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The Americanization of the Sprit

Umělec magazine 2012/1

25.03.2013 14:16

Octavian Esanu | contemporartism | en cs de

Octavian Esanu looks at the acceptance and rejection of what is “American” in a non-American environment, against the backdrop of an unclear understanding of freedom and the historically growing confidence of American art, which quite possibly stands behind the seemingly universal concept of “contemporary art.” Where the colonization of the spirit through an emphasis on contemporaneity still encounters resistance, the attractiveness of American shoes perhaps presages the strongest export – packaging, boxes, frames and vehicles.


At the Reception. Every year, in the fall, the Princeton University Museum of Art holds a reception to welcome graduate students. The idea is simple: to remind new and old students that the university has a great facility where they can soften their souls (hardened by facts, numbers and figures) by looking at art. Here are some words of instruction for those who might want to attend such an event.

You will go first to the lobby of the museum and check in your backpack, after which you will return a smile or two to the gift shop attendant on the left and to an usher at the right. Then you will step into the first exhibition hall that you must traverse in order to get to the room where the reception takes place. This is the main hall of the museum – it is its showroom. Here you will see on display an impressive collection bought or donated by this university’s successful alumni ­–­ a collection which is, by the way, free and open to the public six days a week from ten to five. As you walk towards the reception room you will walk around one of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which welcomes the audience right at the entrance, then you might pass by an entire array of Donald Judd’s Boxes mounted on a wall next to a white label, then a “combine” by Rauschenberg, then a Johns, a Flavin and so on and so forth. You will find yourself moving by or around boxes, drawers, bricks, poured cement or splashed canvas until you reach the stairs. The pathway to the reception winds by and around icons and symbols of the American contemporary art preserved today by this and similar institutions. As you walk – trying to recover meaning from one or another box or drawer – you will feel in your upper back the piercing gaze of the guards who watch your every step. Eventually, you will reach the end of this hall and now you are about to turn towards the stairs. A few steps up and you will enter another room.

Here you will find yourself before bottles of red and white wine, before three or four kinds of cheese, seedless grapes, and two or three kinds of salad dip aggressively surrounded on all sides by carrots, broccoli, and celery. You might instantly notice that this second room is quite different from the previous one. First of all, the hall is not as brightly lit and there are no windows. The space is immersed in an atmosphere of brownish-reddish peace – a sort of pre-modern and pre-twentieth century colonial quietude achieved through dim lighting, brownish historical paintings on the walls and reddish hardwood floors. Here you will see fewer museum attendants, who usually stand by the doors making sure that people don’t carry their plates in the adjoining rooms that exhibit the more contemporary contemporary art. At the reception professors and graduate students – some wearing orange blazers with black pants and others black sneakers with orange laces (orange and black standing for this school’s mascot: the tiger) – practice the art of schmoozing. Occasionally they turn around in order to dip their carrots and broccoli into the bowls of dressing while glancing at a painting on the wall.

This hall exhibits mainly (though not exclusively) American art made throughout the nineteenth century. You might ask yourself, as I have on several occasions, why is it that the Museum chose this room to hold its annual receptions? Why not hold these parties on the first floor, in the first main hall or the showroom? The pop and minimalist boxes and drawers could serve some real purpose (utilitarianism being one of the most revered doctrines in this country), offering props for your wine glass? You might soon come to the conclusion that the reason that the reception is organized in this room – which shows artists known only to very few – must be simple… Yes, it is money. The nineteenth century American art does not have the same market and insurance value as the art made in the second half of the ‘American Century.’ Of course, all those nineteenth century reddish-brownish paintings that decorate the reception room are well protected by a thick layer of glass – which might even be bulletproof, for all I know – so that here the museum is totally safe. But it is the symbolic significance that interests us here. A reception will most likely take place in the room that hosts nineteenth century America’s art which, as any art speculator or art lover from Manhattan can tell you, is worth much less than the European art of the same period, or the American art of the second half of the last century.



The Discourse of Americanism. As soon as one makes a judgment about America, about its mores, customs or values (especially when one positions oneself on the outside, as I cannot help but do in this personal anecdote) one finds oneself trespassing into a discursive terrain known as Americanism. This terrain is particularly sensitive today, when the media, both within the U.S. and elsewhere, tells us of the “fall of Rome,” the end of the “Empire-USA,” the demise of the last superpower – a situation which reminds me of the last years of the USSR and the self-critical opinions which spread during the Perestroika. Like Sovietism, or Soviet Studies in its day, though for a much longer period, Americanism has gathered to itself an entire constellation of statements and judgments, of admiration and indignation, of sentiments and resentments, with regard to the political, economic and cultural life of the United States. My goal here is not, of course, to fully traverse this immense territory but only to sneak into some of the regions that concern art, and even more narrowly perhaps, to what we call today “contemporary art.” We can even go ahead and put forward a working hypothesis: if we all have been living (and I imagine that most of us still do) in the so-called “American Century” – a phrase coined in the aftermath of World War II in the U.S. to refer to the dissemination of American values and ideas throughout the world – then what can prevent us from believing that what is known today in this global world as “contemporary art” is not also another American product? What if this phrase – which today in the age of multiculturalism and globalization goes untranslated across national borders and customs – shares similarities with all those things American to which we grew so accustomed that we stopped noticing them a long time ago, like those blue jeans that fit like a second skin (to share with you the first object I lay my eyes on) or like this English language that I am trying very hard to parrot in order to make myself communicable?

Before we return to the museum and engage in a more art-critical discussion of its exhibition spaces, I would like to touch very quickly upon a few central themes that run through the discourse of Americanism, a few well-trodden paths that stretch across this immense discursive territory.

There are various ways to describe Americanism. I prefer the metaphor of the coin. On one side there are the anti-American attitudes of all those who position themselves on the outside (inside the U.S. such positions have often fallen under the category “un-American,” and within the competence of certain special committees, bureaus and agencies). The other side of the coin is one of sympathetic attitudes that are often termed “pro-” or “philo-Americanism.”1 These “anti-” and “philo-” sides of the coin have sometimes been explained in social terms: for example it has been argued that it is usually the local or foreign elites who are more likely to have anti-American views while the masses both at home and abroad tend to love America.2 The side of the coin that collects derogatory or critical attitudes towards this country is more pronounced, or to put it in other words, the coin of Americanism tends most often to fall heads up. This of course may have something to do with the fact that it is mostly the intellectuals who can afford to give form to their anti-American attitudes. Americanism is available in various foreign currencies. The Germans gathered their fascinations and critical opinions of America within a tradition that they called Amerikanizmus (following the title of one celebrated early twentieth century book); in France the sentiments are grouped under the label L’Americanisme and in Russia Amerikanizm.

Let’s toss the coin of Americanism a few times and take a look at its heads and tails – keeping aware that in debates such as these, there are often trick coins that fall repeatedly on one side.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth many Europeans agreed that America was becoming an image of Europe’s future. For its supporters America symbolized the following: self-sufficiency and self-reliance, entrepreneurship and innovation, optimism and perseverance, spontaneity and youth, rationalization and productivity, the circulation of capital and mobility, the triumph of the machine and the scientific organization of labor (Fordism, Taylorism), the prevalence of economic and down-to-earth interests over abstract matters of politics or culture. The skeptics spoke about the same things, only that they represented them not as positive qualities but as defects: instead of self-sufficiency and independence they saw acquisitive individualism and self-centered greed (“every man for himself”); instead of entrepreneurship they saw swindlers and fortune-hunters; instead of concerns with production and disinterest in politics they saw total surrender to the power of the dollar, conformism and lack of political culture; in lieu of technological ingenuity they found technical dehumanization and an universal obsession with gadgets; and as far as culture and society were concerned, most of these critics stressed the loss of social cohesion, the prevalence of Babbittism and Babbittry, a predilection for vulgarity and bad taste deposited in the wake of a dollar-driven culture industry.

At times these “pro-” and “anti-” attitudes can be arranged in accordance with a couple of conceptual dichotomies that have been most often deployed within the two-sided discourse of Americanism. Europeans who went to America were driven forward by ideas or things that were not available or permitted in their homelands. Those who embarked on ships to cross the ocean sought not only new beginnings but also radically different ideas through which they could relate to each other. Some of these ideas may seem at a first glance similar – or even synonymous – to each other, but upon a closer look they will appear very distinct or even opposite.

For instance, philosophers and political thinkers had sometimes drawn a distinction between the notions of Liberty and Freedom. The Declaration of Independence magnificently states that all men are created equal and that everybody who can make it to America is endowed by the Creator with inalienable Rights: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Liberty may well be one of these new radical ideas that the newcomers sought or found in the new world, and many may even have realized – too late perhaps – that by choosing liberty they had to renounce freedom, for the two are not necessarily the same kind of thing. The difference between liberty and freedom is often traced to the historical contexts in which they originated. The idea of liberty is said to have arisen in the ancient Mediterranean Roman and Greek world, whereas that of freedom has its roots in Northern European Celtic, Germanic and Nordic communities – the so-called northern barbarian enemies of Rome. Liberty – a word used in the U.S. to name not only the national monument that once greeted immigrants in New York Harbor, but also gas stations, SUVs, sneakers, jeans, and swimsuits – is informed by the Roman notion of libertas (or eleutheria in ancient Greece). Considered within this context, liberty denotes release from bondage, and was used to refer to privileges and immunities that may only be won or given. In ancient Rome – as in America – to be at liberty meant to be free of constraint, to stand above and beyond the law and what constitutes higher authority, to gain privileges and enjoy certain immunities. Liberty also invokes freedom of choice, the right to self-determination, independence, separation; it enables one to do as one pleases without interference from others. To be at liberty is to be free from obligations that all others have to obey, and most importantly perhaps, individual liberty goes together very well with money – a view entertained by an early advocate of classical liberalism, John Locke. In American popular culture this relation has been most often expressed in rhetorical questions such as: “When was the last time you read about a millionaire going to the [electric] Chair?”3

The notion of freedom, on the other hand, implies unity and belonging to a collective body, as does the German word Freiheit, which, along with its variations in Norse, German, Dutch or Flemish are believed to have derived from one Indo-European root that once meant “dear,” “beloved” or “cherished.” And even though within the modern liberal tradition of thought liberty and freedom have often been used interchangeably, some have insisted that the two must be separated, and that liberty in fact means independence from whereas freedom is about connection to and that historically the two were not merely different but in fact opposed: “Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection.”4

Let’s toss once again the coin of Americanism.

The North-American idea of liberty and the North-European idea of freedom pave the way to another conceptual polarity that was at times popular among intellectuals who reflected on America. Individualism and Personalism, respectively, translate the ideas of liberty and freedom into the social sphere. The distinction between individualism and personalism was often deployed by European intellectuals who subscribed to anti-American sentiments, as was the case for instance in interwar France. The French-American divide has been at times especially pronounced, manifest especially in the cultural realm that until the end of World War II the French considered their area of expertise. In 1932, the Parisian Catholic monthly Esprit mounted its criticism of America within the framework of the philosophy of personalism. The latter made its way into France from its neighboring Germany with the introduction of young Heidegger’s thought.#55 (In passing it must be said that the same magazine was also partially responsible for launching, in the late 1980s, a critical debate on “contemporary art,” which some of the contributors perceived to be an American phenomenon).6

Those associated with Esprit believed that in order to withstand American acquisitive individualism – rooted in the constitutional doctrine of liberty, private-property and the pursuit of individual happiness – the Europeans must turn to personalism, a worldview based on the neo-Romantic ideal of authenticity. Like liberty and freedom, individualism and personalism refer to two different ways in which the individual relates to society. The difference can be grasped in the way one relates to the first person pronoun. Emmanuel Mounier, the editor of Esprit, distinguished between the individualistic “me” or “I,” and the personalistic or communitarian “we” or “us.” To resist the American individualism expressed in the first person singular pronoun “me,” or the equally threatening Soviet totalitarian or communistic “they” (Communism being a doctrine of the impersonal “third person,” according to Mounier),7 Europeans must resort to the personalism of the “we” or “us.” While the individual “I” or “me” is the basic unit of American mass society, “we” or “us” stands for the unity of a community of persons who are not driven by selfish material interests but by the mystery of faith, and by the continuous realization of their place within the spiritual universe of a particular community. According to this version of personalism Europe must reject both the dissolution of the Soviet individual within the one anonymous category of class, as well as the American individualism where for an individual to be tolerated in the context of the mass or consumer society he or she must constantly outshout everyone else on the market.

The coin of German Amerikanismus has its own heads and tails. Germans initially mounted their critique of America within the boundaries of Kulturkritik – a term used since the late eighteenth century to include various forms of cultural critique of emerging capitalism, industrialization, and the ideology of the Enlightenment. One of the most exploited antitheses used to distinguish between the German and the American world were the notions of Kultur and Zivilization, or culture and civilization. These two concepts have played a very important part in this country’s modern history, being initially used to draw a distinction between the Germans and the French who, during the 18th and 19th centuries occupied a symbolic position similar to that of America in the twentieth century. When America’s presence on the international arena could not anymore be ignored, German critics on both the left and the right re-directed their attention towards America, within the expanding discourse of Amerikanismus.

Kultur, as it was understood by the Romantics, referred to the intellectual, artistic or spiritual concerns of a community of people connected by a common (German) language and tradition. Kultur has been regarded as a static and delimiting concept that demarcated a tradition or a national identity; it expressed the self-consciousness of a nation (Germany) whereby its guardians of tradition and language articulated their spiritual concerns through philosophy, art and literature. Zivilization, on the other hand, has been understood as a dynamic concept that particularly concerns the political, economic, and technical world. Unlike Kultur, it was often used to refer to all that appeared foreign, fake, or artificial – like the German aristocracy’s mimicking of French language and etiquette before the rise of America. For many Germans both on the left and right, civilization was the derogatory term deployed to critique modernization, industrialization, Empire, progress, and large-scale social achievements that threatened local traditions and communities. While (spiritual) culture expressed the depth of a tradition and language, a natural course of life, (material) civilization referred to the superficial concerns of modern social life devoid of mystery and faith. It has even been argued that Germany’s modern history could be understood as a perpetual conflict between Kultur and Zivilization, as most of this country’s modern wars were about defending the spiritual realm from the encroachments of material civilization.8

Of course, not all German intellectuals liked this distinction. Later in the twentieth century, critical theorists on the left would try to avoid it, as did Theodor Adorno, who regarded it as a “fatal antithesis,”9 or his colleague Herbert Marcuse, who drew on it partially in order to formulate his critical theory of the “affirmative character of culture.” Even though both of these writers worked to disassociate themselves from this dichotomy, the culture/civilization divide keeps re-appearing, often disguised within the critique of the “culture industry,” or within that of “affirmative culture,” proving how deeply rooted it is in German and Western intellectual history. From Marcuse’s perspective, the German idealistic distinction between culture and civilization, which has given rise to such collective nouns as “Germanic culture” and “national culture,” descends from ancient Greek philosophy’s divide between things purposeful and things purposeless, between the necessary and the beautiful.10



The American Shoe and the European. Historical Avant-garde. We will now return to the reception hall of the museum with a more artistic and critical perspective in mind.

In art, pro- and anti- American attitudes overlap at times with the heads and tails of the coin of Americanism. Judging from the museum’s arrangement of its exhibition space (with the heroic post-1945 phase kept in the forefront), before the Second World War Americans could offer little to Europe in matters of artistic excellence. There were not yet major American artistic models or ideals for artists in Europe to emulate. Some of the earliest contributors to the discourse of Americanism explained this lack in light of the relation between art and the political regime. In Democracy in America (1838) Alexis de Tocqueville reflects upon the relation between democracy and art, suggesting that in a society governed by the spirit of middle-class democratic liberty and based upon a “uniformity of classes” there is a higher risk of hypocrisy than in an aristocratic society. “Hypocrisy in matters of virtue belongs to all ages; hypocrisy in matters of luxury belongs more especially to democratic ages.” In an egalitarian society then, everyone can pretend to be what they are not. Democratic vanity, according to Tocqueville, affects all products of human creation including the arts, for when craftsmen are trying to make beautiful or useful products for a larger number of citizens they “strive also to give to these products a look of brilliance which they do not possess” and while “[art]works multiply their merit declines.”11

In the early nineteenth century Tocqueville could not have predicted certain American inventions that would prove his theory wrong, first affecting the useful objects (that is products of civilization) and later also those that fall within the realm of the beautiful. Until the middle of the last century Europeans did not know much about American art – art being an institution that emerged historically around courts and aristocratic ruling elites, which this country never had. This does not mean, however, that artists, poets, and writers that looked at this country from outside were not inspired by America.

For most of the European artists, poets and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period America offered an image of the future. Take Russians and their version of Amerikanizm, for instance. In the nineteenth century many educated Russians formed their opinion about America based on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, despite the fact that the book was banned for decades by tsarist censorship.12 The novelist Ivan Turgenev expressed his fascination when he proclaimed in 1849 that Americans were the greatest poets of the time – “but not poets of words but of actions.”13 Turgenev was referring, of course, to the fast-paced process of industrialization in which this country was caught, hinting in the meantime at Russia’s backwardness. Russian intellectuals were split within the discourse of Amerikanism along lines that resembled very much the German divide between Kultur and Zivilization, only that here, the Slavophils who sought to comprehend “the mysterious Russian soul,” were confronted by the Westernizers who worshiped modern civilization.

In the early twentieth century the Russian Westernizers prevailed. The most enthusiastic about the future were the futurists, as one might imagine. After World War I Russian Futurism proudly donned the label of Amerikanism, reporting to its supporters and critics its full embrace of the dynamic techno-economical future projected over the old continent from the other side of the Atlantic. Mayakovski – after having visited America on several occasions – wrote: “I will give you the whole of the Russian soul for a few good American tractors,” while one of his futurist colleagues, the poet Ilya Zhdanevich, made his aesthetic judgment when he proclaimed that an American shoe was superior to the Venus de Milo.14 After the October Revolution, fascinations with the prospects of a new technological civilization among the futurists found support within the political avant-garde, with those Bolsheviks who sought quick ways of rebuilding the country from scratch. In the early stage of the Soviet republic modernization was synonymous with Americanization. Trotsky called upon workers and peasants “to put the shoes on Bolshevism in an American manner – that is our task – to put on technical shoes with American nails.”15 One of Lenin’s formulas for socialism was “Soviet power + Prussian railway order + American technology and organization of trusts + American public education etc. etc. + + = ∑ = socialism,” and in a more compressed version: “We need Marxism plus Americanism.”16 The Soviet Amerikanism of the time of the revolution did not only concern itself with the organization of labor, or with seeking more efficient means of production, so greatly needed for this backward agrarian country. Americanism was also brought into the field of revolutionary culture. For Alexander Bogdanov, one of the leading theoreticians of the Proletkult, it was American Fordism and Taylorism that could teach the working class how to forge a new proletarian culture, for in learning to operate a complex machinery, or in being part of an assembly line, the peasant and the worker would also learn how to establish new forms of collectivity, how to organize and harmonize complex social relations within collectives. For Bogdanov the essence of proletarian art was based on establishing a new collective experience.17 In the revolutionary Soviet theater, Vsevolod Meyerhold was developing “theatrical Taylorism,” which sought to eliminate superfluous and unnecessary “gestures for the sake of gestures” on the stage, and one of Meyerhold’s colleagues – the poet Ippolit Sokolov – called for the “industrialization of gesture”: “Henceforth painters, doctors, artists, engineers, must study the human body, not from the point of view of anatomy or psychology, but from the point of view of the study of machines.18

Over Russia’s Western borders, the Germans, who also experienced an agitated historical phase during their short-lived Weimar republic, American influences also played a prominent mediatory role. As in Russia, where Futurism wore the label of Amerikanizm like a medal, proclaiming Victory over the Sun and condemning national chauvinism, nativism, traditionalism and endless Slavophilic preoccupations with the mysterious soul, in Germany the artists and intellectuals of the 1920s responded in a similar vein to the local elites’ concerns with Kultur and Bildung, which was the highest form of cultural achievement. To the mystic and spiritual primitivism of the early twentieth century generations of expressionists – who sought to arrest the spirit in “objectified aesthetic self-enjoyments,” as the art historian Wilhelm Worringer put it – the post-Expressionists responded in a strong American accent. Certain German Dada artists of the Weimar period even changed their names in order to sound more American, as did George Grosz (Georg Ehrenfried Groß) and John Heartfield (Johann Herzfelde), who for the same reason spoke English among themselves. And then came the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), with its celebration of the Sache (the “thing” or the “fact”) and of the sachlich (the “factual,” “matter-of-factness,” the “practical” and “precise”) that in Weimar Germany were perceived as intrinsically American qualities. “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, the cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness.”19

Artists from other European countries also proclaimed their pro-American attitudes. Francis Picabia declared: “Upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is in machinery”; the Romanian poet Ilarie Voronca professed in one of his manifestos: “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL POEM: THE DOLLAR FLUCTUATION,” while his compatriot Tristan Tzara confessed: “To come to the subject of art. Art, that’s right. I used to know a gentlemen who did superb portraits. The gentlemen is a Kodak…”; and Bertolt Brecht expressed the power of America in the European imagination in the following words: “What men they were! Their boxers the strongest! / Their inventors the most practical! Their trains the fastest! /…So we imitated this renowned race of men...”; and Mayakovsky, once more: “I stare like a savage / at an electric switch, / eyes fixed / like a tick on a cat. Yeah, / Brooklyn Bridge – It’s something that!20

There is also the other side of artistic Americanism. Many of those who held the most critical views of America were formerly in fact its most enthusiastic supporters, who gradually came to realize that the forms that fascinated them in their youth did not always match the content within them. Brecht, after the Crash of Wall Street in 1929 proclaimed: “welch ein Bankrott!”21 The Futurist Mayakovsky, like Lenin and Stalin, at some point also became anti-American – and we can only wonder today if this was a necessary ideological move, or something that they did indeed experience, or both. For Mayakovsky, the “worm of doubt” began to grow after his later visits to America, when he had a chance to look more closely at the “demon in American boots” – when he gazed beyond the façade of a New York skyscraper, looked beneath the covers of glossy magazines; when he visited Texas, saw the effects of Fordism on Detroit assembly line workers; or when he came across poverty and racial segregation in the ghettoes of the large metropolises. His late views began to resemble those of the Slavophils or of the nationalist Russians, who like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky warned in the late nineteenth century that American materialism and commercialism – an extreme version of Western liberalism – was poisonous for the Russian soul. His position had approached that of one of his main opponents, the Russian peasant poet Esenin, who had once cried in the face of the young futurist Mayakovsky: “Russia is mine, do you understand, mine, and you…you…are an American.”22 Later in the twentieth century Slavophil-minded writers like Solzhenitsyn – whom America sheltered and protected from his own people in the lofty woods of Vermont (a landscape that the writer chose because it reminded him of Russia) – had the impudence to declare upon his return home that during his American exile he did not hear birds singing, a remark also made earlier by the German Nikolaus Lenau (once an enthusiast of America), who stated after a trip over the ocean that there must be some “serious and deep reasons that there were no nightingales and no singing birds at all.”23

There have also been more ambiguous statements by artists about America. When Marcel Duchamp famously proclaimed in “The Richard Mutt Case” that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges” one cannot know for sure what to make of such a statement: to treat it as a compliment to American engineering, drainage and plumbing or as a critique of its lack of aesthetic sensibility? Similarly, Salvador Dalí noted that the European aesthetic civil war had not yet touched this country except in a purely informative way, referring to the relative scarcity of radical artistic interventions before World War II. But Dalí also invested great hopes in its artistic future:

Europeans are mistaken in considering America incapable of poetic and intellectual intuition... She knows, as does no one else what she lacks, what she does not have. And all that America ‘did not have’ on the spiritual place I was going to bring her, materialized in the integral and delirious mixture of my paranoiac work, in order that she might thus see and touch everything with the hands of liberty.24


These artistic sentiments and resentments, despite their ambivalence, still often conform to the basic polarities that split the discourse of Americanism. The dichotomy expressed in the German distinction between Kultur and Zivilization, for example, can help us better understand the attitudes that prevailed among European artists. What mostly impressed these European artists about America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the emergence of a radically different model of society, the early glimpses it provided of a mass consumer society based on completely different social orders of production and consumption. It seemed to offer an alternative to an old Europe stuck in Kultur and preoccupations with the beautiful national spirit. This was felt in particular at the peripheries of Europe. The Romanian Dadaist Marcel Janco proclaimed that it was a hatred of aestheticism that made the European artists of the avant-garde embrace the American mechanization of life: “With the invention of mechanization the entire aspect of things changed; along with this our optics, causing an Americanization of the spirit to the detriment of idealism.” The “barbarogenius” Branko Ve Poljanski joined in from Zagreb: “She loves me because she can sense my genius in the fashionable cut of my coat. The top of my pointy American shoe represents the peak of my wisdom to my darling.”25

Hmm, the American shoe… Why such a fascination with American shoes (from Trotsky to Mayakovsky and from Zdanevich to Ve Poljanski)? What was so special about them?

It was not that Europe did not produce shoes, but its shoe industry was lagging far behind the American one. First of all, there were constant shortages of shoes (given the slow implementation of mechanized processes). European footwear (British or Russian) was considered too heavy, and there was not a very large assortment or styles, and not enough sizes and widths to be fit all customers. Most importantly, the purchase of a pair of shoes clearly reflected class differences, in that only rich Europeans could afford new footwear or rubber boots. By contrast, American shoes were light, comfortable, durable, cheap, and were available in different sizes and widths thanks to greater mechanization and standardization of labor. Most importantly, Americans could afford a pair of new footwear or rubber boots.

This matter of shoes can help us to more clearly discern the differences between European culture and American civilization (to extend now this German dichotomy to the two continents). In the old European countries, it was felt that there was only one culture to fit all. For many within the European historical avant-garde – which denounced nationalist and idealist obsessions along with an aestheticism arrested and held hostage within local versions of academicism – American “material” civilization was the only response. Moreover, for the artists of this period (many of them of Jewish descent) the local shoe of Kultur did not always fit properly in the first place. Though their reactions against culture and spirituality took place within local Cubist, Futurist, Dada, and Constructivist currents, the historical avant-garde found its inspiration on the other side of the Atlantic, in the “soulless” America civilization of the machine and its products. What impressed European artists before World War II were not its paintings but the products of civilization, that is, material products, material forms, processes and attitudes: shoes, tractors, combines, automobiles, tires, telephones, cash registers, toothpaste, packaged foods, bridges, skyscrapers, elevators, Kodak, Wall Street and the dollar, financial checking and credit, bookkeeping, mass standardization and economic optimism. At this stage in the history of art America plays only a mediatory role through its high quality material products and of course through its mass culture: from Hollywood to frontier literature about cowboys and Indians and from Josephine Baker to jazz and foxtrot (“shake it baby, shake it!”).

But then something happens in the second half of the last century, when America steps in as a new high-cultural Empire.



The Rise of the American. Neo-Avant-garde. I will now leave my glass and plate in the 19th century room of the museum and step into the main front hall, which exhibits American art of the post-war period.

The Americanization of the spirit (to use Marcel Janco’s expression) becomes a concern in the second half of the last century. Today American historians argue that “the ‘Americanization’ of Europe is a myth…cherished by Europeans themselves because they can use it to explain how their societies have changed in ways they don’t like…”26

Be that as it may, after World War II the coin of Americanism breaks into two halves. For those living behind the Iron Curtain, and especially behind the European frontiers of the USSR, the post-World War II American cultural presence becomes more noticeable during the process of de-Stalinization. Within the Soviet bloc the Americanization of the socialist spirit takes place most notably through a series of events directed at cultural exchange and cooperation, such as international festivals and exhibitions. In the Soviet Union, for example, it was the 1957 Moscow World Festival of Youth and Students and the 1959 exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture organized as part of the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow that have often been regarded as the main vehicles for the popularization of American low and high culture. While the Festival of Youth (organized since 1947 in the socialist and non-aligned countries) had a wider cultural impact on the masses, the American National Exhibition chiefly inspired dissident alternatives to Soviet aesthetic ideals. Both events contributed to the fragmentation of the monolithic mass and its tastes, encouraging on one side various post-World War II youth subcultures,27 and on the other the formation of new artist groups. At the 1959 “Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture” – which was part of the larger American National Exhibition that is remembered for its “kitchen debate” where Khrushchev and Nixon disputed what political system could provide the highest level of comfort to its citizens – artists saw for the first time Pollock’s “dripping technique” demonstrated by members of the American delegation.28 The technique left a very strong impact on many Soviet artists, both on those who lived in Moscow and on many who had traveled from the remote Soviet republics.

The parts of the discourse of European Americanism that concern American artistic influences within the borders of the former socialist bloc still remain to be cultivated. Here, nothing compares with what has been written about the American presence in Western Europe. If in Eastern Europe American fascinations were occasioned by rare international events, on the other side of the Wall they were more strongly felt from day to day. Thanks to the “the marriage of American culture and American diplomacy”29 a series of governmental and private institutions (such as the United States Information Agency [USIC], the American Houses, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the embassy libraries, advertising agencies, Hollywood studios, MoMA’s international program) were mobilized in support of democracy and free enterprise. Their main concern was to win the hearts of Western Europeans against attacks from the East, by Soviet ideology and its communist cultural influences, which often came disguised as Russian ballerinas.

The cultural and intellectual discourse of Americanism that concerns Western European and American relations is today an immense territory. Many European intellectuals spent their war years in American exile, hiding from the excesses of Kultur and the attempts of some European nations to re-generate their national spirit. With the postwar restoration efforts, in which the U.S. played a very significant role, many intellectuals also had the chance to visit America through transatlantic cultural exchanges. Again, some are not satisfied with what they see: Simone de Beauvoir laments the lack of intellectual cafés where one can talk about art and literature; Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron suggest that Americans lack a tragic sensibility (that is they make desperate efforts to look forever young and prefer not to talk about death), or that they don’t know how to create “enduring” relationships and that their friendliness is superficial like their smiles; Adorno (who came to America in 1938) was very unhappy that during his short stint at Princeton University he was expected to gather numbers, statistical samples, and facts in order to comply with the empirical methods of American sociology. For a German social scientist used to interpreting phenomena rather than turning facts and numbers into information, this was a difficult time.30 One can only guess that this Princeton experience helped to inform Adorno’s distaste for positivism and instrumental reason, which surfaces in his writings of that time. He left for California. After the war he returned to Germany, and then visited America one more time. In the last years of his life he tried to soften his anti-American views, attempting to see some positive aspects of life there.31

In art, however, the situation seems different. American art exhibited throughout post-Word War II Europe begins to look more and more like the main room in our museum: cool, even awesome. Now it is not only the products of material and technical civilization that arrest artists’ attention but also works of art. We know today “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art from Paris” (to quote the title of a celebrated book by Serge Guilbaut), and how Abstract Expressionism was dragged into the cultural and political battlefield with the Soviet Union. Even though Abstract Expressionism was the first distinct American high cultural product deployed to convince those in Europe of its progress in this realm, the official transfer of the center of modern art from Paris to New York takes place a little bit later, in Italy.

Let’s skirt the museum’s main room and stand before a work by Rauschenberg.

At the Venice Biennale in 1964, the international grand prize in painting was awarded for the first time to an American, Robert Rauschenberg. It was here, some have argued, that the coin of Americanism swiftly spun and rolled to the floor of the American pavilion as the U.S. asserted its “aesthetic superiority”; it was here that the world – and above all the French and their School of Paris which had been used to winning most of the prizes for decades – had to recognize that the epicenter of artistic modernism and of the art market have been relocated to the East coast of the United States.32 Here, also, European critics had an excellent opportunity to unleash their anti-American resentments. When the prize went to Rauschenberg, many began to complain about a “marvel of cultural engineering,” about “American cultural and political expansionism”; art critics from Paris and Milan speculated that the Americans had put pressure on the organizers of the Biennale, threatening “to withhold funding from the ailing Biennale budget should they lose” (though no proof was offered) and that the Americans had insisted on having one of their experts on the international jury. They pointed out the fact that Rauschenberg’s paintings had been flown to Venice on U.S. Air Force jet bombers.33 It looked as if America had set itself the goal of conquering a New Frontier by convincing the snobs in Europe that it “was a society capable of producing not only material goods of civilization but high culture as well.”34

It is also worth emphasizing that most of the general resentment had little to do with the work of Rauschenberg, whom the European public and artists generally liked and respected, but rather with perceived governmental efforts to secure the prestigious prize at any price. What interests us here is not the conspiracies and intrigues surrounding the 1964 Venice Biennale – though detailed historical accounts of this event are available – but rather some of the postwar aesthetic innovations proclaimed at the Biennale by members of the American delegation. Alan Solomon (the curator of the U.S. pavilion) insisted that American Neo-Dada or Pop Art represented by such artists as Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein, or Oldenburg had come to offer something distinctly new to postwar art and aesthetics. First of all, Solomon argued that Rauschenberg had “led a revolution which has rejected the idea that one kind of materials [sic] or another are more or less appropriate to art.”35 This, in fact, was a response to Clement Greenberg and his formalist definition of painting – as paint applied on the flat surface of the canvas. Such an essentialist and restricted idea had to go. From now on, shoes, tires, chairs, empty Coca-Cola bottles, beer cans, lipstick, glossy magazine covers – in other words, the products of the “throw away” American civilization that had once impressed the European avant-gardists and which were now available in local supermarkets – could also be brought within the desacralized pictorial space of American Neo-Dada.

Another aesthetic novelty announced by the curator of the U.S. pavilion was that Rauschenberg and other representatives of the American Neo-Avant-Garde had no interest “in social comment or satire, or in politics… and [that Rauschenberg] uses his previously inappropriate materials not out of a desire to shock, but out of sheer delight, out of an optimistic belief that richness and heightened meaning can be found anywhere in the world, even in the refuse found in the street.”36 An insistence upon positive, constructive and affirmative art that seeks “new sensibilities” and “sheer delight” in the rough reality of life had become popular with American postwar liberal elites. This belief in an apolitical and affirmative avant-garde, or in what at the height of the postmodern debates certain critics on the left would call “domesticated modernism,” was not something new in the United States.

We first encounter it in 1948, when the Boston Institute of Modern Art decided to change its name to the “Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.” In their manifesto the director and president announced on the behalf of the corporation’s board of trustees that:

…in order to disassociate the policy and program of this institution from the widespread and injurious misunderstandings which surround the term “modern art,” the Corporation has today changed its name from The Institute of Modern Art to THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART.37

The document stirred up American artistic and critical circles, leading to a lasting debate in the American press known under the title “the Boston affair.”38 In Venice, Solomon conveyed to an European public something of which private American art institutions were trying to convince local artists and the public, namely that “modern art” (a term which primarily referred to the interbellum European avant-garde), “failed to speak clearly…[and as a result] there emerged a general cult of bewilderment…it came to signify for millions something unintelligible, even meaningless…[and that] this cult rested on the hazardous foundations of obscurity and negation, and utilized a private, often secret language which required the aid of an interpreter …”39 The signatories of the Boston manifesto also intuited that the time for an art dedicated to intellectual revolutions had ended in 1939 and that now it was time to encourage artists who would act “with a strong, clear affirmation of truth for humanity.”40 What Solomon imparted to the European public, in other words, was a postwar American version of “modern art,” called “contemporary art,” which was radical yet peaceful and certainly non-revolutionary, an art that did not exploit artistic means for political ends, an art which the general public could understand and relate to. The term, as it was popularized by key art institutions on the East coast of the United States, was invested with meanings that clearly resonated with a liberal cultural agenda, which favored an aesthetic or formal radicalism stripped of its political horizon.

Of course, in a way the “birth” of contemporary art was a compromise between American republican conservative politicians, who found left-wing propaganda in every manifestation of modern art, and the liberal-minded executives of the leading private art institutions. Contemporary art appears as a trade-off, or a deal arranged between opposed political factions. On the whole it reflects the postwar landscape of American foreign and domestic politics, in which the word “contemporary” was used to take a distance from Europe at a time when American historians spoke of a new Atlantic Age and a profoundly American “contemporary history,” and when American sociologists insisted that it was only in North America that “contemporary societies” were to be found – equating contemporaneity with democracy and free enterprise.41

In its affirmative character, contemporary American Neo-Dada, as it was unveiled in Venice by the American delegation, seems indeed to differ from its European historical counterpart. Rauschenberg’s grand prize-winning work contrasted in many respects with those produced by early twentieth century European artistic movements, even with those that also drew upon aesthetic construction and affirmation. The repressed Soviet constructivism of the 1920s had also declared its allegiance to the affirmation of life, only that the constructivists felt they were presenting political solutions to acute social problems: constructing the bases of a new society, forging new collectivities, educating the masses. Their project was close in spirit to the democratic pragmatism of the Work Progress Administration under the New Deal. The ethos represented by and through Rauschenberg’s work also differed from that of German Dada, whose various representatives during and after the German Revolution emphasized social content over artistic form, and often deliberately depersonalized their work so that the masses might better grasp the political content of their art, as was the case with the “Stupid” group of Cologne. These artists did not believe that their role was to help the public find joy in life and sheer delight at the dumpster or in the trash can.

The differences between American Neo-Dada and European Dada also make themselves manifest on a formal level, recalling the conceptual polarities, the heads-and-tails, of Americanism. Telling the story of how Rauschenberg won the Biennale Grand Prix, Laurie Monahan also compares his collages with those made in the Weimar Republic by such innovators as Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters. What this comparison reveals is that while in Rauschenberg’s collages each cut-and-pasted image preserves its distinct individuality, refusing intimate proximity with other elements that inhabit the same pictorial space, in Höch’s collages, images clipped from magazines nuzzle and push against each other, forming a composite totality.42 One might find here a model for a comparison of autonomous and self-sufficient individualism with the more communitarian sensibility imagined by the French advocates of personalism, or of individual liberty through separation with a more communitarian freedom through connection.



What if? In a series of dialogues that took place during the 1990s between the critic Boris Groys and the artist Ilya Kabakov, the two discussed the encounter between Russian artists and the Western, New York-centered artworld immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They both mentioned the special interest that the artworld took (for a short period of time) in Russian and other post-socialist art, trying to understand what might have motivated it. At first, the critic and the artist touched upon the history of art, remembering how at certain critical historical points Western artists had turned to other traditional cultures to find ways to re-vitalize “worn-out” artistic forms. Groys’s conclusion was that in the late 1980s, the West had reached a similar point of crisis, and that they had naively assumed that artists on the other side of the wall, and Russians in particular, had followed a different path of development, producing radical innovations on the level of artistic form. But then, the contemporary artworld seemed to lose interest when it realized that the Russian artists had not invented new artistic forms but only new content, in which the West was not particularly interested.43

We stumble once again on that divide that cuts across the discourse of Americanism – between the cultural or spiritual and the technical or material. But what if one were to interpret the United States’ main contribution to post-World War II global contemporary art as one of providing new forms and vehicles for delivering content, as it did in other spheres of everyday life (from shoes to mass produced Fords to today’s smartphones)? As we have seen, prior to the relocation of the center of high culture to America, artists from Europe were mostly fascinated with containers and means of transportation – with shoes, packaged food, automobiles, locomotives, bridges, and so forth. What if, after the war, one of America’s greatest contributions to the visual arts could be also understood in terms of providing forms, means of containment and delivery (like the installation art, performance, happening, video or computer art that are the major carriers of local contemporary artistic content)?44 It might even be that what in the “American century” we began calling contemporary art functions much like those boxes and drawers that we first encountered when we stepped into the main room of the university museum, and that what we are doing today is filling them with local content and sending them around the world. Is this what we could call the Americanization of the spirit?



Leaving the reception. In the new global order the discourse of Americanism has undergone radical changes. Today one cannot construct an image of America while positioning oneself on the outside, as Europeans consistently did before the age globalization, or before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Claus Offe suggests, America has become “geographically deterritorialized,” and it is not anymore meaningful to set it apart when it becomes the “…architect and practically uncontrollable center of an established global system of military, political, economic and ideological-cultural control.”45 In other words, today we all are, to a greater or lesser degree, Americans.

The coin of Americanism, flipped so many times, has had its heads and tails unrecognizably worn down and is now no more than a token that we keep carrying around with us.



1 I borrow the metaphor of the coin from Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht, “Always Blame the Americans: Anti-Americanism in Europe in the Twentieth Century,” The American Historical Review 111, No. 4 (October 2006): 1070. 

2 Herbert J. Spiro, “Anti-Americanism in Western Europe,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 497 (1988): 120-132.

3 Donald Gaskin and Wilton Earle, Final Truth: The Autobiography of a Serial Killer (Atlanta: Adept, 1992), 211.

4 On the historical differences between liberty and freedom see David Warren Saxe, Land and Liberty II: The Basics of Traditional American History (Universal-Publishers, 2006), 92-93. On the origins of the word freiheit see David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5.

5 Seth D. Armus, “The Eternal Enemy: Emmanuel Mounier’s Esprit and French Anti-Americanism.” French Historical Studies 24, No. 2 (2001): 271-304.

6 See for instance Yves Michaud, La crise de lart contemporain: utopie, démocratie et comédie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997); see also Christine Sourgins, Les mirages de lart contemporain (Paris: Table ronde, 2005).

7 Armus, “The Eternal Enemy,” 282.

8 See Richard Kilminster, Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology (London: Routledge, 2007), 31.

9 See Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. Patrick Camiller (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), n. 89.

10 See Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Penguin, 1972), 94-95.

11 Alex de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: and Two Essays on America (Penguin, 2003), 540.

12 Alan M. Ball, Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-Century Russia (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 15.

13 Hans Rogger, “Amerikanizm and the Economic Development of Russia” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 No. 3 (July 1981): 394.

14 For Mayakovsky see Ball, Imagining America, 23; for Zhdanevich see Roger, “Amerikanizm and the Development of Russia,” 389.

15 Quoted in Ball, Imagining America, 31.

16 Ibid., 43; Rogger, “Amerikanism and the Economic Development of Russia,” 384.

17 See Alexander Bogdanov, Elementy proletarskoi kultury v razvitii rabochego klassa (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1920).

18 Ball, Imagining America, 36-37.

19 Dennis Crockett, German post-Expressionism: the Art of the Great Disorder, 1918-1924 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 2.

20 For quotes by Picabia, Brecht and Mayakovsky see Ball, Imagining America, 4, 12, 48; for Voronca and Tzara see Timothy Benson and Eve Forgacs (eds.), Between Worlds: a Sourcebook of Central European Avant-gardes, 1910-1930 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) 484 and 536.

21 Markus Nowatzki, Aspects of Americanization in 1920s and 1930s: The Impact of Fordism and Taylorism in the Weimar Republic (GRIN Verlag, 2007), 17.

22 Ball, Imagining America, 46.

23 For Solzhenitsyn see Alexandre Sokurov, Dialogue with Solzhenitsyn, DVD, Ideale Audience, 2007; for Nikolaus Lenau see Andrei S. Markovits, “On Anti-Americanism in West Germany” New German Critique 34 (Winter, 1985): 11.

24 Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (London: Vision Press, 1968), 325.

25 For Janco see “Reflection on Cubism” in Benson and Forgacs, Between Worlds, 706; for Branko Ve Poljanski see “Zenith Express,” ibid., 367.

26 See for instance Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997), xiv.

27 For such subcultural groups as stilyagi [literally “style-chasers”] in the USSR, or bikiniarze (Bikini Boys) in Poland, or jampec in Hungary, events like the international Festivals of Youth – whose main objective was to mobilize the progressive youth of the world against imperialism – were those venues that fed and maintained their fascination with America. The style chasing stilyagi, for instance adopted American nicknames – usually Bob or Bill, (almost like the Weimar Dadaists of the twenties); they addressed each other as “darling” or “baby;” they were usually “hanging out” instead of relaxing, and when they danced they preferred the foxtrot and the boogie-woogie to waltzes and polkas. Their attire, however, was what made them different from the gray crowd: tight-fitting zoot suits, ties tagged with American cigarette labels, brightly colored stockings, and hair smeared with grease. Much literature exists on this topic. One of the earliest sources is Institute for International Youth Affairs, Courtship of Young Minds: a Case Study of the Moscow Youth Festival (New York: East European Student and Youth Services, Inc., 1957).

28 For a more detailed account of this event see Edith Halpert, Edith Halpert Lecture at Brooklyn Museum, 1959, Oct. 19 (Washington DC: Archives of American Art, 1959), [audio transcript].

29 Pells, Not like Us, 40.

30 Ibid., pp. 173-81, for Adorno p. 179.

31 On Adorno’s later philo-Americanism see chapter on Adorno in Offe, Reflections on America.

32 For the most detailed and critical account of the impact of the 1964 Venice Biennale see Laurie J. Monahan, “Cultural Cartography: American Designs at the 1964 Venice Biennale,” in Serge Guilbaut ed, Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris and Montreal 1945-1964 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).

33 Ibid., 371.

34 Ibid., 382

35 Ibid., 387.

36 Ibid.

37 Nelson Aldrich & James S. Plaut, “‘Modern Art’ and the American Public: A Statement of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Formerly the Institute of Modern Art” (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1948), [unpaginated].

38 On the Boston debate see also Institute of Contemporary Art, Dissent: The Issue of Modern Art in Boston (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1985).

39 See Aldrich & Plaut, “‘Modern Art’ and the American Public,” [unpaginated].

40 Ibid.

41 For “contemporary history” see Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (New York: Penguin Books, 1967); for “contemporary society” see Samuel Morison, Freedom in Contemporary Society (Boston: Little, 1956). For a more detailed discussion of certain historical meanings invested in the phrase “contemporary art” see Octavian Esanu, “Towards a Conceptual Art History: ‘Contemporary Art’” (unpublished manuscript).

42 Monahan, “Cultural Cartography,” 390.

43 Ilya Iosifovich Kabakov, Boris Groys, and Elena Petrovskaia, Dialogi: 1990-1994 (Moskva: Ad-Marginem, 1999), 81.

44 A similar idea but with regard to contemporary art exhibitions was suggested by Miško Šuvaković in The Ideology Of Exhibition: On The Ideologies Of Manifesta (Ljubljana: PlatformaSCCA, 2002), (Accessed July 7, 2010).

45 Offe, Reflections on America, 97-99.

25.03.2013 14:16


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