After an extended economic depression, the rise of totalitarian states, and a cataclysmic world war that physically devastated Europe and much of East Asia, by 1945 people around the world were “eager for a fresh start.” They wanted art and literature that expressed the values of democracy, liberty, and a common humanity. Most of all, they craved works that embodied and expressed freedom—whatever that might mean. And although the vast majority of the players he profiles in his new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, are American, Louis Menand is clear that “the artistic and intellectual culture that emerged in the United States after the Second World War was not an American product.” Rather, he insists, “it was the product of the Free World.”
What differentiated this postwar period from its grave predecessor, and from its perhaps shallower successor, was its commitment to a serious engagement with art and culture. “Ideas mattered,” New Yorker book critic and Harvard English professor Menand explains. “Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” The question Menand seeks to answer in his encyclopedic yet always engaging book is why—and what did freedom have to do with it?
“If you asked me when I was growing up what the most important good in life was,” Menand writes in the introduction, “I would have said ‘freedom.’ Now I can see that freedom was the slogan of the times. The word was used to justify everything. As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean. I wrote this book to help myself, and maybe you, figure that out.” A general preoccupation with freedom defined cultural and political discourse in the Cold War era. Its organizing principle was the “freedom” of the West versus the “totalitarianism” or the “coerciveness” of the communist world.
Freedom was so important that, in order to be heard, marginalized populations otherwise shut out of the dominant cultural conversation adopted the rhetoric. The civil rights movement defined itself as a “freedom struggle” (and some of its activists called themselves “Freedom Riders”), and the late 1960s and early 1970s brought the “women’s liberation” and “gay liberation” movements. If you wanted to be heard, you had to be arguing for “freedom” or “liberation.”
After the Cold War, this totemization of freedom has only continued, and curdled. Today, the most reactionary political forces—from gun-rights absolutists to Christian dominionists to white supremacists—threateningly demand or piously exalt “freedom” and “liberty.” Emitted from the mouths of aspiring fascists, these words have lost all meaning. “Freedom” is now a floating signifier, tied to nothing beyond “this is something I value.”
What does it mean to be “free”? Is it acting without constraints? Being fully empowered to choose one’s actions? Is it freedom from: the absence of poverty, fear, hunger, and oppression? Or can one achieve true freedom, as some religious mystics say, only within the most rigid and prescriptive of structures?
In the “land of the free” (a phrase first popularized in an 1814 poem), the term always carried amorphous cultural power. In the Progressive Era, conservative and corporate interests conscripted it to argue against regulation and the income tax. Franklin Roosevelt audaciously reclaimed it in 1941: his “Four Freedoms” included the freedoms of speech and religion, and the freedoms from want and fear. (His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, then tried to one-up him by proposing “free enterprise” as a fifth freedom ensuring the survival of the other four.)
Freedom then became the central rhetorical trope of the Cold War, with one side defining itself (with some justification) as “the Free World.” Here, the “freedoms” were of: limited democracy, capitalist economics, the rule of law, and guarantees of individual rights, all observed to varying degrees in different nations, and, within those nations, differently among different populations. The Soviets and their Eastern Bloc satellites gamely countered by trumpeting their freedoms from hunger, unemployment, class conflict, and racism. Crushing the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and erecting the Berlin Wall, however, were poor optics for communism’s claim to be a beacon of freedom, so the movement pivoted to “peace” as its shibboleth.
The US’s cynical embrace of an increasingly nebulous, but never questioned, notion of “freedom” persisted well after the nation prevailed in the Cold War. Dismissing the bloody chaos he unleashed in Iraq in 2003, the late defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld offhandedly said that “freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” Could Camus have imagined conservative Republicans as existentialists?
A general preoccupation with freedom defined cultural and political discourse in the Cold War era.
In the Cold War, freedom was as important to art as it was to politics. In The Free World, Menand sketches out the constellation of artists and movements and works that characterized Western, and especially American, art of the time. And he tries to figure out how this wildly diverse array responded to, and was driven by, ideas about freedom that had become so urgent.
Menand is such a skilled narrator—New Yorker writing may be formulaic, but it’s brilliant for storytelling—that his indelible capsule portraits of the artists themselves drive the book, instead of (as in a monograph) the argument, or even the idea of “freedom.” Even with artists and writers I know well, Menand always offers an unfamiliar detail, a telling anecdote that was new to me. But it’s not just personality profiles: he’s done his macro research as well, and deploys intellectual history, economic indicators, and sociological studies with a light but effective hand. I’d like to be able to write this well.
For all of its foregrounding of freedom, the real through line of this book—ever-present but really never explicitly foregrounded—is the transition from late-modernist seriousness to postmodern deadpan. The push toward aesthetic freedom drove the early artistic movements of the period, from abstract expressionism to the Beats. While some critics dismissed them as amateurish and simplistic (“my kid could paint that” or “that’s not writing, that’s typing”), Menand shows that these artists in fact shared a monastic devotion to technique and craft. But as youth culture and consumerism became an irresistible force, “seriousness” and depth gave way to playfulness and archness. Menand isn’t the first to note the irony of the humorless Susan Sontag serving as the herald of this new era (in “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation”).
With such a massive body of material, the question of structure is crucial. How does one organize it—chronologically? Thematically? Geographically? Most importantly, to what degree should the book be driven by an argument?
Surprisingly, given how effectively Menand uses his New Yorker reviews to forward mini-arguments stemming from the topics of the books under review, The Free World really doesn’t have a central claim—except, perhaps, that all of these artists and thinkers and movements were inspired by and pursuing different ideas of freedom.
Rather, each chapter is a standalone piece focusing on a movement, an idea, a set of artists. Most, perhaps unavoidably, are on the white men and their movements that dominate our understanding of the period. Still, in the latter half of the book, he examines the structural racism, sexism, and colonialism that often thwarted women and artists of color from attaining prominence.
But the set pieces are masterful. While they tend to center on familiar figures and movements—the Beats, Pollock and the abstract expressionists, Warhol and pop art, the Beatles, Sontag—they avoid feeling like encyclopedia entries. And they do so because each one of them goes in a surprising direction or offers a little serendipitous nugget.
For instance, David Riesman wrote The Lonely Crowd while he was reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism in manuscript (she was sending him chapters in progress for his comments)—and then gave her book a lukewarm review in Commentary. James Baldwin’s English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School was Abel Meeropol, who wrote the lyrics to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (and adopted the Rosenbergs’ sons after their execution). Menand uncannily, almost offhandedly, recovers the social and personal networks that enabled or shaped some of the most important artistic and critical works of the time.
the real through line of this book—ever-present but really never explicitly foregrounded—is the transition from late-modernist seriousness to postmodern deadpan.
Similarly, as in his earlier, Pulitzer Prize–winning The Metaphysical Club (2001), Menand perceptively excavates the forgotten intellectual and philosophical roots of so many events and movements, and reveals new depths to well-known works. He describes how the American philosopher James Burnham influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and draws a through line from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques to the middlebrow blockbuster photography exhibition The Family of Man. Isaiah Berlin’s ideas about liberty, Menand shows, led directly to the paperback revolution and, in turn, to the crumbling of obscenity laws.
Menand is also, to borrow a phrase from the disgraced literary theorist Paul de Man (another of the book’s characters), an “arche de-bunker,” using both archival and published sources to correct widely held misconceptions. While Walter Lippman is generally credited as the originator of the term “Cold War,” Menand reminds us that Orwell used it first. Abstract expressionism was never as hegemonic as we now assume it was. The 1960s counterculture was not led by baby boomers: Abbie Hoffman was born in 1936, Tom Hayden in 1939, and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in 1941. Cy Twombly, contrary to a famous piece of gossip, didn’t have to hide his work from his Black Mountain College teacher Bauhausian Josef Albers; in fact, the two never crossed paths. Andy Warhol didn’t aim his provocations at the “high-low art police” like Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer, but at Rauschenberg, Johns, and Claes Oldenburg: he “looked at the cards on the table of the New York avant-garde, and he raised the ante.” (Menand still didn’t persuade me that Warhol did anything beyond what Duchamp had already done, but that’s a tall order.)
Perhaps it’s only because I know so little about dance and avant-garde music, but I found the chapter on “The Emancipation of Dissonance” to be the book’s true standout. Menand not only elucidates the conceptual rhymes between the work of composer John Cage, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, but he also vividly reconstructs the sole work on which they all collaborated: Theatre Piece No. 1, performed just once, at Black Mountain College in 1952. Rebutting a common characterization of these men’s work, Menand argues that “[Johns’s] White Paintings, Theatre Piece No. 1, and [Cage’s] 4’33” … are not Dada or anti-art, and they do not embrace a philosophy of ‘anything goes.’” Instead, he contends: “They are completely committed to a traditional view of art as a transformative experience, and they are highly disciplined. They rule out much more than they permit.”
Like the other weighty, general-reader-aimed histories of this period—Odd Arne Westad’s 2017 The Cold War, Tony Judt’s 2005 Postwar, or, my favorite, David Kynaston’s three-volume Austerity Britain (2007), Family Britain (2009), and Modernity Britain (2014)—Menand’s The Free World is much of a muchness. “Landmark,” “sweeping,” “encyclopedic”: all of the adjectives that one would expect to find on the back jacket of a book like this do, in fact, aptly describe it.
Even if Menand never fully offers an answer to “What is freedom?,” the book is a rich and layered portrait of the period’s art and ideas, with chapters memorable in themselves that, in the aggregate, offer a remarkably intellectually sophisticated study that, nonetheless, wears its erudition quite lightly. It also might even make someone very much like myself yearn just a bit for the seriousness of the era Menand describes, for its coherence of purpose and concern, in comparison to the chaotic and often solipsistic fragmentation of today.
But then I remind myself that this unity was largely because only a limited number of largely homogenous voices could make themselves heard back then (as Menand rightly points out), as compared to today’s cacophony. Crudely put, a bunch of white guys were arguing about the “future of man,” with no awareness of the fact that “man” meant … that same bunch of white guys. It might be less coherent, and it is often profoundly stupid, but I think I prefer the salmagundi of today.
This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho.