Jackson Pollock in the cultural context of America, 1943-1956: class, "mess," and unamerican activities



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A close examination of the popular and art world reception of Jackson Pollock’s paintings from 1943 to 1956 indicates how troubling they were to average Americans. Much of the vast body of critical literature on Pollock over the past five decades focuses on his formal innovations, his position within advanced art or how his art relates to Clement Greenberg’s modernism. By evaluating primary source material, I argue that the contemporary reactions to Pollock’s work were motivated more by class issues and cultural battles than “art” per se. Pollock’s paintings and persona both ran strongly against consensus-era values associated with prestige and status. I develop the conceit of Pollock’s “messiness” to explore the contemporary response, which in the mass-market press ranges from ambivalence to outright hostility. Popular publications (e.g. Time, Life, Newsweek) were generally intolerant of the praise given Pollock by the cultural elite—the so-called “highbrows.” Studying the response to Pollock’s art reveals how vitriolic the battle over cultural capital was, especially when the country’s economic landscape after World War II offered hope that more Americans could be educated to improve their taste. Beyond spurring potent cultural arguments, Pollock’s “mess” also had deep political implications in the late 1940s. I draw parallels between the language used in Pollock criticism and containment-era rhetoric that began to develop within the United States government around 1947. Despite the fact that Pollock’s paintings are overtly non-political, his “mess” fueled communist fears in popular publications. Historians who deal with the matter tend to generalize a potential link to left-wing politics and move on. Yet Pollock was the ultimate mid-century uncontained artist. I locate specific avenues through which his art was covertly attacked and allied to communism by the mass-market press. This dissertation restores vigor to a frequently overlooked cultural debate, making Pollock’s eventual “triumph” seem all the more divisive and surprising.