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Roots of Radicalism

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The Hollow Victory

By DAVE STEVENS

ONE of the major and most influential schools of modern art since the War has been what is commonly called abstract expressionism. The artists of this school included men like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. They were mostly left-wing, Jewish and bloody awful.

The Art of Death and the Death of Art

The rise of something as empty, as nihilistic, as corrupt as this soulless canvas spattering was, and is, a direct result of the Second World War. For, ironically for a war that war meant to save European civilisation from the clutches of the evil Nazis, it heralded the decline of Paris as the art capital of the world and the consequent emergence of that bastion of culture commonly known as New York as the art world's capital(ist) city. It was the War, and the victory of capitalism, that created the conditions which allowed this abortion its birth.

To the Establishment in America, artistic and political, the occupation of Paris by the National Socialists symbolised the death of that city's values. Its later 'liberation' by them heralded the age of the dollar, exactly what Henry Luce prophesied when he said that the 20th Century belonged to America.

During the War pictures by Picasso had started to appear in advertisements and in fashion magazines. The War helped the U.S.A. to prosper and this increasingly fat plutocracy started buying paintings. The art entrepreneurs needed something new to attract their clientele. By 1943 they had found it.

From Pollock's first exhibition he was being hailed as the symbol of the new America, the victorious America. As the art historian Serge Cuilbaut says: "Pollock's work fitted in with the image that enlightened liberals had forme of their country".

WIDE OPEN

The art world was wide open, but it wasn't until 1948 that abstract expressionism was firmly in control. Like all of today's art it was created by the critics, by the 'experts'. For no one really wanted this debased rubbish; it was simply another case of the emperor's new clothes. The PR men had won again. Yet in one way the critics were more honest than the rest of the Establishment, for when they called for a “truly American” art that would replace the European tradition they were admitting that what the Americans had been involved in during the War wasn't a “Victory in Europe” but a victory over Europe.

For a while Pollock and the boys didn't get it all their own way as there began to be an interest in the art of the American Indian. They all had a vision, whether God, collectivism or nature. The abstract expressionist, on the other hand, has nothing.

NEUROSIS AND ANXIETY

But even in cynical, liberal America, to throw a race of people into concentration camps (sorry reservations), bring them close to extinction, then take an interest in their paintings and what remains of their culture after years of genocide, was pushing luck more than a little.

So by 1948 the paintings of abstract expressionism had arrived. So had their philosophy or, to be exact, their lack of philosophy, and it is this which makes these pictures so interesting. For art has said and been many things, not always good, but it has always had a heart and a soul. It may have been the Pre-Raphaelites with their dislike of Victorian capitalism and their love affair with the medieval and the Divine; or even the constructivists with the paeans of praise to the Proletariat and the machine.

The American avant-garde had lost its Marxism, which isn't much, but is better than nothing. Instead it had embraced neurosis and anxiety, it had embraced the ideology of alienation. They believed, if that's the right word, that only the alienated man could be truly free; that even if it only led to neurosis and guilt (which is exactly what it did lead to) it was freedom. These ideas, the idea of an anxious freedom, fitted well with their masters for while the Second World War had ended, a new war, the Cold War, had begun.

Thus it was that New York had managed, by the power of the dollar, to replace Europe and Paris as the art centre of the world. American neurosis, American alienation had triumphed over European taste.

At the height of the Cold War, and the anti-Russian hysteria, the critic Clement Greenberg, with the arrogance only his kind seem to have, announced: “In the war against Communism, America now holds all the trumps: the atom bomb, a strong economy, a powerful army, and now artistic supremacy, cultural supremacy”. For the first time an American critic was aggressive and confident enough to state publicly that New York was superior to Paris, that America was superior to Europe. In the same year the Democrats were elected and their 'New Liberalism' was born. Abstract expressionism, financed by the CIA, was exhibited in Paris, Berlin, London and Dusseldorf, and was promoted in cultural magazines also financed by the CIA.

ANTI-LIFE

Of course, some reactionaries will applaud any 'anti-communism'. That is up to them but we know, at least we should know, that this isn't 'anti-communism' but anti-Europe, anti-life. As a Belgian Nationalist, who unlike the 'new liberals' actually fought communism, said: "It is not to save capitalism that we fight, it is for a revolution of our own."

The enemies of European civilisation know that art and politics, culture and politics, are linked. They can be used by us or they can be used against us. It is up to us to realise that we are not simply fighting against something, but are fighting for something. That means seeing art and culture not as a luxury or a cop-out, as something bourgeois and effete, but as something necessary not just to our survival but to our victory.

Art and culture are both essential to what that Belgian Nationalist called a “revolution of our own”. That revolution comes as much from the inside, in our hearts, as from outside against the modern world. Only then can we face the sun and build the new Europe, a Europe fit for Europeans, a Europe fit for artists.