MORE DISCUSSION ON POST-WWII ART, first from Commentary:
After World War II and the introduction of the atom bomb, it seemed pointless to try to preserve the confused traditions of a civilization that had brought the world to the ledge of oblivion. Instead, the artists came to believe they had to dispense with the entire accumulated storehouse of artistic memory and the history of the benighted West in order to begin anew.
The 1950s painter Barnett Newman summarized this line of thought pretentiously but accurately:
We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of western European painting. Instead of making “cathedrals” out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.
James Lileks responds to this quote:
Which is the difference between adults and adolescents. The primary feeling, of course, would be anger (at war, at hypocrisy, at whatever faults in Western Civ consumed the artist at the moment) and sentimental longing, a forward-facing nostalgia, for the Utopia that would result from burning down the accumulated storehouse. (After it had been looted, of course, and the more interesting pieces put up on their mantles.)
How did the atom bomb make the artists think it was pointless to preserve the traditions? Because their use would do away with things, I suppose, but the end result was a culture pre-exhausted for your convenience, one that had assumed the end was nigh and spent its time making grotesque faces in the mirror. It would have been just as potent a response – more so – if they had embraced the positive history of Western Civ and exalted its possibilities, but they were a joyless lot, and the joyless feel judged in the presence of beauty.
There’s also the matter of “The Atom Bomb” as a stand-in for something. An instrument arbitrarily employed to fulfill some deep-down need for death? Did your average citizen think “boy, there’s nothing left in the tank for our culture and way of life; hope they reduce everything to a hellish landscape of cinders and rubble pretty darn soon, but first I want to get up to the cabin for some fishing.” Stories of grace and beauty in pre-war Paris, living under the shadow of a tangible foe that was literally on the march, are supposed to be tributes to Man’s Indomitable Spirit or something, but the idea that there’s a nuclear balance between two disparate systems that keeps each in check is reason to smear grey on the canvas.