Dr. Greg Barnhisel, associate professor of English in the McAnulty College, has been awarded a $50,400 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to complete his forthcoming book, Cold War Modernists.
“The book is about the use of experimental art in American cultural diplomacy during the first decade of the Cold War,” Barnhisel explained. “At the time, the U.S. government supported book and magazine publication, traveling art shows and also the Voice of America radio shows with the aim of persuading audiences—particularly intellectuals in Europe—that the United States had a really thriving culture.”
Showcasing sometimes-challenging art and literature caused conflict in the government, with some conservatives in Congress unsupportive while a number of Department of State officials called the works positive evidence of America’s cultural freedom. I’m looking at how it went from being seen as un-American to really championing the American ideal,” Barnhisel said.
Some of the controversial artists involved in this program included novelist William Faulkner, painters Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Jackson Pollock, and poet and editor Stephen Spender.
To find out more about the internal debates of the government regarding the effort, Barnhisel will travel throughout the year to research government archives. Stops include the National Archives in College Park, Md.; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan.; the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo.; and the Princeton University Library in Princeton, N.J.
“Most of the relevant government documents have been declassified, but I recently had to file a Freedom of Information Act request after coming across some documents about the book programs in the 1950s,” Barnhisel said.
Ultimately, Barnhisel feels the book will make a case for the value of liberal democracy, freedom of speech and artistic experimentation. “This is exactly what this 1950s program was about,” he said.
In the eight years he has been working on this book, Barnhisel has received a short-term fellowship from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas, a summer stipend from the NEH and several grants from Duquesne University and the McAnulty College. “Writing this kind of book requires traveling to archives all over the country,” Barnhisel said. “I couldn’t do it without the generous support of Duquesne and other granting agencies.”
Cold War Modernists will be published by Columbia University Press in 2014. The fellowship runs Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2013.
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