Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Cold War's cultural front

The Dancer Defects The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War David Caute Oxford University Press: 788 pp., $39.95

August 22, 2004|Michael Scammell | Michael Scammell is the author of "Solzhenitsyn: A Biography." His authorized biography, "Cosmic Reporter: The Life and Times of Arthur Koestler," is set to be published next year.

No feature of modern times has attracted more attention from historians and political analysts than the Cold War. Lasting for more than 40 years, from the end of World War II to the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Cold War was an entirely new phenomenon -- not a war at all in the accepted sense of the word but an uneasy peace, during which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, built up their economies, armed themselves to the teeth and entered into a worldwide competition for power and influence. True, there were local skirmishes, economic blockades, even regional wars by proxy, but fortunately for humankind the two sides never went head to head, though they came close in the Cuban missile crisis. Many factors have been put forward to explain the victory of the West and the defeat of communism. One was the evident military superiority of the West, another the economic strength of capitalism vis-a-vis its communist rival, a third the determination and staying power of the West's leaders.

David Caute, in "The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War," advances a fourth compelling reason. The "mortal stroke" that buried Soviet Communism, he writes, "was arguably moral, intellectual and cultural, as well as economic and technological." Caute points out that the ideological struggle between the two systems was global in scale and without historical precedent. All earlier conflicts in human history had ended with armed conquest. It was only after the world experienced "total physical war" between 1939 and 1945 that "total ideological and cultural war" broke out, and this was possible due to the emergence for the first time in history of mass media on a truly global scale. Globalization, in Caute's reading, is not a recent development but has been with us for more than half a century.

Caute's massive history of the cultural cold war covers multiple fields of endeavor: display arts (architecture and "national achievement exhibitions"), fine arts (painting, sculpture, poster art), the performing arts (theater, cinema, ballet) and music. Conspicuously missing from this list is literature, but never fear: The indefatigable author of these 788 pages assures the reader that he will devote a separate volume to literature, literary criticism, political theory and historiography (a rather odd mixture on the face of it, for the latter pair of subjects would seem to lead away from the arts and in quite a different direction).

"The Dancer Defects" is ambitious enough: Caute, the distinguished British social and political historian and critic, tirelessly documents just about every significant shot fired in the cultural cold war, starting with the radio programs, theatrical productions and art exhibitions that sprouted in the rubble of a war-torn and still exhausted Berlin as early as 1946, and ending with the prolonged struggle of dissident artists to show their work in Soviet Russia before many emigrated or defected to the West in the 1970s and 1980s. In between, Caute covers every conceivable subject relevant to his theme: cultural treaties, exhibitions, Broadway, Soviet theater, Hollywood and McCarthyism, Soviet cinema and Stalinist censorship, the "classical music wars" and jazz behind the Iron Curtain. He also finds room for director Andrzej Wajda and the Polish cinema, for Picasso and the flirtation of French artists with communism, and not least for the "ballet wars" and the notorious defections of Russian dancers that provide the author with his title.

So many are the subjects and so vast is Caute's canvas that one might well expect such a compendium to devolve into lists, but Caute avoids that trap by keeping his chronological narrative to a minimum and singling out symbolically important and representative events (or works) for more detailed discussion. Thus we get an extended account of the technological rivalry sparked by the space race of the late 1950s and 1960s and descriptions of the huge cultural and scientific exhibitions mounted on each other's soil by Russia and America, along with Soviet views of Broadway and American views of the Soviet theater. A discussion of the Red menace as seen through Hollywood eyes is balanced by a detailed examination of a widely produced anti-American play by the Soviet author Konstantin Simonov, and so on.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|