3. Individual Speech Versus Communism
The story of art as welfare obscures a darker tale. On D-Day, June 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Along with armaments, tanks, transport and men, were packing cases full of books. (16) Their purpose was to ensure resistance to the Axis powers was not only solid, but also of the ‘right’ kind. The fact that the invasion needed ‘selling’ is often forgotten. On liberation, the Free French forces and the Resistance were heroes. However, during the war, their vision of France had been contested by a variety of groups with different ideological orientations and political strategies.

The notion of using art and literature to sell Allied war aims was no great innovation. The intimate relation of rhetoric and art long preceded the era of Modernist universalism. (17) But the more immediate history included Edward Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda, which outlined a series of seemingly fictional advertising campaigns, which at the end he reveals to be real. (18) The case studies include an exhibition at the Louvre intended to push modern American wares in the European market. (19) Directing cultural discourse towards economic and social objectives was already firmly established by the time those books were landed on the beaches of Normandy. Wartime propaganda was not new, but its intensification in the mid 20th century had a profound effect on how we conceptualise art and what we expect of it.

The CIA’s use of cultural discourse in the war on communism is well documented. (20) For decades the US covertly funded extensive programmes of artistic and cultural activity that ran well into the 1960s. (21) The ideological narratives of freedom that were created between the 1940s and 1960s built carefully on existing narratives and sensibilities. When the US entered the war, critics were quick to claim the soul of international Modernism as American. In 1940, Harold Rosenberg published an essay in Partisan Review called ‘The Fall of Paris’. (22) Rosenberg’s essay staked a bold claim for New York as the new home of Modernism. Rosenberg pointed out that the overwhelming majority of avant gardists working in Paris were not French nationals, nor could their Modernism flourish under fascist control. Modernism’s natural home was the US, a country of immigrants, a place where many people from different nations choose to live in peace. (23) From there it was a short step to demonstrating the fruit of that transplanted stock.

Re-transplanted Modernism came with a message about the absolute necessity of unchained individualism. Clement Greenberg’s search for an art free from the distortions of state and market found its paradigm in Jackson Pollock’s ‘edgeless’ canvases, which made no concession to the limitations imposed by an uncomprehending audience. Art must not, so the story went, concede to such limitations; if it did, it risked lapsing into mere illustration or propaganda. The artist must be free. With an almost unimaginable irony, pre-war debates about autonomy were thus entirely instrumentalised, Modernism was chained and brought into line with freedom of expression – the first of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, the first of the Allies war aims, the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and specifically Articles 19 and 27 of the UDHR – which now asserted itself as an indispensible part of the conceptual apparatus of visual art and the cornerstone of western culture.

However, to make that argument stick, Modernism itself had to be redefined. The very term implied not individual freedom and competition between diverse voices, but collective progress over historical time. Avant Gardism similarly implied a group of individuals with certain shared attitudes, whose works demonstrated common aims. The concept of artistic ‘movements’ gathered around manifestos depersonalised the making of artworks. Alfred Barr’s famous interwar diagram of the interrelationships of avant gardist groupings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) practically demonstrated the collective nature of interwar cultural achievements. (24) While individuals worked within Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism or Constructivism, the aesthetic advances were interrelational and collective. Modernism, and Barr’s diagrammatic presentation of it, was simply incompatible with a political narrative of individual freedom of expression, since a surrealist or futurist willingly subordinated their individuality to a greater project. (25) Sometimes that collective project was straightforwardly aesthetic but sometimes, as with Futurism, consciously political. Making freedom of expression entirely coextensive with Modernism therefore entailed severing Modernism’s association with collectivity.

The conception of art that best lent itself to a narrative of unfettered sovereign individuality was Romanticism – the very conception of art that Modernists believed they had overthrown. For propaganda purposes the clock had to be turned back, and the critical focus shifted from art objects and trends in production back onto the persona of the individual artist. From there, an art of individual experiment and innovation could be contrasted with the tight restrictions on style and content of Socialist Realism – restrictions designed to make art accessible to a mass audience. Thus the lack of creative freedom in the Soviet Union could be used to illustrate the lack of political and social freedom under communism. Stripped of all characteristics of collective organisation, Modernism was thus re-imagined as primary necessity of particular individuals, whose duty was to themselves rather than appeasing the audience.

The ideological narrative was neatly summed up in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 speech at MoMA. ‘Freedom in the Arts’ lent presidential endorsement to MoMA’s patronage of the New York School and crudely paraphrased the narrative of Romantic expressive individualism. (26)

As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art … How different it is in tyranny. When artists become chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed. (27)

The rhetoric is crude. Are you free? Do you feel high personal intensity? Are you free to create, to express yourself? Are you sincere? Isn’t controversy – i.e. individual competition – the key to progress? Progress, creation and genius are destroyed by tyranny (communism). Eisenhower’s last clause is a classic rhetorical reversal. The positive statement underpinning it simply states that progress rests on creation, and creation on genius – by definition the innate quality of a particular individual. Such cod-Romanticism was deeply retrogressive and little concerned with pre-war Modernism and the International Style. At the same time, Eisenhower’s statement is both disingenuous and breathtakingly cynical. In a dialectic of ideological bullshit, propaganda accuses propaganda of being propaganda. (28)

Precisely because the work of Pollock and other New York School artists contained no overt images, no overt messages, they were easily presented as the embodiment of a rugged individualism that sought freedom by denying any kind of collective or social demands; ironically an individualism and freedom ruthlessly and totally instumentalised by state agencies to illustrate freedom from the state. That anti-state narrative was also intimately bound to economic ideology: as Nelson Rockefeller at MoMA noted, the New York School was ‘free enterprise painting’. (29) Precisely the same sentiment was used by Alfred Barr in his successful attempt to persuade Henry Luce, the owner of Time-Life, to change editorial policy in favour of the New York School: such work, Barr boldly stated, embodied ‘artistic free enterprise’. (30) Barr’s lobbying resulted in Life’s infamous centre-page spread on Pollock in 1949. That narrative of individual freedom proved remarkably durable. Even when artists began to depart from the strictures of the New York School in the 1960s, the ideology it had carried spread to new forms – as we shall see later.

4. Freedom is Expressing Yourself
The conception of individual freedom of expression that emerged from CIA programmes under Truman and Eisenhower was radically different from that envisaged by Roosevelt. The ‘Four Freedoms’ speech set free expression against other freedoms – notably freedom from want. The UDHR has thirty articles covering a profusion of conceptually separate rights. In contrast, the anti-communist narrative was simple: the individual’s ability to freely express themselves was the fundamental root of all forms of freedom. Society may be radically unequal, you might not get a seat on the bus if you were black, the narrative went, but if you can say what you want, if you can express yourself without interference, you are, by definition, free.

That conceptualisation of freedom was extremely narrow, and also, in its way, totalising. It imaged rights as stemming from sovereign individuality rather than a social compact, since the latter would have entailed intellectual concessions to collectivity of one kind or another. Thus, if ‘all’ are nothing but individual units, collectivity with its associations with other forms of political arrangement, such as socialism and communism, begins to look coercive. And, by subordinating the concept of society to that of the individual, other claims, such as the right to work or be free of poverty, together with broader ideological claims (such as the emancipation of labour from exploitation, demands for the redistribution of wealth through taxation or revolutionary confiscation) could be marginalised. (31) Humanity’s communal nature was thus reduced to a political vision of the individual – in philosophical terms the whole was reduced to its parts, the parts presented as no longer constituting a whole, and attempts to integrate parts back into aggregate wholes, presented as a threat to the ‘rights’ of the part.

On that basis, individual consciousness and the ability to speak completely freely were the fundamentals from which all other freedoms sprang – which sounded a lot like democracy and enough like the UDHR not to appear to be in conflict with it. (32) If one was free to express oneself, one could debate, and, by extension, attempt to achieve one’s personal objectives. Critically, however, any objectives that conflicted with freedom of expression must be subordinated to it. One might demand to be free from poverty but such demands must be limited if freedom from want resulted in any individual’s freedom of speech being curtailed: thus the quadrilateral equality of the Four Freedoms was obliterated and replaced with a hierarchy. That fundamentalist argument could easily be extended to demands that labour be free from exploitation, that wealth be redistributed, or social equality enforced – whether those demands originated in democratic or totalitarian systems.

5. The Kulturkampf on Welfare
The ideological narrative buried in the discourse of freedom of expression was, for decades, held in check by the desperate need for welfare in a Europe ravaged by war. Wars cannot be conducted peer-to-peer; they necessarily entail collective and unified actions. The unity induced can be devastatingly destructive or enormously creative, or both. Populations become used to acting in coordinated ways and comfortable with the intervention of the state in their lives. Where that intervention is large and sustained it also produces greater expectations of the state.

The 1945 Labour government in Britain answered those expectations by tying pensions, social security benefits, healthcare and social housing programmes together in a new social compact that the right dubbed ‘the Welfare State’ – a loaded generic term that stuck. The post-war private sector was relatively small and social trust in government and state was strong. Keynesian economics, with its principal political aim of full employment, marched hand in hand with social security. (33) As the Cold War developed, a number of ‘strategic’ industries were brought under national ownership. The consensus on both left and right was that the state had a responsibility to its citizens to guide the economy using all the levers at its disposal.

The ideological war on welfare began even while the Welfare State was being established. However, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, objectors were politically weak. The Cold War gave them their first big break. In the US, fear of communism became a mania in the 1950s, giving rise to a network of increasingly vociferous think-tanks whose aim was to disarm existential threats to capitalism. The Mont Pelerin Society did not even trust businesses to safeguard capitalism, since many had proved amenable to working with totalitarian regimes during the war. (34) It was from these hothouses of anti-communist propaganda that a vision of capitalism emerged that purported to be resistant to the state and, indeed, any form of collectivism. (35) The Mont Pelerin Society’s leading ideologue had a long history in that regard. As far back as the mid 1930s, Friedrich von Hayek had argued that the only bulwark strong enough to resist the totalitarianism of fascism and communism was the market. (36) Not capitalism in a material, practical sense, with all its flaws, misconnections, inconsistencies and confederations with politicians and states, but capitalist markets as a pure theocratic ideology.

Like other forms of Modernism, Hayek’s economics claimed to operate from universal principles. (37) However, whereas Modernist art laid claim to the future, Hayek’s universalising claimed to have uncovered truths that had always existed. Rather than a universalism pushing humanity forward towards equality, Hayek claimed to have uncovered the undistorted truth of individuality – a universal truth, the same everywhere and good for all time. (38) Innovation lay not in what was new, but the uncovering of essential truths from which no further development was possible. Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, and the notion of progress that underpinned ‘liberal’ or ‘Whig’ history, were simply wrong. When one knows the universal ‘truth’, further change is an undesirable ‘distortion’. (39)

The ideological attraction of the Hayekian narrative lay in the notion that collective political, economic and cultural arrangements could be reduced to a system of market exchanges between individuals. (40) Or as Margaret Thatcher later informed us: ‘there is no such thing as society’. Concepts like society, democracy and state rest on part-whole relations. Such compositional relations suggest that, in the first instance, parts constitute wholes, however in doing so, to some degree, they become other than themselves. Individuals are never a law unto themselves. In contrast, Hayekian theory put individual sovereignty at the centre of all relations. ‘Reality’ lay in individuals and the exchanges they undertook directly peer-to-peer without the need for intermediate social structures. (41) ‘Progress’ lay, not in any progressive idealism, but in stripping humanity back to its essential ‘reality’. On that basis, only truly free markets gave full freedom to the individual, whereas nation states and their legal regulations ‘distorted’ markets and, by extension, distorted individuals.

Where concepts like society and nation rest on the process of parts constituting wholes and undergoing some degree of transformation, the ‘parts’ of pure market arrangements are entirely autonomous – each individual exchanges with each other forever, on a horizontal theoretical plane without depth or historical development. (42) Thus while Hayek’s theorisation was universalising, it disavowed universals in the philosophical sense. (43) Parts were parts, were parts, were parts, and must never add up to any communal entity, since to do so entailed concessions that undermined a ‘part’s’ autonomy. Or as holistic theorists contended, what we term ‘parts’ are actually autonomous wholes. By the 1960s, that rhetoric was already informing art discourse.

Despite rejecting Greenbergian Modernism, Minimalism elaborated its ideological rhetoric. Donald Judd dubbed composition ‘that most objectionable relic of Europeanism’. (44) His writing, together with that of Robert Morris, spelled out a course of art that diverged from that of ‘old Europe’. (45) The assumption that parts add up to a whole was pointedly rejected as ‘hierarchical’. Instead, their theorisation positioned Minimalism as a series of individual units that, whatever their number and position, remained individual, never constituting a collective entity. Hurrah for the joy of seeing one thing after another, after another, after another! ‘Relational composition’ was rejected for precisely the same reason that Hayek’s individual eschewed communism: composition assumes parts constitute, and thereafter subordinate themselves, to a whole. (46) Similarly the various types of holism that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s did more than deny the reductionism of part-whole analysis and various uses of induction. They could simultaneously be deployed to illustrate the problem with both communism and representational parliamentary democracy, since both rest, in different ways, on part-whole composition.

In this anti-leftist rhetoric, equality took on an aesthetic, rather than political, conceptualisation. ‘Parts’ were equal insofar as each was autonomous. That does not preclude some ‘parts’ becoming vastly wealthier than the others; indeed, making human inequality appear just was the purpose of the rhetoric. In contrast equality in the political and democratic is not aesthetic, but rather a practical attempt by the collective (however defined) to consciously reduce economic and social inequality (by democratic or other means). The crucial difference between the two definitions lies in whether equality is thought to be a theoretical and abstract condition of ‘parts’ in a speculative model of human relations, or the desired outcome of messy and imperfect political systems. Hayek’s strategy was to blur the critical distinction between abstract speculation – an image – and real-world practice.

The strategy, presumably unconsciously, evoked a biblical image. Humanity once believed it could rise to knowledge by induction – each part acting in concert in order to reach the universal whole. But, the story goes, God thwarted the Tower of Babel by cursing each builder to speak a different language. Similarly, Hayek’s theorisations sought to undermine democracy – which is always inductive (parts move toward wholes) – by demanding each part follow their individual freedom to the exclusion of all others, with the political corollary that every individual must exercise their freedom of expression without any restraint whatsoever. (47) In that way, an expressive image of equality could be substituted for the reality of equality in its concrete political and economic senses.


5. The Kulturkampf on Welfare

The ideological narrative buried in the discourse of freedom of expression was, for decades, held in check by the desperate need for welfare in a Europe ravaged by war. Wars cannot be conducted peer-to-peer; they necessarily entail collective and unified actions. The unity induced can be devastatingly destructive or enormously creative, or both. Populations become used to acting in coordinated ways and comfortable with the intervention of the state in their lives. Where that intervention is large and sustained it also produces greater expectations of the state.

The 1945 Labour government in Britain answered those expectations by tying pensions, social security benefits, healthcare and social housing programmes together in a new social compact that the right dubbed ‘the Welfare State’ – a loaded generic term that stuck. The post-war private sector was relatively small and social trust in government and state was strong. Keynesian economics, with its principal political aim of full employment, marched hand in hand with social security. (33) As the Cold War developed, a number of ‘strategic’ industries were brought under national ownership. The consensus on both left and right was that the state had a responsibility to its citizens to guide the economy using all the levers at its disposal.

The ideological war on welfare began even while the Welfare State was being established. However, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, objectors were politically weak. The Cold War gave them their first big break. In the US, fear of communism became a mania in the 1950s, giving rise to a network of increasingly vociferous think-tanks whose aim was to disarm existential threats to capitalism. The Mont Pelerin Society did not even trust businesses to safeguard capitalism, since many had proved amenable to working with totalitarian regimes during the war. (34) It was from these hothouses of anti-communist propaganda that a vision of capitalism emerged that purported to be resistant to the state and, indeed, any form of collectivism. (35) The Mont Pelerin Society’s leading ideologue had a long history in that regard. As far back as the mid 1930s, Friedrich von Hayek had argued that the only bulwark strong enough to resist the totalitarianism of fascism and communism was the market. (36) Not capitalism in a material, practical sense, with all its flaws, misconnections, inconsistencies and confederations with politicians and states, but capitalist markets as a pure theocratic ideology.

Like other forms of Modernism, Hayek’s economics claimed to operate from universal principles. (37) However, whereas Modernist art laid claim to the future, Hayek’s universalising claimed to have uncovered truths that had always existed. Rather than a universalism pushing humanity forward towards equality, Hayek claimed to have uncovered the undistorted truth of individuality – a universal truth, the same everywhere and good for all time. (38) Innovation lay not in what was new, but the uncovering of essential truths from which no further development was possible. Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, and the notion of progress that underpinned ‘liberal’ or ‘Whig’ history, were simply wrong. When one knows the universal ‘truth’, further change is an undesirable ‘distortion’. (39)

The ideological attraction of the Hayekian narrative lay in the notion that collective political, economic and cultural arrangements could be reduced to a system of market exchanges between individuals. (40) Or as Margaret Thatcher later informed us: ‘there is no such thing as society’. Concepts like society, democracy and state rest on part-whole relations. Such compositional relations suggest that, in the first instance, parts constitute wholes, however in doing so, to some degree, they become other than themselves. Individuals are never a law unto themselves. In contrast, Hayekian theory put individual sovereignty at the centre of all relations. ‘Reality’ lay in individuals and the exchanges they undertook directly peer-to-peer without the need for intermediate social structures. (41) ‘Progress’ lay, not in any progressive idealism, but in stripping humanity back to its essential ‘reality’. On that basis, only truly free markets gave full freedom to the individual, whereas nation states and their legal regulations ‘distorted’ markets and, by extension, distorted individuals.

Where concepts like society and nation rest on the process of parts constituting wholes and undergoing some degree of transformation, the ‘parts’ of pure market arrangements are entirely autonomous – each individual exchanges with each other forever, on a horizontal theoretical plane without depth or historical development. (42) Thus while Hayek’s theorisation was universalising, it disavowed universals in the philosophical sense. (43) Parts were parts, were parts, were parts, and must never add up to any communal entity, since to do so entailed concessions that undermined a ‘part’s’ autonomy. Or as holistic theorists contended, what we term ‘parts’ are actually autonomous wholes. By the 1960s, that rhetoric was already informing art discourse.

Despite rejecting Greenbergian Modernism, Minimalism elaborated its ideological rhetoric. Donald Judd dubbed composition ‘that most objectionable relic of Europeanism’. (44) His writing, together with that of Robert Morris, spelled out a course of art that diverged from that of ‘old Europe’. (45) The assumption that parts add up to a whole was pointedly rejected as ‘hierarchical’. Instead, their theorisation positioned Minimalism as a series of individual units that, whatever their number and position, remained individual, never constituting a collective entity. Hurrah for the joy of seeing one thing after another, after another, after another! ‘Relational composition’ was rejected for precisely the same reason that Hayek’s individual eschewed communism: composition assumes parts constitute, and thereafter subordinate themselves, to a whole. (46) Similarly the various types of holism that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s did more than deny the reductionism of part-whole analysis and various uses of induction. They could simultaneously be deployed to illustrate the problem with both communism and representational parliamentary democracy, since both rest, in different ways, on part-whole composition.

In this anti-leftist rhetoric, equality took on an aesthetic, rather than political, conceptualisation. ‘Parts’ were equal insofar as each was autonomous. That does not preclude some ‘parts’ becoming vastly wealthier than the others; indeed, making human inequality appear just was the purpose of the rhetoric. In contrast equality in the political and democratic is not aesthetic, but rather a practical attempt by the collective (however defined) to consciously reduce economic and social inequality (by democratic or other means). The crucial difference between the two definitions lies in whether equality is thought to be a theoretical and abstract condition of ‘parts’ in a speculative model of human relations, or the desired outcome of messy and imperfect political systems. Hayek’s strategy was to blur the critical distinction between abstract speculation – an image – and real-world practice.

The strategy, presumably unconsciously, evoked a biblical image. Humanity once believed it could rise to knowledge by induction – each part acting in concert in order to reach the universal whole. But, the story goes, God thwarted the Tower of Babel by cursing each builder to speak a different language. Similarly, Hayek’s theorisations sought to undermine democracy – which is always inductive (parts move toward wholes) – by demanding each part follow their individual freedom to the exclusion of all others, with the political corollary that every individual must exercise their freedom of expression without any restraint whatsoever. (47) In that way, an expressive image of equality could be substituted for the reality of equality in its concrete political and economic senses.

Next >



House Of Welfare


[index]