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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Bordering on the new frontier : modernism and the military industrial complex in the United States and Canada, 1957-1965 Howard, David Brian


In 1964 Clement Greenberg suffered his greatest setback as the critical arbiter of modern painting. The "Post Painterly Abstraction" exhibition he had helped to organize at the Los Angeles Museum of Art was critically demolished, definitively shattering the myth of invincibility surrounding Greenberg's modernism, an aesthetic which had been a powerful influence in the United States and Canada in the post-war period. For many contemporary critics, the early to mid-1960's is the period in which a stultified and institutionalized modernism was finally usurped by an approach to culture that was less elitist and more socially engaged. The new cultural model that was taking shape within the Kennedy Administration's vision of the New Frontier sought to remotivate a sense of "national purpose" within the United States to counter the nation's preoccupation with consumerism and affluence. The pragmatic liberal concept of culture sought to rework the relationship between work and play in order to promote a new relationship between individualism and civic virtue. The impetus to re-shape the boundaries between art and society under the New Frontier was a direct response to the political and military challenge posed by the Soviet Union in the late-1950s, especially after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and the inability of the Eisenhower Administration to respond to the anxieties generated by the intense superpower rivalry. This international environment also exacerbated the ongoing tensions between Canada and the United States, culminating in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis . Canadian Prime Minister Diefenbaker delayed in responding to the U.S. alarm over the presence of Soviet medium range nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the political firestorm that followed this delay highlighted the frictions that had developed in the unequal bilateral relationship between the United States and Canada after World War Two. While the Cold War was approaching its ultimate showdown, Greenberg was proceeding to a geographical margin of North America — Saskatchewan — to participate in the Emma Lake Artists' Workshops. Ironically, while Greenberg was extolling the virtues of Canadian abstract painters such as Art McKay and Kenneth Lochhead, going so far as to argue that the Saskatchewan abstract painters were New York's only competition, Los Angeles was asserting itself as New York's cultural rival . As a consequence of the phenomenal post-war growth of the military - industrial complex in the American Southwest, a fierce rivalry was developing with the traditional bases of power in the Northeast. The Southwest, and Los Angeles in particular, was the major beneficiary of the accelerated defense spending resulting from the heightened tensions of the Cold War in the 1950s. Partially in response to a regional dispute over military appropriations, the economic and cultural elites of Southern California sought to counter the pragmatic liberal agenda of the Kennedy Administration by promoting Los Angeles as the Second City of American Art. Greenberg's "Post Painterly Abstraction" exhibition was intended to draw attention to the Los Angeles cultural renaissance and the maturing of the city's independent cultural identity. Thus, Greenberg's sojourn to Saskatchewan at the height of the Cold War and during a crucial period of his formulation of his theory of modernist painting after abstract expressionism provides the focus for an examination of the status of modernism in the early 1960s, especially in the context of U.S.-Canadian relations and interregional rivalry between the Northeast and the Southwest. This thesis seeks to explain the complex cultural and political dynamic of modernist painting in the United States in the Cold War years of 1957 to 1965 and the effect of this dynamic on the development of Canadian modernist painting.

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