Cold Case Creativity

Cold Case Creativity

My dissertation, Worlds on View: Visual Art Exhibitions and State Identity in the Late Cold War, combines several different methodologies — those identified from the start, mobilized in frustration, or emerged along the way — which all served their purpose in completing the research over a five-year period. The dissertation focuses on a joint USA and USSR visual arts project in the late Cold War, entitled 10+10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters. This project serves as a lens to review the genealogy of visual arts exhibitions as tools of nationalism, self-promotion and cultural diplomacy — from the French revolutionary practices of Jacques-Louis David and the rise of national festivals and exhibitions, through the nineteenth-century development of the World’s Fair and twentieth-century inter-war international exhibitions on topics ranging from Dada to media and hygiene, to the instrumentalization of bilateral Cold War exhibition exchange agreements beginning shortly after World War II. In this brief article, I will cover the topics of government and private archives, oral histories, and secondary sources, all of which I explored in depth.

Ed. Note: Joshua First’s review of Nicole Holland’s dissertation, Worlds on View, is available here.

My goal at the outset was to research archives of the US Department of State, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and its various sub-agencies (including the US-Soviet Exchange initiative and Arts in America), and the Ministry of Culture of the former USSR. All these departments had given their highest level of support to the exhibition 10+10.  A unique collaboration of the Superpowers in the visual arts domain, the project featured a joint team of American and Soviet curators, a checklist of works by young avant-garde artists of both nations, and a travel schedule including multiple venues in America and Russia. In particular, the inclusion of nonconformist Soviet artists represented a major shift in attitude on the part of the Soviet government. These were artists who, just a year or so prior to the exhibition, worked outside the regime of official art. They were denied access to jobs and exhibitions, and were subject to episodic harassment.

I was certain that the archives of both nation-states would open a valuable vein of information regarding the strategic importance to both nations of this project (and others, I hoped) in breaking down the roadblocks to the end of the Cold War. In the case of the Soviet Union, I was sure that the cataclysmic shift in attitudes of the Soviet Union in this era of glasnost as seen in the Soviet participation in the exhibition, would provide rich detail on Gorbachev’s mindset. I was to be greatly disappointed.

Regarding US archival materials, telephone calls to excellent and very helpful contacts provided by key players in the late Cold War, as well as formal application for information through the Freedom of Information Act yielded the unfathomable discovery that a great portion of the archives of the USIA had not been preserved. Further, despite the fact that the project had received support from the highest levels of the State Department, those archives pertaining to this branch of cultural diplomacy no longer existed. Francis Fuyukama’s “end of history” was in operation! (The USIA was shortly to be terminated as an agency.)  I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FIFA) request anyway, for which I received a response a year and a half after my dissertation defense, stating that no such files could be found. One forward-thinking State Department Foreign Service officer had managed to take some files with him upon the closing of the Soviet desk, and he opened his private archives to me, consisting of official letters and agreements of the US government and museums, as well as news articles. An additional private archive was made available by a US professor who had played a key role in the negotiations for exhibitions during the Cold War.

Regarding Soviet archives, much the same experience prevailed. After having determined that what I sought was not in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Literatury I Isskustva, RGALI), the finding aids for which have been available online for a while, I came to learn from several top sources in Moscow that the archives I was interested in were probably still sitting “in unidentified bags,” in the current Ministry of Culture. During the period of my research, the “end of history” mentality prevailed as well in the Russian Federation, and I could interest no one in Moscow in trying to locate documentation from the final years of the Soviet regime. Events of the Cold War were considered irrelevant in a newly configured nation-state that was grappling with acknowledgment of the falsities of much of their twentieth-century history.

Research plans also included interviews with key actors in the Cold War in both countries, and I spoke with dozens of contacts in Moscow and in the United States, beginning with individuals involved in the 10+10 project.  My list grew as contacts yielded further contacts, including government and embassy officials, artists and other cultural practitioners, cultural critics, museum officials and gallery directors. My experience with these interviews, face-to-face or by telephone, was extremely positive: all persons contacted were eager to tell their stories, and most had not previously discussed their perspectives with a researcher. Working from a script of questions, I found that new narratives, unknown and unexpected to me at the beginning of the research, began to emerge, giving shape to fresh understandings of the nature and context of the late Cold War. The appraisals of historians John C. Welchman and Robert Dallek regarding the rewards and pitfalls of the oral history tool served as cautionary guides (see John C. Welchman, Mike Kelley: Interviews, Conversations, and Chit-Chat (1968-2004), Zurich: JRP Ringler, 2005; and Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, New York: HarperCollins, 2007). Despite the lack of government archives, these interviews firmly secured my research as providing new information to knowledge of the period.

Finally, close review of secondary sources revealed the importance of tracing a focused genealogy of the instrumentalization of visual arts exhibitions in modern times. Such a history had never been written. Further, theoretical underpinnings for the concept of the usefulness of temporary appositional spaces in cultural diplomacy were provided by multiple sources, in particular, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Ours is a world of fast-paced information exchange and epochal shifts, where we must proactively capture history on the ground. When archival information remains scant or inaccessible, oral history can be a rich source — especially for recent history. I count myself lucky to have met those at the forefront of artistic and geopolitical change.

Nicole Holland
University of California, San Diego


Image: Sergey Shutov, Identity Card, 1988 (with permission of artist).

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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