At the end of a particularly bad root-canal session my dentist recommended Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World. He said it covered topics as diverse as George F. Kennan’s policy of containment for the Soviet Union and the film criticism of Pauline Kael. At 856 pages, the hardcover was a bit heavy to carry home from the local bookstore. But when I opened it, this reward awaited me on the epigraph page: “Many a man thinks he is making something when he’s only changing things around” (Zora Neale Hurston).

In his preface, Menand explains his project simply: “This book is about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world.” The author covers the years between 1945 and 1975, when the “income and wealth gap between top earners and the middle class was the smallest in history.” The time under discussion coincided with my own movement from childhood to adulthood, and it felt prosperous and artistically adventurous. Even the CIA knew this—it was during the Cold War that they sent American art and culture around the world to show what a free society could produce.

Art and Thought in the Cold War is the book’s subtitle, and intellectual history is its goal. As Menand writes, “Intellectual history explains art and ideas by examining the conditions of their production and reception (as this book tries to do).” The book’s eighteen chapters contain vast amounts of information about art and the art world, not only on mid-century modernism, but also on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol (who appears throughout), and British Pop art and the American version. Menand obviously believes that shifts in what used to be called the “visual arts” were central to American culture between 1945 and 1975. Other topics he includes are civil rights, American movies, foreign films, rock ’n’ roll, and, in his final chapter—called “This is the End”—he covers the student movements of the 1960s, the SDS, the NSA, the CIA’s involvement, and, finally, the Vietnam War. That Menand is knowledgeable about such a wide range of topics is part of the book’s allure.

In Chapter Three, “Freedom and Nothingness,” Menand touches on Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir in post-war Paris. “Partisan Review’s Paris correspondent, Harold Kaplan,” Menand writes, “referred to Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir as ‘the liveliest literary movement in France.’ ” In Chapter Four, “Outside the Law,” the author discusses Hannah Arendt, including her early life in Germany, her relationship with Heidegger, her escape from the Nazis and arrival in New York, and, finally, her life as an émigré. (The chapter opens with an exquisite photograph of her from 1936.) 

For me, the ne plus ultra was Chapter Five, “The Ice Breakers.” The chapter title, Menand tells us, is something Willem de Kooning is supposed to have remarked at the crowded opening of Jackson Pollock’s solo show at the Betty Parson Gallery in 1949: “Jackson has finally broken the ice.” This section, about Pollock, Clement Greenberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Lee Krasner, and the Abstract Expressionists in 1940s and 1950s New York, couldn’t be more interesting or concise.

With Greenberg-bashing something of a sport these days, whenever I see his name in print I gird myself for an attack. Last year, in a New Yorker piece about someone else, Adam Gopnik paused to write this about the art critic: “Reading about Greenberg now, you wonder why everyone in the art world didn’t just tell him to get lost.” By contrast, Menand’s approach in this chapter is measured and accurate, and he has no axe to grind. “Greenberg,” he writes, “was widely read and had enormous curiosity.” As a researcher, Menand is omnivorous—in Chapter Five alone there are 143 footnotes, citing Greenberg’s books, articles, essays, diaries, letters, and biographies.

“The Ice Breakers” opens with this matter-of-fact sentence: “Jackson Pollock met Clement Greenberg on Varick Street in New York City in the winter of 1942.’’ Menand then describes the various strands that lead to the auspicious meeting, such as Lee Krasner’s waitressing job and Greenberg’s enrollment at the Hans Hofmann school (the only formal art instruction he ever had, apart from a few life-drawing classes). The author’s conclusion is succinct and convincing: “Looking backward, it could be said that Greenberg solved a problem in art criticism and Pollock solved a problem in painting.” 

As Menand explains, “Everyone in the American art world understood, more or less, what needed to be done; Greenberg and Pollock were the ones who struck people as having done it.” They did so by using a simple equation—one the author helps the reader appreciate as a universal: “They produced things (art criticism and paintings) that worked partly by abandoning things that no longer worked [my italics]. They made certain styles of painting and certain ways of thinking about art obsolete, or retrievable only in quotation marks.”

Menand understands that the development of abstraction—as we see early on with Braque and Picasso—is often collaborative. In this case, a triumvirate of Lee Krasner, Greenberg, and Pollock was responsible for the breakthrough. “Pollock and Greenberg were the ones who became famous, but Krasner was the glue. She created the conditions that allowed Pollock to produce the works that conferred authority on Greenberg’s ideas. . . . After Pollock people painted differently. After Greenberg people thought about painting differently. . . . They were just living in a post-Pollock and post-Greenberg world. There was no going back.” That was the moment in American cultural history when New York, formerly a backwater for contemporary artists, became the center of the art world.

I lived the second part of this history. I knew some of the principals. This is the best writing on Greenberg and Pollock I’ve ever read.

Another chapter that caught my eye was “Concepts of Liberty”—addressing the many permutations of freedom that ran through American life—which includes an affair between the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Berlin was the Russian-born British émigré who encapsulated the liberal West’s definitive turn away from communism in the 1950s. 

In the previously known version of the affair, Berlin, visiting a low-priced book shop in Leningrad, bumped into the proprietor who let it be known that the famous and lovely poet lived just a stone’s throw away. The proprietor offered to arrange a meeting and, of course, Berlin said yes. Despite their twenty-year age difference (Akhmatova was the elder), the two hit it off and stayed up all night talking. They even shared a plate of boiled potatoes. It was formerly believed to have been their only meeting.  

After intensive research Menand discovered the gray truth. The only Russian account of their meetings is found in “the file on Akhmatova in the Leningrad office of the Ministry of State Security.” There were, in fact, three visits, the commonly known one and two others that ended in the wee hours of the morning. In his own report to the British embassy, Berlin wrote, “Even at 4 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., I found all seats occupied” in Leningrad’s trams. That is to say, he and the poet spent at least those two nights sleeping together, which Berlin called “perhaps the most memorable experience of my life.” And then, like many a romantic hero before him, Berlin disappointed the poet a few years later by marrying someone else. A decade later in 1956, when Berlin and Akhmatova were both in Moscow, he asked to see her, but the poet declined.

As always, Menand examines how art and personality affected politics. Meeting Akhmatova gave Berlin a close-up view of how writers were treated in Russia. (Not well.) As a result of the affair, which even Stalin knew about, for several years “Akhmatova was expelled from the Writers Union, which meant that her work could not be published.”

In the chapter “Vers La Libération,” Menand gives a breakneck history of women’s rights, starting with the Twenties. By the Sixties, Menand points out, many things had actually gotten worse. Close to the chapter’s end, Menand introduces Susan Sontag, whose 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” calls for “an erotics of art.” It was at this point I had a slight problem with Menand’s disinclination to state or share his own opinion. Menand discusses a performance piece by Carolee Schneemann, Meatjoy, “a piece that had, as [Schneemann] described it, ‘the character of an erotic rite.’ Eight bikini-clad men and women perform choreographed routines in which, for over an hour, they cover themselves with paint, writhe on the floor with raw fish, chickens and sausages.” For me, the description was frankly ludicrous.

And I longed for some words—some interpretation—either pro or con from the author. For instance, what did Menand make of Meatjoy in light of over seven hundred years of high standards in Western art? The author simply seems to be interested in describing what happened, as if saying, “Here it is—what you feel about it, that is up to you.”

These are minor criticisms. Menand’s erudition and his ability to write on such a broad range of topics is what makes The Free World extraordinary. He has that knack for finding the never-before-told detail that enhances any story. This book provides an invaluable, incomparable overview. One feels that no one else could have done it; there is no competing product.

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