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The new frontier goes to Venice : Robert Rauschenberg and the XXXII Venice biennale Monahan, Laurie Jean


The XXXII Venice Biennale, held in 1964, presented an important moment in the history of American art, for it was the first time that an American painter was awarded the major prize at the prestigious international show. The fact that Robert Rauschenberg captured the most coveted award of the Biennale, the Grand Prize for painting, had major repercussions for the art scene in the United States and the international art community. For the Americans, the prize was "proof" that American art had finally come into its own, that through its struggle for recognition over the European avant-garde, it had finally reached its well-deserved place as leader of the pack. For the Europeans, especially the French, the award represented the "last frontier" of American expansionism--for it seemed that the economic and military dominance of the United States finally had been supplemented by cultural dominance. It seems pertinent to this study to examine the French response in particular, since they had traditionally dominated Biennale prizes. By analyzing the French reviews and responses to the prize, and situating these in a broader political context, I will discuss how the U.S. was perceived as the new cultural leader, despite the vehement objections to the culture of the New Frontier, which seemed to be only Coke bottles, stuffed eagles and carelessly dripped paint. Given the vehement objections engendered by the Rauschenberg victory, it seems somewhat curious that the United States would choose Rauschenberg as a representative of American culture. In order to discover how the pop imagery in the work was linked to the image : of U.S. culture promoted by the U.S. Information Agency (the government agency responsible for the show), it is necessary to analyze the cultural and intellectual debates of the early 1960s. Rejecting earlier notions that high art should remain separate from mass culture, a prominent group of intellectuals argued for a "new sensibility" in art which would embrace popular culture, thereby elevating it. This positive notion of a single, all-embracing culture corresponds to a more general optimism among many intellectuals; their rallying cry was the "end of ideology," which disdained radical critique in favor of the promise of Kennedy's "progressivism" and the welfare state. These intellectuals argued that while the system was not perfect, any major problems could be averted by simply "fine-tuning" the existing state; in the meantime, the promise of Kennedy's New Frontier required a more affirmative than critical stance. The elements shared between these discourses on culture and society at this time were of seminal importance to the critical understanding of Rauschenberg's work, particularly as it was presented at the Biennale.

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