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Cold War (British) Modernism

Wednesday 12 February 2020, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Dr Rebecca Beasley (University of Oxford)

This paper will investigate the familiar argument that modernism was a creation of the Cold War. Set out first in the 1970s by the art historians Eva Cockroft, Jane de Hart Mathews, Max Kozloff, Cecile Shapiro and David Shapiro, and developed and popularised by Serge Guilbaut in 1983 and Frances Stonor Saunders in 1999, this argument proceeds from the fact that modernism, particularly in the form of abstract expressionist painting, was in Guilbaut’s words, "enlisted by government agencies and private organizations in the fight against Soviet cultural expansion". More recently, Greg Barnhisel has significantly expanded our knowledge of modernism’s role in the Cold War, detailing the extent to which the CIA, the State Department, and their allies directly and indirectly deployed a variety of media and cultural institutions as weapons of pro-Western propaganda. But how applicable is this argument to modernism in Britain? The paper will trace instances of the transfer of that argument to the British context, and argue that these have misrepresented both British modernism and its first critics. 

Rebecca Beasley is Associate Professor in English at the University of Oxford, and Fellow of The Queen’s College. She is the author of Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Theorists of Modernist Poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and T.E. Hulme (Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2007), and editor, with Philip Ross Bullock, of Russia in Britain: From Melodrama to Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2013).  Her most recent monograph, Russomania: Russian Culture and the Creation of British Modernism, will be published by Oxford University Press next month.


Location: Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building, University of York Campus West