The Imperial Age of American Art

Lewis Lapham reflects on a lifetime of involvement in the arts in Guernica magazine. At first glance his essay looks like a standard American-culture-has-been-in-a-steady-decline-since-I-was-twenty of someone who’s grown tired of trying to understand the new. Lapham’s twist, however, is that he regards his experience as “an accident of birth.” Lapham came of age during the 1950s, a unique period in American culture. Before World War II, art was held in generally low esteem in American culture. Benjamin Franklin sneered, “one schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets.” During the 1960s, however, artists started turning themselves into media stars peddling cheap sensations. Audiences became “a constituency in the market for distraction.” Art is now something to be collected, not appreciated.

Fresh from its triumph over fascism, America in the 1950s, Lapham claims, was a swaggering hegemon that couldn’t tell an arpeggio from a meatball sandwich. Ordinarily, no one would care, but the Soviet Union started spreading rumors that the US was little more than “a materialist wasteland inhabited by gum-chewing shoe salesmen, lynchers of negroes ignorant of the works of Gramsci and Lukács.”

Offended, President Eisenhower did what any culturally refined American would do: He called the CIA. The agency started staging exhibits of American art everywhere History and Class Consciousness
was sold, which meant the capitals of Western Europe. If the exhibits were covert operations, their message was overt:

No, by God, America was a great country, as rich in artists as it was in steel or corn, and here to prove it on the wall in Paris is the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock—a real American from Cody, Wyoming, not a Hungarian refugee or a Princeton homosexual; virility incarnate, reckless and heavy-drinking, a fountain of acrylic orgasm; just the sort of fellow to represent the virtues of free enterprise, and whose paintings, nonfigurative and incoherent, embodied the antithesis of Soviet socialist realism.

If you want to see the last vestige of the Imperial Age of American Art, visit the American embassy in London, with its delicate lattice work facade and menacing eagle perched on the roof. The Eero Saarinen-designed embassy will soon be replaced by a fortress-like building designed by Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake. The proposed embassy in London demonstrates that America still occasionally wields art as an ideological weapon, only now the rules of engagement have changed. As far the old battles with the Soviets are concerned, we won. Now American art is now avidly collected by Russian billionaires.

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