The Dichotomy of A-Political Art and Social Politics of the 50s

The politics and changing social norms of the 1950s influenced contemporary art of the time.  The Cold War left Americans with a revitalized sense of consumerism and patriotism– an influence that greatly affected art.  A major aspect of the art movement of the 50s focused on “a-political” art.  Ironically, this movement in itself was deeply rooted in politics and the evolving post-war American life.

Pro-American art began to spring up– tied to that was a-political art, art with no representational meaning or political stances.  This led to the style of gestural art, a method which focused more on the tactile aspect of creating art.  In this way, the art was meant to be devoid of labels, representations of social issues, or political references.  Furthermore, the action of splattering, spilling, or dripping paint is “liberating” tying in with the pro-American themes.

Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954

But unfortunately, this great, liberating movement only swept up a very specific American community.  In the 1950s, communities began bubbling to the surface, vocalizing their views and identities through many channels, a major one being through the art world. Black artists as well as women joined the Abstract Expressionist movement.  However, the major players in the art world were exclusively white, male, and heterosexual, and their work implicitly and explicitly created an exclusive art community in which others were not welcome or recognized. 

Much of the works that came out of Abstract Expressionism from artists such as Pollock and Rothko are inherently celebratory of masculinity.  These works of art represented, according to T.J. Clark, “metaphorics of masculinity.”  Furthermore, “women artists were also limited by the expectation that they act as wives and mothers within the conventional frameworks of mainstream heterosexual culture” (Gavin Butt, A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945).

Men such as Pollock completely took over the art world.  Yet women artists, as well as Black artists, who were paining in the exact same styles were completely discredited– their work was called derivative and these artists were completely taken as unimportant.  Yet critics failed to acknowledge the derivative nature of gestural art from Native American and Asian art.

1949 Time Magazine

And then we have artists like Willem de Kooning, much of whose work featured monstrous-like women in subservient, stereotypical roles.

The clash of changing and evolving politics and social norms, combined with the commercialism and end of the Cold War led to a seeming rejection of politics led to a search for a new American identity.  This caused a sort of dissonance in the minds of artists, between the culture of post war and a search for a changing American identity; Abstract expressionism could be seen as a rejection of labels and the pre-war American identity.

Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953


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