When America wrested the torch of art from the Europeans

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How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, by Serge Guilbaut. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 275 pp. $9.95. Paper. The citizenry of the United States never did trust its aesthetic sensibilities. Imbued with a trade-craftsman mentality, the American populace has always looked over its shoulder to the Europeans for its cultural cues, if any were sought at all. There has been, and is, a general distrust of anything that can't be gauged monetarily. The intangible cultural assets of art, literature, and music are beyond the ken or interest of most in the US.

But there was a moment when the torch of art was wrested from the Europeans. It was taken from the faltering grasp of the School of Paris and planted firmly in Manhattan. How this curious event took place is the well-documented tale Serge Guilbaut brings us in this book.

From our present vantage point, is it difficult to comprehend that the leading intellectuals, writers, and artists were card-carrying Marxists during the 1930s, in the midst of one of capitalism's worst failures, the Great Depression? Communism must have seemed a viable answer to the economic woes of the time. Many of the leftist intellectuals and writers were to reap the whirlwind in Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts of the 1950s, but the artists and art critics of the far left were to go on to fame and high esteem.

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The liberal magazine ``Partisan Review,'' the focus of intellectual thought in the '30s and '40s, was the vehicle of two art critics who were to bring about America's artistic coup. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg -- along with artists Stuart David, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell -- were instrumental in voicing the political and aesthetic platform of what was known then as the avant-garde.

But when Joseph Stalin signed a mutual defense pact with Nazi Germany in the late '30s, the American intellectual left was splintered. Some tried to cling to the Popular Front; others attempted to re-form around the exiled Leon Trotsky. What ultimately came about was a disillusionment with both capitalism and communism. The only alternative was for the artist to make an apolitical political statement by washing his hands of both. The artists' ivory tower became a political fortress from which to protest by eschewing all the bourgeois values of the unwashed.

World War II left the French art world weakened and divided. But artists in the United States, with the European umbilical cord cut, were gaining confidence. Rallying to an artistic philosophy largely predicated by Clement Greenberg, the ``New York School'' came into being.

They decried the regional representative painting of the 1930s and the sophisticated decadence of Europe represented by Pablo Picasso and Joan Mir'o. They demanded a direct, abstract, vigorous, plastic vocabulary. They abjured anything illustrative, commercial, or ``finished.''

When their work was ridiculed by most of their fellow countrymen, they insisted that was proof of their validity. Theirs was an American art, but not one of propagandistic kitsch. This alienation of the artist was their rebellion, and in alienation they found freedom.

Jackson Pollock became the epitome of the vigorous, alienated artist. In the late 1940s, Clement Greenberg declared that America had taken first place in the international art scene. The French resisted, but little was happening in Paris. Even the American press began to take this audacious art seriously.

The irony is that at the very moment Joe McCarthy was destroying the lives of some writers and intellectuals of the left, their counterparts in the world of art, the Abstract Expressionists and their critical proponents, were achieving unopposed glory.

Serge Guilbaut has written a political history of a period of art rather than an aesthetic one, and therein lies its uniqueness. He leaves us at this pinnacle of success for American art and it's up to us to ponder what has come about since that heady time.

America has led the world through the cycles of Pop, Op, and Minimalist art. Artists have maintained a faade of alienation, while building a sales network that made more than a few wealthy. Recently there has been a resurgence of realism, perhaps in an attempt to get in touch with the largely ignored middle class.

Today Abstract Expressionism has returned in a new form, more symbolic and Freudian. This generation of the avant-garde contains not only Americans but Italians and Germans as well.

Are the Europeans going to reclaim artistic leadership? Is the ivory tower becoming too precious? Will Americans ever gain confidence in their own cultural evaluation?

Charles McVicker teaches art at Trenton State College.

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