To the generation coming of age in the ’40s and ’50s, the distinction was important, maybe even bearing on what was to become of the American future. It was a generation infected with the idea that the arts were serious business, sharing with the late Walker Percy his novelist’s belief that all fiction can be used as an instrument of exploration and discovery, that “the novelist or poet in the future might be able to go further, to discover or rediscover how it is with man himself, who he is, and how it is between him and other men.” During the years of the Eisenhower administration, the portraits of novelists decorated the covers of Time magazine, the views of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer accorded the deference now placed at the feet of Warren Buffett. New plays on Broadway from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were as eagerly received as the musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Under the aegis of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, the CIA was deploying American art as a Cold War weapon of mass instruction. Although the Allies had won the war against Hitler (won it in the name of democratic freedom and Western civilization), they appeared to be losing the peace to Stalin and the systems of totalitarian repression, and what was afoot in the 1950s was a contest for the good opinion of mankind. The communist agitprop on offer in Europe in 1947 pictured the United States as a materialist wasteland inhabited by gum-chewing shoe salesmen, lynchers of negroes ignorant of the works of Gramsci and Lukács.
The CIA undertook to suppress the rumors, directing the tactical movement of art exhibits to Venice, music festivals to Rome. Not satisfied with the wholesale distributions of wholesome texts, the agency pressed forward into the no man’s land of the avant-garde, seeking to show its prospective friends in Bremerhaven and Marseilles that American art was something more than a provincial reflection of European decadence. No, by God, America was a great country, as rich in artists as it was in steel or corn, and here to prove it on the wall in Paris is the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock—a real American from Cody, Wyoming, not a Hungarian refugee or a Princeton homosexual; virility incarnate, reckless and heavy-drinking, a fountain of acrylic orgasm; just the sort of fellow to represent the virtues of free enterprise, and whose paintings, nonfigurative and incoherent, embodied the antithesis of Soviet socialist realism. The aesthetic stamped with the seals of government approval matched the one embraced by the Beat poets howling in the California wilderness, marking out the road into an ecstatic future unregulated by death and taxes.