By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University
In the 1950s, American culture enjoyed greater worldwide prestige than ever before, and in some realms of even artistic life, America was becoming the world’s leader. American literature no longer needed to defer to European masters making it a period of immense creativity in American literature.
Not Conforming to European Standards
Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, who published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951; Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man; and Arthur Miller were writers of the first rank who didn’t have to defer to European models in the way that most of their American literary predecessors had had to do. Thus, incidentally, in the 1960s and 1970s, some supporters of the counterculture looked back on the 1950s and spoke of it as an era of numbing conformity.
That, however, was really only part of the picture. It was also a period of enormous literary and artistic creativity. New York became the capital of the art world in the 1950s. A succession of very interesting art movements also illuminated the American art scene, particularly, ‘Abstract Expressionism’. It found a voice in the work of artists like Vilem de Kooning, Morris Lewis, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollack.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Jackson Pollack, ‘Jack the Dripper’
Jackson Pollack’s probably the most famous of these. In his early career, he painted in the conventional way on canvas, with paint. But then he was the man who, instead of painting, eventually took to this method of dripping paint onto the canvas from sticks and brushes held above it.
One of his great masterpieces is called ‘Lavender Mist’, and it’s made entirely by dripping paint onto the canvas. What Pollack liked about it was the fact that it was a little bit random. He wasn’t going to be able to tell exactly how the painting would turn out, although he certainly learned how to manipulate the drips and the splashes in just the right way.
Of course, though, his work was controversial. Some people hated it as the personification of all that was wrong with modern art. Others, though, loved it. His nickname was ‘Jack the Dripper’ because of the way he dripped the paint onto the canvas.
Andy Warhol and Pop Art
The early 1960s saw the advent of a powerful American art movement, Pop Art. One of its great figures was Andy Warhol, who made a fortune painting Campbell’s soup cans or painting what looked like deliberately bad photographic reproductions of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
Another favorite among the Pop artists was Robert Rauschenberg, who did this hilarious sculpture called ‘Monogram’, of an old stuffed goat with a ruined tire around its middle. It was a funny, comical work. Similar to him was Claes Oldenburg, who made giant hamburgers or gigantic clothespins, and an inflatable typewriter.
And yet, perhaps the most famous of them, was Roy Lichtenstein. He did enormous canvas paintings of individual scenes from comic books, massive enlargements of what until then had been though of one of the very lowest forms of vulgar popular art. Most of it was intentional as the idea of the Pop artist was to dissolve the distinction between high art and the popular arts, and in a sense to challenge the whole idea of the artistic avant-garde.
John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society
Apart from pop art, another influential creation was in the field of literature. 1958 also saw the publication of one of the great American books—John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. This was a book that gave one of the names to that era. It points out many of the strengths and weaknesses of a suddenly very wealthy society. Galbraith begins the whole book with this lovely sentence:
Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, though it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.
He goes on to say:
Unfortunately, just so long as we’ve got the money doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to use it right. Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy. He hasn’t got enough, and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills. And he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes, or otherwise to make himself foolish.
Was America an Unbalanced Society?
Interestingly, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society goes on to explore the ways in which money was, in fact, being spent in America. He juxtaposes this with how different it was from the way in which money ought to be spent. He explains his principal point as, “We’re living in an unbalanced society in which, at the moment, immense resources are put to private good, but in doing so, we’re starving the public’s fear of adequate funding.”
Galbraith was a Democratic Party loyalist who favored a continued expansion of the role of the New Deal government. He believed in making the federal government the arbiter of all the other participants in society, to make sure that the public’s realm developed commensurately with the private sphere in American life. It most clearly was one of the manifestos on which the democratic governments of subsequent years did act.
Common Questions about How Literature and Art Shaped American Culture in the 1950s
New York became the capital of the art world in the 1950s. A succession of very interesting art movements also illuminated the American art scene, particularly, ‘Abstract Expressionism’.
Roy Lichtenstein did enormous canvas paintings of individual scenes from comic books, massive enlargements of what until then had been though of one of the very lowest forms of vulgar popular art.
Interestingly, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society goes on to explore the ways in which money was, in fact, being spent in America. He juxtaposes this with how different it was from the way in which money ought to be spent.