The Cold War over the Arts

In May 1961, the Kirov Ballet arrived in Paris. Its star was a peculiar, vain, and willful young dancer whom the company almost did not take with it on tour because Soviet officials could not be sure what he might do once he reached the West.

They had good reason to worry. Rudolf Nureyev stole the show at the Palais Garnier (“the strangest, and uncontestably the most influential, personality—as well as the greatest technician—since Nijinsky, to whom he is the first ever to be so compared,” reported Janet Flanner). Then, to the consternation of his Soviet minders, he made the rounds of Paris, befriending Clara Saint, fiancée of the late Vincent Malraux, visiting the Louvre with the English painter Michael Wishart, Francis Bacon’s friend, and generally staying out until all hours. When the Soviet troupe was bussed to Le Bourget airport in June to continue the tour in London, Nureyev was informed that his mother had become ill (she hadn’t) and that he must return home. A Tupolev aircraft was waiting for him.

He threatened suicide and somehow got word of his predicament to Clara Saint, who contacted the French police, who in turn instructed her that Nureyev would have to approach them. Authorities dispatched two plainclothes officers to linger at an airport bar. They were sipping coffee when Nureyev ran to them, demanding asylum. An official from the Soviet embassy arrived to protest, to no avail.

The West had its first front-page Soviet defector. Nine years later it was the ballerina Natalia Makarova who fled Russia. Then Mikhail Baryshnikov skipped out on the Kirov in Toronto in 1974, dashing from a company bus into a waiting car—the same year that Valery Panov, who in March 1972 had made the terrible mistake of officially applying for permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel, only to be banished from the Kirov and denounced by fellow dancers, was finally permitted to leave the country with his wife, Galina, in grudging response to a vigorous publicity campaign by Western politicians and artists.

Half a century before Panov emigrated, Georges Balanchine departed Bolshevik Russia. The word “defector” did not yet exist. He returned, reluctantly, in 1972 with the New York City Ballet. (“The audiences for most of the performances,” he rightly complained, “were party functionaries.”) Balanchine and his company arrived in the midst of the Panov furor. Fearing Soviet reprisals, including against Panov, Balanchine advised his troupe to avoid the outcast Soviet. Several dancers from the New York company visited Panov anyway. Their visits, said Panov, who revered Balanchine, “made Balanchine’s unwillingness to listen to my despair even harder to accept.” Such was the morass of personal politics, betrayal, and disappointment that was always behind the headlines during the cultural cold war.

David Caute’s excellent The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, which covers not just dance but music, art, theater, and film, evokes the extraordinary power that the arts were believed to have had in shaping politics and society in the postwar years. It is almost possible to feel nostalgic for this dangerous time when the high arts were treated as germane to world affairs and celebrated as nationalist propaganda. I recall traveling around the Soviet Union as a child during the 1960s and early 1970s; music and ballet were constantly touted as exemplifying the virtues of Communist life. As the son of a privileged guest, I was, if memory serves, ten when I was made an honorary Young Pioneer and received my little red kerchief and medal in a solemn ceremony with various other children in starched white shirts and dark trousers waving red flags on a warm May day in Moscow, after which everyone was treated to songs and chamber music by Pioneers, all of them around my age.

Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchai-kovsky were part of these Pioneers’ everyday life. On later occasions, when I was old enough to be horrified by the Soviet system, I was still struck by the ubiquity of classical music on car radios and by the mobs of young Soviets at piano and dance recitals in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent. These are incidental recollections, perhaps slightly distorted by time, and meaningless except that, as Caute reminds us, high art was power once, and that era has passed.

I mean that the Soviet–US conflict framed aesthetic debates as it framed nuclear arms debates and debates about the virtues of the free market versus communism: it gave an urgency to matters of taste and style that frequently transcended the quality of the plays and movies and paintings and music being debated, much of which was absurdly bad. Konstantin Simonov’s The Russian Question, a Soviet play that premièred in 1947 and was staged in six hundred theaters, including in Berlin, became a focal point for early cold war tensions. Simonov was an apparatchik who wrote a vile diatribe in Pravda against the “anti-patriots” in Soviet theater, listing names, mostly of Jews. He campaigned for an “active and relentless ideological offensive” against the United States, of which The Russian Question was his model.

Its main character was a down-on-his-luck fictional American journalist named Harry Smith, a political progressive who once wrote a friendly book about Russia. MacPherson was the name Simonov gave to his tyrannical American newspaper publisher, a kind of William Randolph Hearst. Taking advantage of Smith’s need for money, MacPherson commissioned him to write a negative report about life in Moscow, but once in Russia, Smith could not betray his principles. “Have you noticed that more and more often the word ‘red’ is coming to mean the same thing as ‘honest’?” was a typical line.

Caute recounts how this drama, after receiving bad notices from Western journalists—an exception was Le Monde (“une pièce vivante“)—helped to win for Simonov the Stalin Prize and caused a ruckus in Berlin, where its staging was regarded by the US and Western European officials as an unprecedented act of outright cultural aggression by a previous ally. “Politics have returned to the Berlin stage in as crude and crass a form as in the heyday of Hitler and Goebbels,” was The Times of London’s assessment.

In fact, the Nazis had been generally more adept propagandists, and in retrospect what’s significant about The Russian Question, of course, is that something so banal could have been taken at all seriously as propaganda—as were its American equivalents, execrable Hollywood red-baiting films of the 1940s and 1950s like Republic’s The Red Menace or RKO’s I Married a Communist or Warner Brothers’ Big Jim McLain starring John Wayne as a HUAC investigator hunting Communists on the Honolulu waterfront (“Operation Pineapple” was the hunt’s code name).

Obviously many good artists during the cold war were also inspired by the fact that what they did might matter to world affairs. Solzhenitsyn, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ilya Kabakov in the Soviet Union, and Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan in the United States were just a few examples of those who worked from very different perspectives but who, out of suffering or inner necessity or both, made memorable art from the circumstances of the conflict. For its part, the press gave the kind of attention to these works, and to other plays, books, films, symphonies, and tours by classical pianists and ballet companies, that today would be reserved only for a few commercial films, pop music acts, and reality television shows.

Caute’s book reminds us of the stupidity of some of the Soviet and American propagandists. Senator Jack B. Tenney on the Anti-American Activities Committee in California gravely announced in 1948 that investigators had “unmasked an irrefutable fact, that the Theatre Laboratories”—Tenney meant the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre—“accomplished two productions of some Russian guy called Anton Chekhov.” On the Soviet side, there were Party lackeys like the critic I. Kulikova, who lamented the preponderance in American college theaters of “detective and criminal plays” like Murder in the Cathedral. Caute also has an amusing chapter on the duels between national exhibitions of the 1950s, those Potemkin villages of Soviet and American life set up like vast trade fairs, with tractors and refrigerators replacing plays and books as instruments of propaganda. It was at one of these, in Moscow, that Vice President Nixon and Khrushchev famously debated in the kitchen of a model American ranch house, the same fair at which the benign offer to provide exhibition visitors with new toilets by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation was rejected by the Soviets, apparently fearful that masses of people might become infatuated with American plumbing and contemplate revolution.

Of course the struggle for cultural dominance was far more tragedy than farce. As James Reston put it, Soviet arts policy was a kind of Victorianism, but it was Victorianism enforced by a police state. Pasternak once told Isaiah Berlin about the time that the actor Livanov was scheduled to perform Hamlet. At a Kremlin reception, Livanov asked Stalin about how to play the part. “Hamlet is a decadent play and should not be performed at all,” said Stalin. So Hamlet was canceled in Russia. After Stalin died, Shakespeare was widely produced (in a way that, incidentally, he has not been in the United States arguably since the nineteenth century, when his works pervaded the repertory of popular theaters). But the young British director Peter Hall, upon returning from a hugely successful Shakespeare Memorial Theatre tour to the Soviet Union in 1958, expressed shock at the persistent anachronisms in the Soviet theater world and the lack of knowledge about the theater elsewhere. Chekhov’s Three Sisters used décor from 1905, he noted. He found educated Russians who had heard of Arthur Miller but not Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, or Samuel Beckett. New plays seemed to Hall “unbelievably crude, sentimental and political.”

Sentimentality and a lack of awareness of modern developments in the arts were among the most commonplace complaints by Westerners attending Soviet cultural events. The paradox was implicit: change in the arts seemed a threat to a Marxist regime based on a doctrine of historical progress. Hélène Bellew, the Danish-born dancer, although admiring of the financial resources at the Bolshoi’s disposal when she visited Moscow in 1956, wondered

how the spirit of twentieth-century experimentation and invention could have passed by the many choreographers and producers of this huge organization…. All the ballets performed are like perfectly kept period pieces, jeal-ously preserved within their heavy, lavishly ornamented, nineteenth-century frames.

This was Balanchine’s observation, too. The same might also be said of official Soviet painting and sculpture, with its doctrinaire adherence to nineteenth-century styles.

As Caute describes it, there was, in fact, incremental change in the Soviet arts, but it could be instantly reversed. Meyerhold, Stanislavsky’s follower, was partly to be redeemed after Stalin’s death, notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s continuing ban on any mention of his arrest and torture, and his execution after being forced to denounce other artists as subversive. Something of the same could be said about the revival of Mayakovsky, “the enfant terrible of Bolshevik poetry and dramaturgy,” as Caute calls him, who became integral to the revival of expressionist drama in the Soviet theater in the 1950s.

By the early 1960s, a new era of cautious experimentalism, the result of the stirrings of a briefly tolerated dissident culture, dovetailed with avant-garde trends in the American arts—until this trend was derailed by the Brezhnev regime in 1968, with its violent purges of dissident artists. Caute recounts familiar stories of open-air exhibitions of unofficial paintings raided by police dressed in mufti, disguised as workers, who burned the art on bonfires and crushed it with bulldozers. Some artists were sent to mental hospitals. Aleksandr Kalugin, a dissident championed in the West, who said that he was inspired by Klee, Chagall, and Malevich—and who listened to recordings of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie while he worked—was ordered to stop painting abstractions. He lost his studio and was briefly confined in a psychiatric institution.

As diktats shifted, observing official Soviet standards became notoriously tricky: one day a play might be deemed insufficiently critical of bourgeois life; then, revised to be more negative, it would be judged insufficiently uplifting. “Formalism” was the usual Soviet charge against foreign artists and also against disgraced Soviet artists and critics, although it was often the content rather than the form of a work that caused trouble. It was the story of Doctor Zhivago, not Pasternak’s Russian prose, that got the book banned. Picasso’s art had, of course, been the model of formal decadence until he joined the French Communist Party, which caused, in Sartre’s splendid phrase, “the nausea of the Communist boa constrictor, unable to keep down or vomit up the enormous Picasso.” Picasso was a Communist roughly in the sense that Napoleon was a democrat or Caesar a republican. Joining the Communist Party, as Cocteau put it, was Picasso’s first anti-revolutionary gesture, but he stuck dumbly with the Party even after Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes, which apparently appalled him. The Soviets rewarded him with an exhibition that drew enormous crowds in Moscow and Leningrad, modern art for the masses. The hypocrisy all around was stunning.

The US government reluctantly and fitfully became willing to endorse formalism, or modernist experimentation, as a metaphor for freedom of expression—cultural officials made a point of saying that American artists were free to make art that most Americans frankly couldn’t understand and didn’t like. This policy troubled conservatives like the outspoken Representative George A. Dondero of Michigan, who, in line with his counterparts at the Kremlin, considered abstraction something foreign, shady, and dangerously radical. In a sense, precisely because it played poorly with both the masses and people like Dondero, modernism was a credible propaganda weapon against the Soviets, for whom mass popular appeal and state approval were prerequisites for artists.

As for mass appeal, Caute has little to say about the American popular arts during the cold war. He sensibly devotes sections to Camus, Havel, Ionesco, and Joseph Losey, but he could have mentioned James Bond films, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and Grandma Moses. At one point he wonders whether, had the Soviets accepted and promoted, rather than rejected, Russian avant-gardists like Meyerhold and Malevich, the CIA, to be contrary, might have “resorted to cultural road-shows featuring Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Sinclair Lewis, and The Grapes of Wrath.” In fact, Americans did export Grandma Moses and James Bond and Bullwinkle. Those cultural products got huge attention both at home and abroad during the cold war.

So too did the exhibitions of Soviet art treasures in the United States, a subject of much political intrigue, about which Caute, exhaustive in other ways, oddly says little. He leaves aside the battles between the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, starting in the 1960s and 1970s over the loan to the US of Soviet and East European paintings and other objects. Here the power brokers Armand Hammer and J. Carter Brown were pitted against the roguish Thomas Hoving and then his successor, Philippe de Montebello. Those loan shows were diplomatic feats and vastly popular; they served as propaganda that both softened the Soviet image in America and made available works (Scythian gold, pictures from Dresden) that had become basically inaccessible to the West.

Caute’s book is a sane rebuke to various recent histories that exaggerate the cloak-and-dagger aspects of the cold war cultural debate and see conspiracies in all American cultural initiatives abroad. “The new criticism,” as Caute calls it, “occasionally expresses token acknowledgement that Stalinism had to be resisted (of course)—before resuming sticking needles into the eyes of those who did resist it. This ritual ‘of course’ is shallow; the main enemy is always at home,” i.e., in the West. He is right.

That revisionist generation of American cultural critics to which Caute refers emerged while the cold war was still on, during Vietnam and Watergate. They began to allege that there was a web of capitalist intrigue involving Abstract Expressionism, with its rhetoric of heroic individualism; the Rockefeller family, which had helped to found the Museum of Modern Art; the United States Information Agency, which exported American culture; and the CIA. In June 1974, Eva Cockroft, in an influential article, mused in Artforum that

CIA and MoMA cultural projects could provide the well-funded and more persuasive arguments and exhibits needed to sell the rest of the world on the benefits of life and art under capitalism. In the world of art, Abstract Expressionism constituted the ideal style for these propaganda activities.*

This theory not only glosses over the art and artists themselves, like Pollock and de Kooning, who certainly weren’t arguing with CIA handlers about how to paint better capitalist propaganda at the Cedar Bar, but also overstates the interest of institutions like MOMA in these artists during the 1950s. The Modern was, if anything, tardy in collecting and supporting the Abstract Expressionists who, in the revisionists’ view, were presumed to be passive instruments of a devious American propaganda campaign. From the perspective of the early 1970s, such a campaign may have seemed akin to the covert bombing of Cambodia. A younger generation of commentators, similarly inclined toward what Caute calls “a unilateral cold war” view, have expanded upon this theory.

During the 1940s and 1950s American museums were in fact entirely open about working in concert with US government agencies and other world organizations to promote American art and architecture in the conflict with communism. Officials from the Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and other institutions met with UNESCO representatives to discuss joint projects to promote de-mocracy. Representative Frank Thompson of New Jersey presented to Congress a series of bills “to establish a program of cultural interchanges with foreign countries to meet the challenge of competitive coexistence with communism.” He enlisted the support of MOMA’s director, René d’Har-noncourt, whose concern then was not that the government was co-opting modern art for propaganda purposes but the reverse: he feared that, because of pressure from Dondero and others, the government was increasingly banning left-leaning American artists from state-sponsored exhibitions and was hostile to modernism. Speaking before Congress, Dondero railed against “the pen-and-brush phalanx of the Communist conspiracy,” by which he meant the Abstract Expressionists, whom he called practitioners of an “abstractivism or nonobjectivity…spawned as a simon pure, Russian Communist product.”

During the 1950s, the CIA and USIA were in fact reluctant to support artists whose patriotism conservatives questioned or whose art seemed too radically experimental. I have come across a confidential memo by Porter McCray, a Museum of Modern Art official, written to d’Harnoncourt in 1956, in which McCray noted that “in view of the USIA’s present orientation,” exhibitions “assembled under its auspices may become increasingly conservative”; this, he said, left the museum with greater responsibility to organize these shows and promote advanced American arts abroad on its own.

Caute has collected similar evidence to counter the revisionists’ tendentiousness. He points out that what America, which is to say the US government and private museums like the Modern, sent to Europe and South America during the 1950s was in fact “a mixed bag of styles and movements, the result not only of political nervousness, compromise, and continual vigilante howling, but also of a common-sensical appraisal of European taste and opinion.”

Another book might someday be written about the long-term artistic effects of these cultural and propaganda efforts. The German painter Gerhard Richter once told me about the impact on him of encountering Jackson Pollock’s work for the first time. As a successful young social realist mural painter in East Germany in the late 1950s, he owned a car and could travel. In Kassel, West Germany, he came across works by Pollock and the Italian abstract painter Lucio Fontana at Documenta, the contemporary art show established to provide an ideological showcase for the latest modern art in a city directly on the border with the Communist East. Seeing Pollock and Fontana, Richter said, was his first firsthand encounter with real abstract painting. Back home in East Germany, a controversy had developed after a BBC report cited a Richter painting in a dimly modern vein to prove that formalism was not entirely dead in the East. But Richter realized, he said, that his work was backward, not daring; it was watered-down Picasso: “So I knew I had to leave, not because I was worried about the controversy but because I knew the controversy was about a bad picture. It wasn’t good enough to be controversial.”

Defecting the same year as Nureyev, in 1961, to Düsseldorf, like many Europeans he was drawn not to the Abstract Expressionists, on whom the revisionists concentrate, but to American artists of the next generation: Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. “Seeing Pollock and Fontana in Kassel had given me a sense of what it meant to be a modern artist and take risks,” Richter said, “but it was a distant admiration because they were a different generation. This was my generation.”

The Soviets improved literacy, subsidized ballet companies, and trained first-rate classical musicians, but they were, as Caute puts it, doomed to lose “the wider Kulturkampf” because “they were afraid of freedom and were seen to be afraid.” Caute adds:

If the West won the cultural war it was more by default than by artistic achievement. [It] could not present a playwright better than Brecht, a composer as popular as Prokofiev or Shostakovich, a ballet company superior to the Bolshoi, instrumentalists more skilled than Richter, Oistrakh, or Rostropovich.

Maybe so. But when Caute tries to reduce the competition to famous names and popularity—dubious standards—he is much too selective, ignoring, among others, Beckett, Harold Pinter, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and a host of émigré composers and musicians in the US, not to mention Russian artists banned in the Soviet Union, but admired in the West, from Malevich and Tatlin on. Meanwhile modern art went through one phase after another in the West. Caute may be right that Western modernism would not have prevailed over Soviet realism to the extent it did if the Soviets had not tried so hard to stifle their own avant-garde. But what should be clear are the crudeness and distortion that result when attempts are made to enlist artists in a cultural war fought on such publicity battlegrounds as the Cannes Film Festival, the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, and the Nobel Prize.

The cultural cold war was contradictory. The Voice of America’s messages about artistic freedom had to compete with the humiliating appearance before Congress of James B. Conant, Harvard’s former president and the United States high commissioner for Germany, testifying that he “would not be in favor of having books by Communist authors on the shelves” of United States libraries abroad. Some American leftist artists and writers—among them Paul Robeson, Arthur Miller, and Nelson Algren—were denied passports to travel abroad. Because of McCarthyism the US lost credibility in Western Europe. On the other side, the Soviet Union tried to promote star artists like Nureyev and Makarova in the West; but the Soviet regime was contemptuous of its more free-spirited artists and fearful that they might step out of line. Defections, as Caute shows, provoked a redoubling of Soviet oversight, neutralizing the favorable publicity they received by sending those artists abroad.

The toll to the souls of artists is now impossible to calculate. One reads Caute’s book with a growing melancholy about squandered talents and broken lives.

  1. *

    See also Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 1983), an influential and revisionist account.