Superpowers & Visual Art in the Late Cold War


A review of Worlds on View: Visual Art Exhibitions and State Identity in the Late Cold War, by Nicole Holland.

In her dissertation, Nicole Holland shows how the two superpowers during the late Cold War relied on art as a form of soft diplomacy. International exhibits represented an apolitical “zone of neutrality” to disseminate changing conceptions of national identity as the US and USSR were growing closer together in the late-80s. More broadly, she argues that the consumption of national identity at work during Cold War-era international exhibits drew from earlier modes of exhibitions during the second half of the nineteenth century. Drawing on the theories of Joseph Nye, Holland argues for a “polyvalent history of the late Cold War,” and demonstrates how art achieved diplomatic agency alongside discussions of nuclear disarmament (p. 8). Pace Foucault, she sees temporary art exhibits as “heterotopic sites,” the meanings of which can shift rapidly and suddenly without losing their contextual lineage (pp. 25ff).

Relying primarily on interviews with individuals involved with late-Cold War exhibitions, Holland’s contribution is especially evident in her look at the 10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters exhibit, displayed during 1989-1990 in both countries. To connect late-nineteenth century exhibitions with this late-Cold War exchange, Chapter 1 focuses on international exhibitions during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Drawing on a number of theorists (Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, etc.), Holland finds the origins of art exhibition as marketing national identity and conveying state power in these events. Important for understanding the connection to the Cold War is her attempts to connect avant-garde artistic practices, oppositional in nature, with the designs of state power. In this respect, Holland draws explicit connection between the role Jacques-Louis David played in Revolutionary France, and social realism during the mid-19th century with that of the 10 + 10 artists. In all cases, the critical tone of art simultaneously feeds into state designs to present the nation as cultured and more advanced than its rivals, all in the name of increasing global understanding and peace.

Chapter 2 highlights the inter-war era and the participation of the US and USSR at World’s Fairs to promote what was a definitively imperial conception of “soft” power. Most significant in this period was the role that nationalism had in “branding” nation-states within the context of international exhibits. While capitalism obviously took an increasing role in this process in the West, even Soviet architects and artists like Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) and El Lissitzky (1890-1941) also sought a brand identity for the USSR by the 1920s, albeit read through the political and aesthetic concerns of the avant-garde. To understand this dynamic, Nicole Holland employs Vladimir Paperny’s explanation for the shift from the avant-garde to socialist realism in Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Chapter 3 focuses on the Cold War proper, focusing on American and Soviet efforts at diplomacy through participation in international exhibits. Here, Holland examines in depth the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, demonstrating how the event fit into long-standing efforts to promote American cultural prestige vis-à-vis the USSR. The message advanced by the US government was one of freedom to explore apolitical abstraction if it were the desire of the American artist, which was in distinction to the explicitly political and realist nature of Soviet art. In artistic exchanges, the American government advanced a “consumerist modernism,” according to Holland (p. 153). Like with the designs of the International Exhibitions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the US sought to mobilize “allegories of national identity” in support of an American way of life, which might also undermine the Soviet cultural project. Drawing on Max Kozloff’s article “American Painting during the Cold War” (Artforum 11, 1973, pp. 43-54), Nicole Holland shows how avant-garde practices found the height of their use-value in the US government’s mobilization of Abstract Expressionism during the late-1950s as generically emblematic of American freedom. This in turn generated a firestorm of opposition from American conservatives who continued to see modernism as culturally in line with communism. On the other hand, Holland finds the USSR comparatively uninterested in promoting its own artistic production abroad during the Cold War, preferring instead to display industrial achievements to the West.

Chapter 4 examines the case of the 10+10 exhibit in particular. Holland make extensive use of interviews in this Chapter, with fine descriptions of the Soviet art scene at the end of the 1980s. 10 + 10 was the first collaborative art exhibit with the involvement of the US and Soviet governments. Moreover, many of the participants in 10 + 10 were members of their respective countries’ avant-garde movements, such as Conceptualism in Moscow, and postmodernism in the US. Among the many interesting points Holland brings out here is the similarities but also mutual incomprehensibilities between the American and Soviet artists upon viewing each other’s work. Both Soviet and American artists were reacting against earlier realist and romantic trends, but also engaged with these mainstream cultural tropes in a simultaneously ironic and nostalgic tone. And yet, Americans and Soviets represented religion in starkly different manners: while the Soviets used religious imagery to re-connect with pre-Revolutionary Russian traditions, particularly the religious icon, the American artists tended to link religion to the campaign in the 1980s to de-fund the arts due to its perceived promotion of immorality. Americans saw some of the Soviets’ imagery as “provincial,” and some even considered the art as alternately too historically engaged or even amateurish in its aesthetic.

As Holland drives home in the conclusion, a final similarity that united the American and Soviet artists who participated in the 10 + 10 exhibit was their similar propaganda function, with each side representing some vague notion of “freedom.” For the Soviets, of course, this was a more significant statement as such “unofficial artists” who were asked to participate only became recognized by the state once perestroika got underway. As one of the Soviet artists told Holland in an interview, “I was a monkey being shown to people…” to act as a metonym for the democratization of the Soviet system (p. 284). And yet, this deliberate politicization of self-consciously apolitical art acted against the Soviet artists who participated in the joint exhibit: many of them hoped to tap American art markets, and instead were positioned before American audiences as dissidents rather than as legitimate artists.

Joshua First
Assistant Professor of History and International Studies
University of Mississippi

Primary Sources

Interviews and oral histories
Published sources and works of art, especially from the 10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters exhibition (1989)

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2010. 334 pp. Primary Advisor: John C. Welchman.


Image: “Ours-Yours” by Vladimir Mironenko (with permission from artist)

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