Music and the Cold War

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Paul Sacher Foundation
Elliott Carter (right) with William Glock, who as head of music at the BBC from 1959 to 1973 was one of the most important advocates of modernist music, at the back entrance of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1985

My friends let me know that Professor Richard Taruskin has written an article entitled “Afterword: Nicht Blutbefleckt?” (Not Blood-Stained?) in The Journal of Musicology,1 partially devoted to answering my review of his Oxford History of Western Music in The New York Review.2 In this answer he declares himself “one who regards Rosen’s literary output—all of it—as Cold War propaganda.”

This seems sufficiently extreme and provocative to warrant a few observations. For the most part, Taruskin maintains that whatever success and prestige in music and painting American modernism has achieved are mainly due to the efforts of promotion by the CIA and the US State Department in order to counter Soviet propaganda during the cold war years.

The claim that the prestige of American modernism is basically due to the programs of the CIA and the American government is simply a warmed-up version of a French theory of some years ago that the success of American Abstract Expressionism was due to a conspiracy of art dealers, aided by official American propaganda. This was inspired by indignant patriotic panic at the replacement of Paris by New York for a few years as the major center of artistic innovation and interest. The principal expression of the attack was a book by Serge Guilbaut; the title is sufficiently explanatory and indicates the level of the argument as well: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (1983).

This thesis has recently become fashionable among a small group of American musicologists largely hostile to modernism, and Taruskin seems to have decided to ride along with them. He acts as a prosecutor, determined to corner the criminals and convict them. He writes:

But the guilt and blood a critic like [Louis] Menand will admit into a discussion of [Jackson] Pollock is presumably only guilt over booze and fornication, and the blood shed in a fatal car crash…. But Pollock was an entirely knowing beneficiary of Cold War promotion, and so were John Cage, Morton Feldman, and any number of others of whom it is still conventional to say that they were far better appreciated in Europe than at home. The role of Cold War policy in their histories is part of our history, and we must report it.

It would appear that Jackson Pollock was stained with blood by having allowed his paintings to be exhibited in a show arranged by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. That is the same accusation that Taruskin levels against Elliott Carter. He dates what he calls Carter’s “superlative prestige” precisely from the European performance of Carter’s First Quartet at the 1954 Rome festival of contemporary music, an event sponsored by the Congress for …

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  1. 1

    The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26, Issue 2 (2009), pp. 274–284. 

  2. 2

    February 23 and March 9, 2006