By Tom Connolly
To his credit, Louis Menand personalizes his historical cast and humanizes ideologies and aesthetics.
The Free World: Art and Thought in The Cold War by Louis Menand. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 880 Pages. $35.
Louis Menand’s The Free World is a page-turner. It’s 880 pages, but you might be tempted to read the book in one sitting. To his credit, the author personalizes his historical cast and humanizes ideologies and aesthetics. He has a few fixations: indexing male same-sex pairings, anointing certain artists, and passing over any of the negative consequences of cultural trends that have earned Menand’s special attention. He proffers heroes: James Baldwin, Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock, Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, and anyone who set foot on the Black Mountain College campus, among others. Conversely, Menand spends little of his time spotlighting villains. This attitude leads to a balanced treatment of the CIA’s covert cultural campaign, but discourages an examination of the pillaging of the art world by the art market (for example, Greenberg owned paintings by many of the artists he praised), which was made possible by the post-war trends over which Menand effervesces.
The book’s marketing reflects the author’s nimble leveraging. Anticipation of the tome inspired mostly reverent buzz. Still, even for book jacket blurbs, the praise is piled astronomically high, and four-fifths of it is logrolling. (Only one of the five hat-tossers isn’t Menand’s colleague). The publisher is unashamed, but this screaming salesmanship is an affront to Menand’s eminence. O tempora, o mores.
Some feel let down by The Free World’s not measuring up to Menand’s earlier book, The Metaphysical Club. An unfair comparison, if for no other reason than that Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce offer greater depth than the likes of Jack Kerouac, John Cage, and Andy Warhol. Also, significant lacunae cut against claims that the volume is definitive. One of his few transatlantic flights surveys the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and leads us down a yellow-brick-road to the Oz of post-modernism, though Menand leaves off as though it were a short-lived fad in a few English departments. There is no hint of how powerfully French theory has influenced public discourse from “post-truth” to critical race theory — issues we grapple with every day. Menand also didn’t get the memo that Susan Sontag is très démodé.
Menand is hep to dance and lavishes attention on Merce Cunningham. However, his omission of theater sadly exposes its current irrelevance. He makes scattered references to peripheral performance personalities. He blanks on the Method, looks at Samuel Beckett as more of a novelist than a playwright — yet there are nods to Happenings and performance art. He ignores the Angry Young Men in his discussion of the Beatles, has nothing to say about the anti-capitalist dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, nor does he address the homophobia that Williams, Edward Albee, and William Inge overcame. (This is odd, given that he relentlessly pursues the details of almost all of his subjects’ sexuality). Menand latches on to James Baldwin and Richard Wright, but has no time for Lorraine Hansberry. he entirely neglects Off-Broadway — the most important theatrical development of the 20th century American theater. He determines that the coterie performances of Cage’s circle warrant attention rather than commentary on West Side Story and Leonard Bernstein’s other crossover continuities.
Menand is much concerned with music and painting. Why are we forever meant to be dazzled by “white on white paintings”? (This notion was dated in 1994, when Yasmina Reza’s play Art hinged on the “shock value” of that kind of picture). Rauschenberg wasn’t doing anything new; back in 1916, Kazimir Malevich created white on white paintings. Similarly, Menand is taken with Cage’s post-war musical fripperies. Erik Satie wrote Trois morceaux en forme de poire in 1903. These “three pieces in the shape of pear’ had seven sections and were the composer’s sarcastic response to being chastised for ignoring musical form. Today, Cage’s stunts are as behind the times as Ernie Kovacs’s “Nairobi Trio” TV sketches — though certainly not as offensive.
Menand’s apologia for Warhol may be a realistic assessment of the post-war art market, but it undercuts the aesthetic value of post-war painting. When Menand takes up abstract expressionism, the aesthetics of Pollock or Rauschenberg and company, he highlights the prices that the paintings quickly commanded. Menand sagely rejects the notion that the US government promoted this art for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, he is too eager to approve of Warhol and knock down the already wobbly legacy of Steichen’s Family of Man photography exhibition. One wonders why Warhol’s unblushing commercialism gets a pass, yet Menand reproaches Steichen for making supposedly crowd-pleasing edits to The Family of Man show.
Menand knows that the second Red Scare doesn’t need additional dissection here, nor does the Black List, but Menand is prone to proselytizing for the Beats. He also talks a good deal about Norman Mailer. Menand deems “The White Negro” cringe-worthy. So why elaborate on it at such length? Ralph Ellison dispatched the essay decades ago. Pity Gore Vidal gnashing his teeth somewhere — he is unmentioned.
Menand is at his best when discussing George F. Kennan’s thoughts on diplomacy and debunking received ideas about baby boomers and rock and roll’s onslaught. He explores the complexity of Kennan’s containment policy. How many hawks deluded themselves that the war in Viet Nam was “containment”? The conflict was the antithesis of Kennan’s argument. As far as popular music goes, Menand notes that pandering to teens dates to the ’30s. The Elvis Presley phenomenon has also been misunderstood. He was only briefly interested in performing provocatively. Menand makes a good point here. Presley was not the only singer whose hips were censored; CBS cut away from Noël Coward’s pelvic thrust during his song “Nina” a year before such modesty was imposed upon Elvis’s gyrating. (Note: For someone so convinced of rock music’s significance, it is strange Menand has no interest in The Plastic People of the Universe’s involvement in The Velvet Revolution.)
Ultimately, the book is a selective survey, in spite of its considerable length. The Free World does not finish with the “end” of the Cold War. There is barely a mention of the Berlin Wall, a sure sign that Menand is not interested in supplying conclusions. For this, he deserves applause. In contrast to the unparalleled arrogance of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” hubris, Menand’s reticence is judicious. He is wise to shy away from making post-fall-of-the-wall pronouncements.
Perhaps Menand’s glossing over the effects of post-modernism and Warhol’s pernicious legacy is symptomatic of the same reserve. It might be that, when taking the measure of the Cold War era, he kept Zhou Enlai’s famous 1972 response to a question about the impact of the 1968 Paris student revolts in mind: “It is too early to say.”
Tom Connolly is University Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Futuristic Studies at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University. His book Good-bye Good Ol’ USA: What America Lost in World War II is forthcoming from McGraw-Hill/PMU Press