The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand
The synopsis for Menands book suggest that “the Cold War was not just a contest of power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense – economic and political, artistic and personal.” What’s interesting about how the book arrives at this basic thesis is that it takes a look at America during the Cold War era from the outside looking in. Often when we think about the influence of American culture it is assumes, and I say this as a Canadian, a trajectory of American culture influencing the world. The most illuminating aspect of this book for me was seeing how the rise of American culture emerges fom the international voices and experiences that surround it.
The book is admittedly far reaching given its emphasis on a particular period. It is sectioned off thematically using the above categories to frame its focus, be it economics, politics, or art. And it it is peppered with a ton of interesting facts about these different themes that are interesting in and of themselves. It is the portrait of this distinct historial development that remains the books primary strength however, especially where it traverses the movement from Avante Garde to popular culture. Popular culture in the sense that we know it today is a recent idea, and it is in understanding what it is and how it came to be, especially where intersects with the unique standpoint of this historical period that we can gain a better understanding of the relationship between thought and art. Perhaps most fascinating to consider is how this gave rise for the first time in history to what we would call “youth culture”. Up until this time this did not exist, and from this also flows the creation of high school and post secondary education, a structural system built to categorize the youth as a marketable entity. From this of course comes this notion of a clash of cultures or the seperation of cultures within generations, leading ultimatley to the glorifcation of youth almost as an idol. This is information I knew, but reading it in context of the emergence of American culture, art, and thought helped to illuminate some of these realities for me in a fresh way.
Feeling, as it does, that the cultural landscape around the world has been especially burdened by Covid, not to mention recent years, it is easy to narrow in on the current state of American culture, fraught as it is with its mess of technical advancement and economic uncertainty, and assume these are the same challenges playing out worldwide. Much of this assumes the rise of streaming services as the new reality, but one distinguishing fact about American culture is how its idealization of youth culture contines to keep it detached from history in ways that international communities are not. And as is apparent in this book, art is never detached from interconnected realities such as economy and politics and social realities. To understand one we need to understand them all, and from this emerges the uniqueness of thought. Perhaps in one sense this remains the beating heart of this thing called liberty or the free world. In another sense its a reminder that America, as is apparent in their economics and politics, is not as free as is often assumed within their art. Perhaps this book, ripe with history as it is, can effectively reconnect the story with history in a way that can help illuminate the power and importance of both art and thought.