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17: Cold War and the Age of the Atom- Consensus and Anxiety, 1945-1960

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    FOR ALL THE EFFORTS of the New Deal, ultimately it was World War II that jumpstarted the nation's economy. The war effort required major reinvestment in American industries, from shipbuilding to steel, and laid the foundations for America's global dominance after the war. Out of a total population of 133 million people, 16 million Americans went to war while 60 million mobilized at home to supply the war effort. 295,000 American soldiers died in action. Worldwide, total war fatalities numbered 61 million people (soldiers and civilians). By the end of the war, the cities and factories of Europe and Asia were in shambles, while America's homeland was unscathed.

    Victory produced a wellspring of optimism. In peacetime, Americans became "a people of plenty." Men returning from World War II entered institutions of higher education in unprecedented numbers, supported by the federal G.I. Bill. Newly married vets also spawned a 'baby boom" that sent new families to post-war suburbs where they enjoyed an unprecedented level of consumer spending on cars and home appliances, assuring continued economic growth. Post-war prosperity produced a confident new national self-image of America as the world leader of modern technological progress.

    Yet uneasiness grew over technology's impact. Increasingly, Americans questioned the nation's ability to preserve its values in the face of an emerging technocracy, by which fundamental decisions about governance would be made to serve the interests of what President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) would warily term "the military-industrial complex." Especially overshadowing the confidence of the post-war years were anxieties about nuclear annihilation. In August 1945, America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leveling both Japanese cities and killing 234,000 persons in two strokes. After the destructive might of America's bombs became clear, the Soviet Union-formerly allied with the United States in World War II-felt compelled to develop its own arsenal of nuclear weaponry to counterbalance American power. The ensuing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was felt at every level of society, and fears of "creeping" Soviet-style Communism led to a climate of suspicion and social conformism.

    In the face of such pressures, new artistic energies were brewing in American society, fueled by increasing international contact and influence. These years witnessed new forms of abstraction, drawing on a range of philosophical, pictorial, and psychological currents, including Native American art and religion, Zen Buddhism, and Asian calligraphic traditions. The political and social engagement of the 1930s, along with its strong narrative impulse, gave way to a longing for spiritual integration and a synthesis of mind and body. In resistance to the growing atmosphere of conformism, artists turned away from collective to personal sources of meaning, producing new content. In the words of philosopher Paul Goodman (1911-72), "The root is man." The social image of the artist shifted: no longer representing the 1930s quest for political solutions through united action, the artist now embodied the individual's anguished struggle with meaning. The 1950s spawned the image of the artist associated with Abstract Expressionism: emotive, defiantly masculine, and at odds with the culture of consensus and consumerism. Only a few years later, younger artists in turn rejected this heroic pose in favor of deadpan delivery and opaque meanings, preparing the way for the developments of the 1960s.

    Distinguishing the 1950s from earlier decades are the connections that were drawn between formal, expressive, and design elements and discourses of freedom. But freedom carried different meanings for different sectors of society. For those dissenting from the manufactured consensus of Cold War conformism, freedom involved resistance and risk. For those who took part in the consumer society of corporate culture, freedom was sought in well-being, comfort, and security. Taken together, a new range of artistic strategies emerged to express the realities of the nuclear age for an anxious generation.

    Thumbnail: JASPER JOHNS, Gray Numbers, 1958. Encaustic and collage on canvas, 67 x 49½ in (170.2 x 125.7 cm). Private collection.