‘The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War,’ by Louis Menand: An Excerpt

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A fifth of the population lived in poverty. The enfranchisement of Black Americans and the opening of economic opportunity to women did little to lessen the dominance in virtually every sphere of life of white men. A spirit of American exceptionalism was widespread, as was a quasi-official belief in something called “the American way of life,” based on an image of normativity that was (to put it mildly) not inclusive.

The culture industries, as they expanded, absorbed and commercialized independent and offbeat culture-makers, and the university, as it expanded, swallowed up the worlds of creative writing and dissident political opinion. At the end of this period, the country plunged into a foreign war of national independence from which it could not extricate itself for eight years. When it finally did, in the 1970s, growth leveled off, the economy entered a painful period of adjustment, ideological differences sharpened, and the income gap began rapidly increasing. The United States grew wary of foreign commitments, and other countries grew wary of the United States.

And yet, something had happened. An enormous change in America’s relations with the rest of the world had taken place. In 1945, there was widespread skepticism, even among Americans, about the value and sophistication of American art and ideas, and widespread respect for the motives and intentions of the American government. After 1965, those attitudes were reversed. The United States lost political credibility, but it had moved from the periphery to the center of an increasing international artistic and intellectual life.

[ Return to the review of “The Free World.” ]

Cultures get transformed not deliberately or programmatically but by the unpredictable effects of social, political, and technological change, and by random acts of cross-pollination. Ars longa is the ancient proverb, but actually, art making is short-term. It is a response to changes in the immediate environment and the consequence of serendipitous street-level interactions. Between 1945 and 1965, the rate of serendipity increased, and the environment changed dramatically. So did art and thought.

The transformation of American culture after 1945 was not accomplished entirely by Americans. It came about through exchanges with thinkers and artists from around the world, from the British Isles, France, Germany, and Italy, from Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean, from decolonizing states in Africa and Asia, from India and Japan. Some of these people were émigrés and exiles (in one case, a fugitive), and some never visited. Many of the American artists and writers were themselves the children of immigrants. Even in an era of restrictive immigration policies and geopolitical tensions, art and ideas got around. The artistic and intellectual culture that emerged in the United States after the Second World War was not an American product. It was the product of the Free World.