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Art and Politics: A Permanent Dissonance?

By Robert Bellafiore

Joseph Horowitz, The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2024).


At a 1963 ceremony at Amherst College honoring the recently passed Robert Frost, President Kennedy expanded his artistic purview beyond Camelot to offer a thesis on the nature of creative action. “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture,” he said, “society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. … Artists are not ‘engineers of the soul.’ It may be different elsewhere.” The speech was Kennedy’s fullest articulation of his commitment to a special weapon in the Cold War: the putative cultural vitality of America, against the sterility of “elsewhere”—the Soviet Union.

  The argument sounds sensible enough. How could an artist following the dictates of bureaucrats create anything of value? Weren’t such figures as composer Dmitri Shostakovich and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky struggling to realize artistic visions while Soviet censors screened their works for politically incorrect ideas? But there is also something strange about it. If the artist has been “set free” from society, how can he also nourish it? And how can a statesman pit his country’s art against that of his enemy’s without himself making it a “form of propaganda”—precisely what he claims to oppose?

  In The Propaganda of Freedom, Joseph Horowitz considers the history and influence of Kennedy’s argument and finds it harmful to freedom and culture alike, revealing an uneasy relationship between art and politics that any free society must grapple with. He traces Kennedy’s argument to the Russian expatriate Nicholas Nabokov, a respected composer in his time (and Vladimir Nabokov’s first cousin) who collaborated with the likes of Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, ballet choreographer George Balanchine, and poet W.H. Auden. Nabokov would enjoy greater influence, however, as secretary general of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist organization that enlisted Western writers and artists in the war of ideas throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

  Through his leadership at the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and his friendship with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—court historian of the Kennedy administration and the author of the Amherst speech—Nabokov was able to disseminate his theory of art. According to Nabokov, great art emerges from the pure, sovereign self, only once all influences from the artist’s environment have been filtered out. Attachment to a particular culture or tradition could only taint the individual’s source of artistic inspiration. For Nabokov, this ex nihilo individualism was perfected in Rite of Spring composer Igor Stravinsky, who, though exiled in America, had in his own creative genius all he needed. In contrast, the “essentially conservative and unexperimental” Shostakovich, by giving voice to the spirit of his countrymen and obeying Stalin’s orders, reflected the drudgery of totalitarian conformity. From his outpost at the CCF, Nabokov argued that the individual freedom of Americans and Europeans cashed out in artistic achievement, in contrast to the USSR’s twinned political oppression and cultural death.

  But, Horowitz argues, this “propaganda of freedom”—a “fantasy of thriving democratic free artists and inconsequential Soviet artistic slaves”—cannot account for Stravinsky’s and Shostakovich’s oeuvres, or for the broader state of classical music in either country. Against Stravinsky’s own claim that music is “powerless to express anything at all,” the composer himself noted how Broadway, boogie-woogie, and the spectacle of Los Angeles seeped into his exile works, exhibiting an external influence to which, according to Nabokov, the true artist is impervious. And in the atonal modernism and fashionable twelve-tone music—the epitome of a dedication to pure form over any “ideational” content—of the later Stravinsky and his Western contemporaries, Horowitz, and audiences, hear little of value. Solipsistic self-expression, it seems, produces artistic estrangement rather than cultural renaissance.

  Shostakovich, in contrast, was always alive to the embeddedness of his music in Russian life, recognizing that just as the artist nourishes his culture, so too is he nourished by it. “[E]very artist who isolates himself from the world is doomed,” he insisted. “There can be no music without ideology.” Borrowing an image of Soviet art from the novelist Andrei Bitov, Horowitz sees Shostakovich’s artistry as “coal subjected to enormous pressure,” miraculously producing diamonds. Against Nabokov and Kennedy’s claims of a Soviet cultural wasteland, Horowitz points to the “self-evident meaningfulness” of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet and the remarkable performance of his Seventh Symphony before a rapturous audience during the siege of Leningrad. We struggle to comprehend how such works could have emerged under Stalin’s thumb; yet there they are. The proof is also in the programming: Shostakovich is the last composer to establish himself solidly in the standard orchestral repertoire.

  Horowitz’s purpose, through his musical analysis and a broader history of the CCF and cultural exchange during the Cold War, is by no means to defend the Soviet Union. Rather, he seeks to protect both art and freedom from their cheapening by the conflation of “the necessary prerogatives of the democratic citizen with the sources and purposes of artistic creation.” (Following the money also does something to complicate the CCF’s arguments on behalf of the free artist: all that time, it was receiving funding from the CIA.)

  From the perspective of 2024, one startling feature of this history is simply how important classical music was to American culture. After pianist Van Cliburn won the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, he was treated to a grand ticker-tape parade in New York City—to this day, the only solo musician to enjoy such an honor. In its way, what we might call the “Concert Hall Debate” did just as much as Nixon and Khrushchev’s Kitchen Debate the next year to convey to the world America’s achievement and ambition. But as American composers moved towards decadent self-congratulation—encapsulated in avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt’s jibe, “who cares if you listen?”—the public understandably lost interest in the genre, leading to classical music’s marginal role in American public life today. Kennedy exhorted the artist to “follow his vision wherever it takes him.” But audiences don’t want to be taken along for the ride, and who can blame them?

  The tensions between artist and audience, and between artist and government, didn’t resolve themselves when the Cold War ended. What makes The Propaganda of Freedom more than just a compelling history is its illustration that these tensions will mark every free society, including ours today. For any American who is discouraged by the vulgarity and frivolity of contemporary culture and wishes for something better, the book raises difficult questions. Is there a way for the government to support art without corrupting it? And if not, how can we ensure that art still remains vital to our public life? Horowitz provides few answers, but he does more than enough by revealing the enduring challenges and opportunities that art poses for democracies.

  This is a lesson we must heed today, as the U.S. government attempts to bring the band back together for a world tour. Last September, the State Department launched the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, a “worldwide effort to elevate music as a diplomatic tool to promote peace and democracy and support the United States’ broader foreign policy goals.” Perhaps the project will achieve some noble international goals; but political elevation and artistic degradation are more compatible than we would like to think today. As in the Cold War, we may all too easily find ourselves shackling art to politics, at the very time that we imagine we are setting it free.


Robert Bellafiore is Research Manager at the Foundation for American Innovation.


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