Against the hegemony of American art

Against the hegemony of American art

In his brief essay L’Europe fantôme (2019), Régis Debray noted the following: “the great industrialist from across the Atlantic now reigns over four-fifths of Europe’s movie screens, two-thirds of all its music on the radio and almost all of its modern art galleries”. Regardless of whether we love it or not a question nevertheless arises: how did Europe get to be so culturally integrated? How was American art able to achieve such dominance not just in France but in all of Europe? Could this success simply be due to the actual superiority of American artists?

François Lévy-Kuentz’s recent documentary The Hidden Face of American Art, attempts to answer these questions. The film shows how the United States took advantage of Europe’s fragile state following World War II and the Cold War to promote and establish their artists. “Power is the ability to rule the imagination” said Necker. The CIA understood that concept and began developing a major cultural initiative almost immediately after the war was over. The resulting Marshall Plan had economic objectives. Its driving force was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) whose president Nelson Rockefeller, the executive secretary and some members of the board all worked for the CIA. The plan’s mission was for American painters to challenge the influence of communist European painters like Pablo Picasso and Fernande Léger.

Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist artist that Nelson Rockefeller (who was also president of the Chase Manhattan Bank) described as “the painter of free enterprise…” was the lucky person chosen for the mission. The owner of Life magazine was also approached. After being asked, he agreed to assume responsibility for promoting Jackson Pollock. From that moment on, the artist’s wife acknowledged, “everything had taken another dimension”. The American propaganda machine had been set in motion. The MoMA, which managed the American pavilion at the Venice Biennial, only showed paintings that emerged from abstract expressionism and action painting in particular. Through private foundations (Ford, Fairfield, etc.), the CIA provided funding for major travelling exhibitions of American painters as well as symposiums and journals. In 1953 President Eisenhower created the USIA, an information agency which was given a colossal $2 million budget. Its mission was to “influence the foreign public in the goal of promoting national interest”. The plan to conquer hearts and minds proved successful. The agency was finally dissolved in 1999 but not necessarily the American activism.

This overview of the facts is of significance. Knowing that propaganda had a role in the success that some American artists achieved leads to questioning the legitimacy of their hegemony. However, it’s not about defending the simplistic idea that with money people would accept anything. If North American art from the second half of the 20th century has been embraced by the general public (as well as enthusiastic buyers who drove the value of art up beyond all reason), it’s because crowds found the values that it embodied so appealing. From that perspective, American art’s greatest asset was its American-ness! Since the United States has its own culture, this is illustrated, volens nolens, by two seemingly contradictory but in fact closely related traits; a certain naiveté and a certain pomposity.

Their naiveté has long been taken for granted; America arrived late on the artistic scene with almost no history of its own, consequently the only way American artists could compete with their European counterparts was by providing a fresh perspective and a new movement. (This brings to mind famous historian Jacques Le Goff’s irritated response to a joke made by an uneducated Texan; “Europe is not old, sir, it is ancient”) Underneath the brazen inexperience there is pride, or in any case, a lack of doubt, which is typically American. That is exemplified by President George W. Bush’s declaration that “our nation has been chosen by God and destined by history to be a model for the world” (August 28, 2000). Such a complete lack of doubt is powerful enough to mobilize acquiescence. The “general public”, according to Romain Rolland, doesn’t like being forced to share its fears; it expects instantly available guarantees. That’s where the pomposity comes in; usually characterized by raising one’s voice, to ridiculous levels if required, without worrying about the degree of accuracy. There is no need to fear because what some harsh judges deem ridiculous could actually be a strength; Walt Whitman, one of the most famous poets of the 19th century, owes a great deal of his impressive power and emotional intensity to his indifference to what constituted continental “good taste”, inherited from court and salon society. But Whitman is not the one who is lacking and very often it is the pompous who ends up looking pretentious —because there is a kind of academic affectation involved in the abstract (just look at a painting by Nicolas de Staël and then one by Pollock), another kind of pop art, much worse than Jean-Léon Gérôme, who has some appeal.

It was practically impossible, in America before the 1960s and ‘70s, to avoid the trend of turning every creation into a Barnum-like spectacle (a term Marc Fumaroli uses in in his Paris – New York, a tract that is as brilliant as it is full of bad faith). To resist means having to move to Europe, as Henry James proved when he became a British citizen at the end of his life. Because the European artistic tradition, dominated by large Parisian studios that have existed almost without interruption since the classical era, is completely the opposite of New World symphonies; the tutti of the brass section is less preferable than the quiet notes of the harpsichord and the scholarly variations on the refrain to the hum on the streets. Whereas America shines by a dimly lit generosity, Europe reserves the pleasure of seeing and understanding to those who earned it through the halls of academia. It comes as no surprise, then, when it loses in a popularity contest.

The lines have greatly shifted in recent decades. Warhol, who seems to embody the excesses of North American society to the point of caricature, was at the same time an almost Jamesian lover of Paris and Rome. But the market keeps on going like a racing car without a driver, moving straight ahead … until the next turn. The price of Jeff Koons’ pieces become inflated after every major sale, making its value totally disproportionate to many French artists who are infinitely more interesting like Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, Annette Messager and Pierre Huyghe. An appeal to history might also be an appeal to reason. It’s not against the law to hope – without excessive optimism in any case.