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.

This is the work accomplished by Cold War Modernists, which makes a convincing case that the real story of American art and literature after World War II is buried in the file folders and meeting minutes of groups with unglamorous names like the Office of War Information and the Office of Facts and Figures. By digging through their archives — not the first resources one might think of when composing a literary history of American modernism — Barnhisel shows how these agencies helped to transform a loose collection of antiestablishment, purposefully difficult artists into a prominent prong of Cold War diplomacy, and in the process turn “modernism” into a style of representation equally at home in IKEA and MoMA. In chapters that detail art exhibitions organized by the USIA; book publishing programs funded by the Department of State; arts journals paid for by the Ford Foundation and, discretely, by the CIA; and the Voice of America radio broadcasts that beamed US-centered programming into dozens of countries, Cold War Modernists admirably captures the wide variety of institutions that, from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, attempted to woo European and South American intellectuals away from their Soviet sympathies with an interpretation of modernism that emphasized freedom, individualism, and democratic debate — in other words, a modernism that stood for the United States.

“Cold War modernism,” then, doesn’t refer to experimental artwork produced between the end of World War II and the Reagan administration, but to “the deployment of modernist art as a weapon of Cold War propaganda by both governmental and unofficial actors as well as to the implicit and explicit understanding of modernism underpinning that deployment.” And, given the archive from which Barnhisel works, this book doesn’t provide Cold War–flavored interpretations of individual modernist works. Instead, it offers an evenhanded explanation of the changing connotation of the term “modernism” as the federal agencies and private foundations listed above sought out an antonym for (Soviet) realism. With this in mind — the afterlife of modernism, instead of its genealogy — the Cold War modernists of the title do not seem to be the painters, sculptors, poets, and novelists who produced the original works, but instead the “governmental and unofficial actors” who produced the federally subsidized midcentury reinterpretation of both individual works and modernism in general, in the name of Cold War politics.

Barnhisel doesn’t write about the Cold War activities of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, or Langston Hughes, but instead about a different coterie of cultural workers: Nelson Rockefeller, Alfred H. Barr Jr., James Jesus Angleton, William J. Casey, James Laughlin, Wheeler Williams, and Lawrence Fleischman, among others. The modernists of the 1920s and their work do make cameos, but never as primary movers. Picasso, for example, turns up as a talking point for American intellectuals who must empty out the artist’s affiliations with the French Communist Party to make his painting stand for apolitical artistic freedom. And Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s 1924 painting Circus Girl Resting enters by way of the administrative battle it sparked in 1947, when members of Congress and the popular press chafed at its inclusion in the Advancing American Art exhibition, sponsored by the US State Department. (Harry S. Truman’s evaluation of Circus Girl Resting: “If this is art, I’m a Hottentot.”) Gone, for better or worse, are the fiery personalities and shocking artistic experiments of the period formerly known as “The Pound Era.” The nymphs have departed, and the bureaucrats have arrived.

I doubt I’m alone when I say that Alfred Barr Jr. and Lawrence Fleischmann aren’t the first names that come to mind when someone says “modernism”; while Barnhisel’s book will rightly become the go-to reference for critics and historians of the Cultural Cold War, modernist artists are largely absent. Except for a long section on William Faulkner, whose dealings with governmental agencies were so extensive that the State Department published and circulated the wonderfully titled pamphlet “Guidance Recommendations for Handling Mr. William Faulkner During Official Tours,” the other usual suspects are relegated to bit parts. And, tellingly, the discussion of Faulkner has little to say about his fiction or his identity as an author — that is, as someone whose primary interest resides in his contributions to the development of narrative form and the novel — focusing instead on his ambassadorial work in Latin America and Japan. Faulkner as statesman, rather than Southern regionalist.

These shifts in perspective (from modernist artists to governmental administrators) and in method (from interpretation to institutional history) are bold, counterintuitive choices. Ultimately, they have major payoffs for how critics and historians understand the midcentury reception of American modernism. William J. Casey and Wheeler Williams and agencies like the Office of Inter-American Affairs lack name recognition now, but these are the diplomats and administrators who, from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, organized the art exhibits and funded intellectual journals that championed artistic experimentation, while declaring that open debates about aesthetic value were outgrowths of American-style democracy. And even if the extent to which they made modernism palatable for middle-class Americans is debatable — as Barnhisel makes clear, European and expatriate intellectuals were the primary targets of these programs, not Americans living stateside — they accomplished the far more lasting feat of making open debate and arguments about aesthetics seem both fundamental to Western society and anathema to Soviet communism, where artists and audiences alike were told what to enjoy.

That the United States claimed modernism in the name of freedom and individualism is fairly well known, at least since Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, which consolidated a decade of scholarship on the ascendance of the US art scene after World War II. Cold War Modernists’ argument and tone diverge in major ways, however, from the trajectory laid out by Guilbault. For one, as the three-page list of agencies and acronyms at the beginning of the book attests, Barnhisel stresses that Cold War modernism’s institutional diversity made it a much more complicated and conflicted enterprise than previous histories claim. There were simply far too many individuals and agencies involved, each with its own mandate, which may or may not have aligned with the agency in the next office building, to see the adoption of modernism for Cold War diplomacy as a sleek and well-planned operation, let alone a purposeful revision of literary history by the US government. In fact, as Barnhisel puts it, “there is no ‘government’ per se” in his book: there are offices and agencies occupied by directors and diplomats who “collaborate or even work at cross-purposes to achieve the same aims.” Barnhisel’s depiction of the inherent messiness of bureaucracy, with all the sludgy layers of administration and legalese that separate an executive directive from its completion, strikes me as far more convincing, if less sexy, than the idea of New York or Washington stealing Europe’s cultural prestige in one fell swoop.

The messiness arises not just out of the alphabet soup of government agencies, but also from in-fighting over the actual purpose and method of cultural diplomacy amongst the culturally conservative elected officials in Congress and the appointed cultural elites and intellectuals who populated the diplomatic agencies. On one side were the “informationalists,” who sought to achieve immediate political goals through “psych ops” and overt propaganda programs, and on the other were the “culturalists,” who felt their role was to present the fairest, most objective portrait of American life and culture to European, South American, and Asian audiences. The “people-to-people activity” of exchange programs, largely the work of culturalists, is what brought Faulkner and other artists into the fold of the State Department. They provide the liveliest anecdotes, but it isn’t until the Kennedy administration that person-to-person exchange programs become central to US diplomacy, and until then the information programs were better financed and held greater sway.

Barnhisel’s book also differentiates itself from earlier studies by stressing the limitations of cultural diplomats. After all, the era of Cold War modernism is also the McCarthy era, and any artist, administrator, or cultural program that carried even the slightest whiff of communist sympathies could easily be defunded, dissolved, or blacklisted. This meant that direct support or endorsement of controversial art was inconsistent at best. Conservative politicians lambasted the State Department’s 1946 Advancing American Art exhibition, as well as a series of shows organized by the USIA that prominently featured abstract expressionism, as evidence of government waste. It’s the same situation that led, decades later, to the utterly surreal scene, in 1997, of John Ashcroft (then House representative from Missouri) reading Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poems on the floor of Congress to ridicule the National Endowment for the Arts. Such a connection makes sense of a striking irony about the role of modernism in state-sponsored cultural diplomacy: official, federal adoption of modern art was at best hesitant, but private companies and philanthropic organizations that weren’t beholden to taxpayers embraced modernism far more openly.

The embrace of modernism by business, rather than or in addition to by government, is a quiet subplot to Cold War Modernists. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear), after offering the Allied forces a shorthand for their mission during World War II, slowly expanded to include a fifth “freedom”: free enterprise. Unlike the original quartet, which was indelibly marked by Roosevelt’s New Deal communalism, the postwar emphasis on free enterprise was deeply individualistic. This combination of federally guaranteed civil rights with free-market ideas of personal responsibility is the background against which modernism’s reinterpretation as centrist, pro-government, and pro-market arises, and a mix of governmental and philanthropic agencies invested in this vision of Cold War capitalist democracy “worked to ‘swerve’ public understanding of modernism, deactivating or nullifying its associations with radicalism and antinomianism and making it safe for consumption by American middle-class audiences.” As Barnhisel convincingly shows, the figure of the artist became an important if unlikely image for pitting the benefits of free enterprise against Soviet communism, and many artists agreed; in 1952 “Thorton Wilder advised the State Department that it should ‘promulgat[e] the doctrine of the freedom of the artist as a weapon in the ideological warfare against totalitarian governments.’”

It would be easy for Cold War Modernists to wag a finger at the people who, by organizing art exhibits, federal books programs, cultural exchange programs, intellectual journals, and radio programs, made modernism the carrier of the “doctrine of freedom” during the Cold War. But for the most part Barnhisel refrains from such critique, and his book is thus a major shift in tone from the line of Cold War cultural history that comes down from Serge Guilbaut. Barnhisel calls previous critics’ attitude toward Cold War modernism as “conspiratorial,” seeing a vast CIA-backed master plan behind modernism’s midcentury popularization. And while one should never underestimate the CIA’s and FBI’s powers of surveillance — to see these agencies’ effect on American literature, just page through William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes, which focuses on African-American authors, or Claire Culleton and Karen Leick’s collection Modernism on File — Barnhisel’s procedural clarity is refreshing compared to the more common admonition of “cynical” political maneuvering.

Cold War Modernists focus on the arts-adjacent institutions that filter literary and artistic value provides a new way to think about how and why modernism has had such a lasting legacy in the 20th century. It’s an approach that pays much less attention to the insides of poems or surfaces of paintings than to the minutiae of administration, yet one that presciently captures an early instance of formally inventive art becoming the simplified content of a theoretical or political position. By delving so deeply into the backlog of position papers and committee reports where Faulkner and Picasso and Circus Girl Resting were debated, Barnhisel unearths the processes by which that appropriation happens. As Apple and Microsoft and Facebook figured out long ago, you can get people to agree to just about anything as long as you bury it in the fine print. Luckily, Barnhisel’s dogged attention to that fine print helps to shed light on exactly how arts administration works — or, for that matter, doesn’t work.

The decision to step back from judgment and simply explain the Cold War institutional life of modernism is revisionary in another way, too. As I’ve said, the book never provides a reading for a single work of literature. We never hear Barnhisel’s take on Eliot’s endnotes to The Waste Land or the fractured point of view in The Sound and the Fury or a theory of Pollock’s drip technique in Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). In fact, Barnhisel seems to have a refreshing lack of concern with the method that has occupied literary critics and scholars since at least the 1940s: close, patient attention to the formal qualities of a single work or author with the ultimate goal of assessing artistic quality. This method, often given the shorthand of “close reading,” helped young professors and back-page editors justify why the modernists mattered in the first place. And since Barnhisel gives over the reins of modernist literature and art to the administrators in the 1950s, who made it mean something that it most certainly did not in the 1920s, it’s only fitting that he also adopt a different, purely contextualist method of analyzing those works. Two decades ago, Lawrence Rainey argued that sometimes the best way to understand modernist literature is not to read it. Cold War Modernists certainly makes good on that claim.

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Donal Harris teaches in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. He is the author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.