Monday, February 29, 2016

The Art of Administration: On Greg Barnhisel’s “Cold War Modernists”

Here is a list of some major players in Cold War Modernists, Greg Barnhisel’s fascinating and meticulously researched history of modernist art and literature’s role in Cold War diplomacy: the American Artists Professional League (AAPL); the American Federation of Arts (AFA); the Committee on Public Information (CPI); the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF); the International Information Administration (IIA); the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA); the United States Information Agency (USIA); the United States Information Service (USIS); and the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Nations, which, by way of a complicated transliteration, adopted the acronym VOKS.
Imagine all of the paperwork produced by one of these benignly titled groups: the mission statements and monthly summaries, official memos and interagency notices, budgets and projected spending reports. Then imagine the size of the file cabinet needed to house all of the documents for it and all of the governmental, quasi-governmental, and philanthropic organizations that dealt in foreign policy and cultural diplomacy between the rise of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall (or, to take the slightly more manageable time frame at the heart of Cold War Modernists, between the Truman and Kennedy administrations). This will give a sense of the archive from which Barnhisel culls his study. And now imagine the time and patience it would require to find, request, and read this material, and make it say something about the fate of modernist literature and art after their initial spark in the 1910s and 1920s.

Text by Donal Harris