Monday, July 13, 2009

Cold War Modern

Some months ago I saw the exhibit “Cold War Modern” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I see now that the relatively new journal Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History has published a review of this exhibit. The basic argument of the brief text is that the exhibit, despite its critical and popular success, makes a basic historical and ideological error. It emphasizes the parallelisms between East and West during the period from the end of the Second World War up through some time in the middle 1970s. This period, called the Cold War, is presented as having been something like a close race toward an open-but-common modernity. East and West both, the exhibit shows us, deployed beautiful design in order to claim modernity for themselves. This is wrong on one level because the design that we see on the Western side (the first model of the Vespa scooter, for instance) actually entered into daily life, while the design we see on the Eastern side (the sketch for a never-built apartment building in Moscow) existed only in show-rooms. Both did serve propaganda purposes, but it is a gross historical error to say that they had the same content. Further, the very concept of the Cold War is a western one. The words and the idea were important and in common use in the West all through the period—nothing like this existed in the East. The reviewer concludes that the positive reception the exhibit has received in what used to be the East is evidence that the western metanarrative (or, as the author of the review prefers, communicative memory) of the Cold War is winning out even in the old East.

As is perhaps evident from the uncomfortable capitalization in the above paragraph of ‘East’ and ‘West’ and ‘western’ and ‘eastern,’ the narrativization of the Cold War is a very delicate thing. It is very easy to forget where ideas come from, and just which imagined realities they express. I don’t think that the reviewer—Dr. Muriel Blaive—is wrong, as far as her argument goes. But, I must say that I did not experience the ideological content of the show in quite the same way. I’ve got to go on my memory here, which is much less reliable than her treatment of the catalogue. Still, it seems to me that the point of the show was perhaps less real parallelism than a race for it, and the, in a certain light, very remarkable degree to which it in fact existed. At many points, it was possible to see just how far apart the two ‘modern’s were. For instance, I recall a treatment of two peace memorials, one on the west side and one on the east. The communist memorial was socialist-realist: strong-jawed and rugged (but clean) soldiers of the Red Army, standing in a heroic pose—I’m certain that one of them had a broadsword. The capitalist (I’ve no choice if I called the other one communist) memorial was never built, but the plans were for a Giacometti-type sculpture of wires that look as though they were once human and retain of their humanity only pain. Interestingly, neither memorial fit especially into the aesthetic of the ‘modern’ so nicely paralleled in the front room of the show.

Blaive’s point about the struggle over the memory of the postwar period is not at issue. Inasmuch as I am entitled to an opinion (which I am not), she seems to me correct. But I will say that she rushes rather too quickly past the ruptures and failures of parallelism in “Cold War Modern” in her desire to find an ideologically compromised history. Just as a work of art, it has no doubt been said, rewards close attention to its flaws as well as its perfections, it seems to me that the show in question should not be judged too quickly. Or even, if it comes to that, on the basis of what the curators say about it.

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