The Cold War Condition; a look into the writings of Claudia Mesch and Gerardo Mosquera
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the cold war had always been a story that belonged to my parents' generation. It existed through history books, photographs, memorabilia and anecdotes. And although I began to understand the role of art and its social importance during the cold war era, I hadn’t yet grasped the dissemination of the communist/capitalist ideology in art before encountering two chapters of text by Claudia Mesch and Gerardo Mosquera.
“State-Sponsored Art During the Cold War” and “The New Cuban Art” by Mesch and Mosquera respectively, were interesting to read alongside each other. Both pieces are quite similar in the depth with which they examine the political engagement of the artist scene from the 1950’s through to the late 1980’s, but they explore these topics on a largely different scale.
Mesch, who writes in her book Art and Politics approaches the subject of art during the Cold War with the goal of providing a clear but detailed overview of what must be looked at and considered from the perspective of an art historian. She details how the 1950’s onward shows a revival in political art, with many artists participating in leftist movements and aligning themselves with great conviction to a political party or ‘side’. It was a point in which art could not (and must not) be separated from the ideology of the artist. She outlines the relationship between ideology and style as well, naming the Soviet claim on figuration and realism (seeing it as the true ‘art for the people’), where the United States and other capitalist nations claimed abstraction and embraced expressionism in order to advertise (quite ironically) its ideology of true freedom from the state.
Although Mesch does examine political art of the cold war around the world (Africa, Latin America etc.) her focus plays out in the ‘west’, or the countries that otherwise dominate the canon of the art scene. In the end, her aim is to communicate the co-dependency of art and politics and how it has become hyper-visible, almost weaponized, during the Cold War period.
Gerardo Mosquera in the book Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition, streamlines a similar discussion, but solely within the context of Cuba. By examining one art scene over a lengthier period of time (1890’s to 1990’s), he communicates the developments in Cuban art and illustrates the importance of each style at the time, alongside their most revealing effects. It is therefore not solely about the Cold War, but also about issues of post colonialism and revolution, all revolving around the politics of identity. By exploring the history of cuban art so closely, his focus lies more on the political necessity for the development of cuban nationalism, where art becomes the medium with which that identity is proposed (and increasingly communist, socialist identity). He takes us through phases of government support for the arts, into art during the revolution, increasing cases of censorship in the 1970’s, and the later struggle to twist art away from the political and nationalist world to which it had been bound.
Although there is much more to be said about each text, it was meaningful to read these alongside each other. It gave me both a glance at contemporary art of the cold war from a more worldwide perspective, then zoomed me right into that same period of time, but concerning the development of an art scene in one country alone. It was exciting to compare the complexity of each case, especially considering the depth that each text provided. I am beginning to understand the push and pull of the political, and the vested interest it therefore must have in the equally push pull world of visual arts.
Claudia Mesch, “State-Sponsored Art During the Cold War.” Art and Politics. A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 15-44.
Gerardo Mosquera. "The New Cuban Art." Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition. Politicized Art Under Late Socialism. Ales Erjavec, ed. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003. 208-246.