The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand - review by Adam Sisman

Adam Sisman

The Original Culture Warriors

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War


Fourth Estate 880pp £30

In the summer of 1952 an event was staged in the dining hall of a small college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Chairs were arranged in four quadrants around an open space so that the performers could use the aisles and the audience faced one another. The number attending was modest, estimated at between thirty-five and fifty. Forming a canopy suspended above them were several large white canvases. Theatre Piece No 1 (as the performance became known) was not recorded, and there are conflicting accounts of what took place. In an interview given thirteen years later the organiser, the composer John Cage, provided his version:

At one end of the rectangular hall, the long end, was a movie, and at the other end were slides. I was on a ladder delivering a lecture which included silences, and there was another ladder which M C Richards and Charles Olson went up at different times [to read poems] … Robert Rauschenberg was playing an old-fashioned phonograph that had a horn and a dog on the side listening, and David Tudor was playing piano, and Merce Cunningham and other dancers were moving through the audience.

Some readers will wish that they had been there; others will be relieved that they were not.

The canvases hanging above the audience were from a series by Rauschenberg, described by the artist as ‘a group of paintings I consider almost an emergency’. The ‘White Paintings’ were exactly

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