The Exhibit Narrative: Art and Culture during the Cold War

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The Global Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States shaped the world on various, different levels, the clash of contradictory ideologies led the two superpowers to the edge of a nuclear disaster and divided the earth for the second half of the 20th century. Further, the worldview of the United States was based on capitalism and Coca Cola Hollywood, the Marshall Plan, Elvis Presley or Apollo eleven characterized the American way of life. In contrast, the Soviet Union was based on Marxism and collectivism, the Soviet Man and Woman, strong propaganda, and the strong working class identified the Soviet ideology.

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This part of the exhibition will reflect the two major political and social ideologies at the time. The Republic of Cuba was occupied by the Soviet Union and supported the Marxist ideology during this period of time. Nonetheless, Cuba is geographically close to the North American continent and the society and politic was historically influenced by the United States for decades. This part of the exhibition shows the degree of influence that the culture had in order to avoid the creation of a fully bipolar world. So, various pieces of art from the Soviet Union, United States, and the Republic of Cuba will give you an overview about the culture and art during the Cold War from a global perspective and will show that every culture interpreted the basic idea of the ideology in a different way. “Let’s begin!”, “??????? ??????!”, “Vamos a empezar!”

After the end of World War 2, never-ending growth as well as full employment helped America to maintain their position as a superpower. Further, the United based their economy and society on the concept of Capitalism and tried to enhance the process of Americanization all around the world. So, the United States supported other countries that adapted certain of values, behavior, institutions, technologies, patterns of organizations, symbols and norms from the USA to their economic and social life. In addition, America funded other political parties willing to oppose Communism and encouraged to support the transatlantic alliance with the U.S.. Additionally, Anti-Communism in the America was omnipresent and the politics highly suggested that artist should illustrate American values in their paintings and posters. As an example, the CIA financially supported various American Abstract Expressionist such as Jackson Pollock to highlight the freedom of expression and progressiveness, and tried to cover their machinations by using the Congress for Cultural Freedom or the Ford Foundation. Also, they used Coca-Cola, Levis, McDonalds, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe or Disney as symbols to promote the American way of life and to present the high living standards.

As mentioned earlier, Jackson Pollock got supported by the CIA for his artwork and he was one of the important figures in the abstract expressionist movement. Pollock used action painting as a form to express his ideas and struggles of the time and his drip and splash style is well-known in the art world. Moreover, he influenced the American art in a tremendous way and created a new way of expressing ideas in the 20th century. The painting on the right, No.5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, expressed total freedom, creativity and the right to express their strong emotional or expressive content without political intervention. As a result, the United States wanted to show that their ideology would allow art without fetter in a capitalistic society and the capitalistic enhanced the growth of any type of culture and art. As a consequence, New York City devolved into the center of abstract expressionism in the later 20th century and the United States proved that they were not a cultural desert.

Another American artist that expressed the American way of life during the time of the cold war was Andy Warhol. Warhol was born in 1928, moved to New York City after his graduation and became to one of the most influential artist, director and producer. He was one of the leading figures regarding pop art and included several famous artist and brands in his painting. Therefore, his art spread the American ideals all around the world and helped the United States with the process of Americanization. In Marilyn Diptych, a silkscreen painting, Andy Warhol featured Marilyn Monroe and shows the face of Marilyn in different colors and shades. Hereby, Warhol used common portrait to create fine art and presented a popular figure from a different perspective. On the left side, he reflects the blurry, wild and interesting side of Monroe, Hollywood and the American culture. On the right side, he adds a deeper thought to the painting and shows the dark sides of the culture. As a pop icon and sex symbol, Monroe achieved everything in life. Nonetheless, she experienced severe fears and sever depressions, and committed suicide. Consequently, Warhol uses popular images, modifies them and tells his own story. Overall, Warhol uses iconic symbols as Coke-Cola, Elvis Presley or Monroe to create art and spreads the American way of Life globally through his work.

In contrast, the Soviet Union based their economic and social system on Marxism and spread their culture among the satellite states. So, the Soviet Union strived for industrialization, urbanization, and the growth of intervention in everyday life. Furthermore, the Soviet human being should be selfless, educated, healthy, muscular and enthusiastic in spreading the socialist revolution, and this ideal should work as a role-model for the Soviet Society. In order to create this classless society, the Soviet Union used massive propaganda campagnas and art to influence the society. Artists as Viktor Popkov, Victor Semenovich Ivanov or the Tkachev brothers were outstanding figures for the Soviet social realism and displayed the Soviet ideology in their paintings.

The soviet painter, Viktor Popkov, was one of the brilliant minds in the Soviet Union and his pieces were categorized into the Soviet social realism, the official style of the country. Therefore, he needed to express the ideals and beliefs of the party in his artwork. The painting The Builders of Bratsk presents Soviet workers in Bratsk during a break. All of them have dirty cloth, the look muscular, they look focused and they seem busy. This painting is very characteristic for Soviet art because of the illustration of an industrial scenes. In order to show the productivity and the success of the State, these painting should display the society from a good perspective and should present the new Soviet man as a role model for every citizen.

Another painting, that Popkov uses to express his opinion is the oil painting He does not envy them. This painting, created in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, shows the Soviet Society shoveling a hole while aircrafts are flying over it. This painting citizens the Soviet Union in a strong way and shows the cultural struggle during the time. In this painting, a woman is crying while seeing other people shoveling a grief. In addition, aircrafts are passing the place on the sky and the colors are very blurry. Popkov is illustrating in this artwork that the society is basically creating their own grief by starting a nuclear war. In addition, he reflects his life as an artist and points out that the Soviet oppressors destroyed his life by the lack of freedom and the importance of the utopian view of the Soviet Leaders. Additionally, the aircrafts symbolizing the Soviet military that oversees everything and gets the most attention.

The Republic of Cuba was an interesting case during the cold war because of its geographical connection with the USA and the political connection with the Soviet Union. Therefore, the case of Cuba can be used to answer the question if the world during the Cold War was actually bipolar. Cuba was under control by U.S backed military leaders starting 1902. In addition, the U.S economy used Cuba for the production of sugar, tobacco, agriculture, and cattle and was consequently very involved. As a result of the decade-long oppression by the United States, Fidel Castro rose up and overthrow the Batista regime in order to create a one-party communist system and started an alliance with the Soviets. As a consequence, the United States broke diplomatic relationships and imposed an embargo on Cuba. Overall, Cuba had a long history with the United States on a political and economic level but developed an Anti-U.S. regime during the Cold War. Additionally, the Cuban culture can be seen as a melting pot of European, African and Amerindian traditions because of their colonial background and need of slaves in the 19th century for industrial purposes.

Raul Martinez and Alfredo Rostgaard were both popular artist in Cuba during the Cold war and they served in the Cuban film industry and political posters. Martinez, as an alumnus from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was interested in pop-art and created abstract paintings as well as graphic designs. Additionally, Rostgaard created a lot of poster and caricatures by mixing pop art and psychedelic art in order to create unique designs. Therefore, both artist were highly influences by pop art (subsidized by the American politics) and it is interesting that they used this sort of art to illustrate Cuban politicians. The artists used strong colors, repeated images of Cuban leaders and common people, and bold lines to create posters or painting and displayed the transformation of Cuban society. Consequently, Martinez created his version of pop art, the Cuban version of pop art. The poster of Che Guevara by Alfredo Rostgaard presented the political leader in a heroic, idealized way with powerful color and the golden star as the center of the portrait. The fife-pointed star stands for the communist ideology and it shines through and leads the powerful revolutionary. As a result, this poster obviously supports the communist ideology and helps to promote the communist Guevara. Nevertheless, the bright colors and the use of a popular portrait in order to create art characterizes pop art. Therefore, it is contradictory to use pop art as a tool to present communist ideology and it strongly highlights the mixture of different ideologies.

Overall, the artwork from Pollock, Warhol and Popkov showed the different artistic styles during the cold war (pop art, abstract expressionism and Soviet social realism) and it highlighted how the cold war politics shaped the art and culture in both blocks. Additionally, Rostgaard and Martinez gave examples for Cuban artwork and presented a mixture between Social realism and pop art in their posters and paintings.

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The Exhibit Narrative: Art and Culture during the Cold War. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved from