From Arendt to Presley to Baldwin

This week: a conversation with Louis Menand about art and culture during the first two decades of the Cold War. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

John Cage, whose Buddhism-inspired work opened up paths for avant-garde music, advanced a kind of art that didn’t need traditional notions of creative genius. He reflected:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Cage is a main character in the monumental new book from New Yorker writer and Harvard professor Louis Menand. That book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, tracks the stories of writers and artists who, Cage-like, were seized by the post-war era’s currents and rode its unpredictable waves to new sorts of expression.

Louis Menand.

So many of the figures in Menand’s history—like Elvis Presley, or Jackson Pollock and his critical guide Clement Greenberg—stumbled into greatness, whether in music or drip painting. Menand says on our show:

What’s also interesting about these stories is there’s just so much that’s just accidental and serendipitous, that was never planned for. So in the case of the drip paintings: when Pollock married Lee Krasner, they moved out to this place called Springs, which is in the Hamptons. At a time when it was cheap to live there. And in this new house, the walls were not large enough for Pollock to stretch a canvas. This is the story.

So he puts it on the floor and he starts throwing paint on it. He usually used either a brush or a stick. Then they renovate this barn on the property and he moves his studio in there. And Greenberg comes out to visit them and he encourages Pollock to continue painting with a canvas on the floor, which Pollock does. So for three and a half years from probably spring or summer of 1947 to the late fall of 1950, Pollock makes these unbelievable paintings.

In Menand’s book, a major historical turn inclined people toward such discoveries. After World War II, the U.S. (with the rest of the world), became justifiably anxious about the threat of totalitarianism. The response to that threat: a renewed, if uneasy, commitment to intellectual and cultural freedom.

George Orwell.

Particularly after George Orwell’s 1984, Menand says,

This anxiety that totalitarianism is in the, basically, DNA of modern societies is everywhere. People worry about the world becoming fascistic, about the world becoming communistic. And it colors the way people talk about everything: art, ideas, music, literature, and that’s part of what characterizes this immediate postwar period.

Menand brings all this together over hundreds of pages, encompassing Elvis, Susan Sontag, The Beatles, Richard Wright, and more. One figure from the period who linked the highbrow with the low was Andy Warhol, whose work took its own liberties with the supposed freedoms of consumer capitalism. See, for instance those paintings of soup cans. Here’s Menand:

I think the concept seems very banal to us now, but I think in 1962 it was not banal . . . you could go to a supermarket and buy Campbell’s Soup or you could go to an art gallery by a painting of Campbell’s Soup and there’s no difference. It’s just a consumer product.

Warhol’s soup cans.

Later on, after 1968, Warhol actually inhabits this whole idea of business art. But even 1962, the artist’s a businessman. He or she manufactures a product, puts it for sale in a store that specializes in that product, in this case an art gallery, and you can go buy it. And if you’re lucky, it’ll appreciate in value and you can sell it to a museum.

One of Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

The Brillo box is a more complicated idea. I think there were three hundred boxes that were painted to look like cartons in a kind of supermarket warehouse. So it would be a big carton in which Brillo boxes would be packed. There was one for I think tomato juice and one for Del Monte’s peaches or whatever. There were four or five different brands.

An actual Brillo box advertised on Amazon.

The thing about the Brillo box is that people say, well, Duchamp has already done this because Duchamp had found objects, the urinal’s the most famous example, it’s called Fountain, and he put them in an archive without changing them at all. And he called them readymades. And of course the idea is that in a hardware store, a snow shovel is just a snow shovel. But if I take snow shovel and put it in an art gallery or museum, it becomes a work of art. But but it’s identical to a snow shovel that I bought in the hardware store. The Brillo boxes look like that. But they’re not actually found objects. They’re painted, they’re faux readymades. What Warhol was doing was playing a game with Duchamp’s idea of the found object as an artwork, by making an artwork that looked like a found object.

Watch: Pauline Kael

Louis Menand’s book details the conflict over auteur theory (the idea that a movie is the product of an individual director’s genius) between critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Over on Youtube, you can watch some interviews with Kael about film and writing, to get a sense of the voice—beyond rigid theories—that defined her criticism. For Kael, movies called for an idiosyncratic literary thinking: “I think movies are as primarily verbal as visual,” she says in the clip linked here.

Watch: James Baldwin

James Baldwin, another main character of the Menand epic, made unforgettable appearances on television, including on The Dick Cavett Show — you can find those on YouTube as well, including Baldwin’s debate with the Yale Sterling professor of philosophy (a professor of Cavett’s) Paul Weiss, on racism in America.

Watch: John Lennon Interviewed in Sweden

Part of Menand’s story is the global nature of American culture in the Cold War. On a related point: see some obscure Beatles footage here, about Lennon the writer and more.

This week’s ephemeral library

Oscar front-runner Nomadland’s flaws might run deeper than the Amazon stuff. Michael Chabon on Scott Rudin and workplace cruelty. Bitcoin vs. the environment. George Bush Can’t Paint His Way Out of Hell. I’ve asked my 3rd year illustration students at@sva to come up with a post-pandemic New Yorker magazine cover. Joe Trippi recounts a delightful story about Fritz Mondale that will make you smile and tear up a bit.

That’s all for this week, folks. Get those shots in arms!

The OS Free Thinkers

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.