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G. Roger Denson’s second essay on  Leftist political art covers the period from the end of the Second World War to the middle of the 1960s, an era of rapid political and cultural change.  His survey is world-wide and very thorough and I’ll limit my discussion to three strictly American aspects of it; Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and the treatment of Race in America.

I’m not sure that I buy into Denson’s contention that humanity was conscious of a radically changed world at the end of WWII. My parents and their siblings were of that generation and most were veterans and they fully expected things to return to normal after the war, albeit with better economic opportunities available. The gravity of the nuclear age would take awhile to dawn on them.

I don’t know if the things that happened in the 1930s and 40s, like the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking, were really all that new or if people just had better access to information. The Armenian Massacre, for which the word “genocide” was coined, dates back to 1915. The wholesale extermination of large numbers of people go way back in human history, but the technology to kill large numbers of people in a short time didn’t really develop until the 20th Century. Still, genocides with body counts in the tens of thousands date back to the 12th Century AD. China had it’s own massacre involving up to 800,000 victims in 1645, although it took ten days to pull off.

My belief is that humans have always been a brutal and vengeful lot but that we are the first among our kind to enjoy the 24-hour news cycle. If the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred today instead of in 1572, MSNBC would have a live feed and there would be videos all over Youtube. Our own massacres, and there were many, would be blacked out or sanitized in some way but likely still reported.

Still, even if rank-and-file Americans were only vaguely aware of how different our world became in 1945, we were profoundly changed nonetheless. Our politics became more reactionary, our culture more conformist (captured so elegantly in Rene Magritte’s painting below), and our fear of the political Left more paranoid. Realist and socially conscious art gave way to the first great Art Movement that was fully American: Abstract Expressionism.

Golconde (Rene Magritte - 1953)

I’ve never had much love for Abstract Expressionist art. No matter, I have to recognize it for what it was: a repudiation of modernism and realism which, so the theory goes, had failed to predict or prevent the horrible things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s and, even worse, had become mere propaganda in the hands of oppressive, anti-American governments. There’s some truth to this, although it’s hard to view American social realism in this light since it was pretty much swept aside in the McCarthy years of the early 1950s.

The work of the expressionists is described using words like freedom and spirituality. It was a perfect metaphor for the times. Here in America, we were so free that we could paint nothing at all and people would buy it. In Russia, they would burn things like that. The Nazis rounded up people who painted like that and sent them off to Auschwitz. We embraced expressionism.  It wasn’t political at all, so it didn’t offend anyone, at least politically.

No. 5 (Jackson Pollock - 1948)

I’ve stood in front of dozens of Pollocks, Gorkys, de Koonings, and Rothkos and taken them in for, well, minutes.

Untitled (Mark Rothko - 1953-54)

I confess that while I find some of them pleasant to look at and soothing in a strange way, I don’t get it. Some of them I find nervous and a little disturbing, especially the de Kooning below, one of a series of equally hideous, grotesque paintings.

Woman #3 (Willem de Kooning - 1953)

It’s evident that my distaste for this work betrays my ignorance about art, since the Pollock and the de Kooning are the two most expensive paintings ever sold, coming in at, respectively, $156.8 million and $154 million, adjusted for inflation. Richer, smarter people like this stuff, so it has to be good.

Just as Abstract Expressionism was spawned by earlier movements, Pop Art is the child of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art grew in response to the development of American consumer culture, although I can never quite figure out if Pop Artists are celebrating it or condemning it. Regardless, it’s far less humorless than Abstract Expressionism and more diverse, so diverse in fact that I’m not sure many of the artists we place in the Pop category really belong there.

Pop Art, to me, is pretty dull. I’ve written elsewhere that I’m no big fan of Andy Warhol, the one figure most associated with the movement. Warhol was no doubt enormously talented, but I’m thinking that his main talent was not as an artist but as a hustler who was constantly on the move for fame and money. He’s deified in the Art World but I find his work, in the main, incredibly unchallenging even by the low standards of the genre. Still, Warhol is a member of the $100 million club, along with Pollock and de Kooning, after his “Eight Elvises” sold for that sum at an auction in 2008.

Eight Evises (Andy Warhol - 1963)

The problem for me is not so much that Pop Art is vapid. I’m certainly not offended by Warhol’s empty celebrity silkscreens or his ridiculous soup cans. I don’t mind so much Jasper Johns’ flags or Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book excerpts. The problem is that it seems to me to be not so much playful but deeply cynical. I’m not sure what Warhol was trying to say with Eight Elvises, or even if he was trying to say anything at all. I am reminded of the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes and wonder if Pop Art was a product of enough people saying how great it was for enough time. It is now so deeply embedded in the Art World’s DNA that it’s never coming out.

In stark contrast to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art we have the art of race in American, exemplified by the works of Jacob Lawrence , Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden. When a generation of American blacks returned home from the war in 1945, they were disillusioned, even a little rebellious, about their subjugation by dominant white culture. They served their country alongside their white counterparts and they were no longer willing to live as a dominated subclass. The work of these African-American artists helped forge black identity in America and support a growing civil rights movement that still struggles for racial equality.

Sharecropper (Elizabeth Catlett - 1952)

It’s interesting to me that while mainstream art  in America during this period busied itself with rejecting or escaping the realities that confronted contemporary society, minority artists were reaching out to their people to foster a sense of pride and resilience in the face of adversity. I have to wonder what kind of society we might have if everyone had turned their attention to the pressing problems of the day instead of watching television and conducting air raid drills.

Nativity (Jacob Lawrence - 1954)

So there you have it, the snapshot of the State of American Art circa 1945 – 1966. Two very different trajectories leading us to two very different places. I look forward to find out where Denson is taking us next.

One Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Conceptual Art.

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