, usually wise and eloquent. But she is generally considered a literary critic, and virtually none of her essays, I would say, is literary criticism. They are literary history, literary journalism, literary theory, literary reflections, sometimes, as I have said, very good. But almost nowhere does she grapple with a poem or novel or film or painting or piece of music and show us, from the inside, how it works: how, precisely, it achieves the effects it does. Menand suggests that that’s an outdated idea of literary criticism, the so-called New Criticism, which Paul de Man allegedly rendered obsolete with his dazzling deconstructive approach. But de Man, too, was a literary theorist and historian rather than a critic; when he actually essayed interpreting a text, the results were not impressive. [...]

Sontag is perhaps the key figure in The Free World, or at any rate the one Menand admires most. But he must sense that there’s something a little unstable about her reputation, because his discussion is largely defensive: noting and answering criticisms of her.

Still: "It will be a long time, I imagine, before a better account of art and thought in mid-twentieth-century America appears."

H/t 3QD.

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