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Life in the cultural shallows tested the character of American art. Where the Depression had encouraged artists to engage in social and political criticism, the early cold war years constricted and confounded them. By conflating dissent and disloyalty, the triumphant conservatism of the cold war not only shifted the frame of cultural reference dramatically to the right, it narrowed it as well. This had a profound impact on America’s cultural establishment. With conservatives now in possession of the moral absolutes, the more politically progressive artists felt pressed into the position of endorsing ambivalence and moderation. The result, for many, was a quiet retreat from principle; unwilling to blindly adopt the conservatives’ standard of good and evil, and yet unable to risk their own, forward-thinking artists ended up chronicling rather than challenging their age. So much of fifties art became an exploration of the ordinary—domestic comedy, social commentary, “wistful melodrama,” sermons on rootlessness or delinquency or affluence—instead of a questioning of the larger truths. Tragedy, which, by challenging certitudes, required the moral commitment of liberal writers, became, in this context, anachronistic. “We are not producing real tragedy,” observed Leonard Bernstein in 1952, because “caution prevents it, all the fears prevent it; and we are left, at the moment, with an art that is rather whiling away the time until the world gets better or blows up.” Art had adopted the Technicolor blandness of the age.


This article was originally published in Journal of American Studies, 35(2): 275-312. (c) 2001 Cambridge University Press