Stimulated since the 1930s by the steady flow of leading European modernist artists, designers, and photographers in flight from political repression and war, American artmaking expanded in new directions from the 1940s. The "new American abstraction" brought international attention to an artistic culture many considered provincial up to that time. Contact with the mural art of Mexico, as well as the infusion of philosophic currents from Asia, and a deepening fascination with Native arts, also contributed. Not only did American culture assimilate and transform global influences, but Americans vigorously promoted themselves as the democracy that had stemmed the tide of European fascism,. assisted materially in the post-war rebuilding of Europe, and now stood steadfast in the face of Communism. America's geopolitical ascendancy was accompanied by an art considered, for the first time, worthy of comparison to the art of Europe.
The period covered by the final two chapters of our book, 1960 to the present, witnessed an unraveling of the "official story" held tensely in place throughout the 1950s. The cultural dissent, ironic detachment, and claims to representation by groups marginalized by mainstream values, all present to a degree in the 1950s, emerged after 1960 to transform American arts once again. Official consensus culture appeared increasingly hollow as the moral authority of political elites was compromised by the Vietnam War, and by a spiritually arid technocratic culture. In the arts, this broadly skeptical atmosphere contributed to the development of new, self-reflexive artistic practices that questioned social myths, and that challenged the normative constructions of race, gender, and sexuality supposedly holding the nation together in the face of widening fractures.