PRINT November 1977

The Aesthetic of Indifference

TWO NOVELS SET THE PARAMETERS of national feeling in the McCarthy period (1950–1954) and provide an index to an important new aesthetic impulse in American art during those years. In One Lonely Night (1951), Mickey Spillane’s hero, Mike Hammer, tells a friend: “I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it. I pumped slugs into the nastiest bunch of bastards you ever saw and here I am calmer than I’ve ever been and happy too. They were Commies, Lee. They were red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago.”

Holden Caulfield, the dispirited hero of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), sees his life as a pointless game against hopeless odds. One night, unable to sleep, he thinks of committing suicide: “I felt like jumping out the window. Probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.”

These attitudes—bigoted conviction and embittered passivity—expressed by Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield were in many ways characteristic of America’s state of mind during the McCarthy period, when those with right-wing commitments pursued their goals with a blind and ardent zeal that was often channeled into the cause of anti-Communism. Others of a more liberal and self-critical persuasion found themselves paralyzed when called upon to act on their convictions, and this paralysis frequently appeared as indifference. This essay will deal with a number of artists—Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns—who made a positive cult of indifference and whose ideology, as a group, coalesced during the McCarthy period. This group espoused a new aesthetic that I shall call here the Aesthetic of Indifference.1

The 1950s were assaulted with literature, popular culture and art describing feelings of indifference, neutrality and passivity in the world of the Cold War: and the Aesthetic of Indifference should be seen in this psychological ambience. A sociological study of this pervasive sense of “alienation” (which itself became a catch-all term of the period) was undertaken by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). In film, one of the most famous contemporary portraits of alienation was the James Dean character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), whose impotent defiance of an indifferent world led to his inevitable defeat. The early 1950s also witnessed Beat literature and lifestyle, the curious Beat blend of passion and indifference which was crystallized in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). In The Dharma Bums (1959), Kerouac describes the choice for himself and his generation: “The only alternative to sleeping out, hopping freights, and doing what I wanted, I saw in a vision would be just to sit with a hundred other patients in front of a nice television set in a madhouse where we could be ‘supervised.’” But in the early 1950s, a growing number of intellectuals consciously espoused indifference as a virtue, as the correct way to deal with an uncertain world.

A language of neutrality developed during the McCarthy period. Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride, published in 1951, the same year as the Spillane novel, was an early announcement of this new tone of indifference. The Mechanical Bride, a study in advertising manipulations, was written in a cool rather than indignant manner. McLuhan likened his nonjudgmental stance to that of the imperiled sailor in Poe’s “The Maelstrom,” a figure who saved himself by studying a whirlpool’s movements with “amusement,” estimating the velocity of objects as they were drawn downward. McLuhan specifies: “It is in the same spirit that this book is offered as amusement. Many who are accustomed to the note of moral indignation will mistake this amusement for mere indifference.” In this statement McLuhan defended himself against anticipated criticism that he lacked moral indignation, but more to the point here was his choice of the words “amusement” and “mere indifference.” They signaled a new language of neutrality, one cultivated by artists as well as writers.

The key exponents of the Aesthetic of Indifference were Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns. That these artists loosely came together, intellectually and psychologically, in terms of a shared aesthetic during and just after the McCarthy period has received scant attention by art historians and critics. It is time to see their art and artistic stances in the Cold-War context in order, first, to understand the art itself, and second, to explain, at least in part, the bizarre disjunction of art and politics that emerged in the 1960s. The radical political movements of the 1960s had virtually no expression in the art of that time, an art that was strangely appealing and acceptable to the very forces—governmental, corporate and middle-class powers—that these radical movements opposed. A major cause of this discrepancy between art and politics was no doubt the enormous impact of the Aesthetic of Indifference on art of the 1960s.

The Aesthetic of Indifference appeared in the early works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and in the Cage/Cunningham music and theatre experiments: all used neutrality as their springboard. These artists made and talked about an art characterized by tones of neutrality, passivity, irony and, often, negation. “Amusement” and “indifference” became positive values. Parallels and precedents for these ideas were found in Dada and Duchamp. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp was a pivotal figure in the aesthetic as well as being, of course, one of its main historical sources. The indifferent aesthetic emerged in the early 1950s, and had three fairly distinct phases: its cool and ironic beginnings in Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham (with Duchamp as a major role model); its more poignant expression in the muted anxiety of early Johns; and its weakened final phase in the bland indifference of Pop and Minimal art.

By the late 1940s, in the arena of Truman’s presidency, one political and moral crisis had followed another: the Iron Curtain divided Europe, Mainland China was won by the Communists in 1949, and a few months later a nuclear device was detonated in the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1950 the Korean War started. These events, and others, caused America to devote more and more of her energy and power to countering this specter of a Communist world takeover. Abroad, the Truman Policy, the Marshall Plan and the Policy of Containment were attempts to prevent, or at least curtail, Communist power. At home, anti-Communism dominated politics. In 1947, Truman established a new loyalty program to weed out “traitors” and security-risk employees from the federal government. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) became the stage for endless investigations of loyalty cases, and in 1950 Senator McCarthy, embarking on the first of his charges concerning Communist infiltration of the American government, himself became a terrifying force in political life. Spillane’s One Lonely Night is a fictitious document of the virulent hatreds of the time. Mike Hammer killed more Communists in a single night than he could count on the fingers of his hands. In life, this did not happen in the United States, but what did happen was that friendships and reputations were killed off, and people were irreparably damaged by the psychological anguish and economic realities of the blacklist.

The Aesthetic of Indifference emerged at a time when, as a fallout of anti-Communist rage, American modernism was being attacked from all sides. The staccato and relentless rhythm of these attacks is felt in Modern Artists in America (1951), edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt. In the section on “Art in the World of Events . . . 1946–1950,” the editors chronicle a flood of indictments against American modernism, including the tirades of Congressman Dondero (in the 1949 Congressional Record) with such titles as “Communist Art in Government Hospitals,” and “Communism in the Heart of American Art—What To Do About It?”2 Some artists fought back against these assaults on modernism. For many, including most of the Abstract Expressionists (accustomed to WPA and political activity among artists in the 1930s), the current political paralysis was painful, and they tried to mitigate it by passionate investments in art “politics.” Merely to defend the right to make modern art—given that modernism was under attack from so many quarters—became one of the main “political” causes for artists and critics during this period.3

Characteristically, however, the artists of the Aesthetic of Indifference were neither involved in real politics nor concerned about a vigorous defense of modernism. As McCarthyism erupted in the world around them, the “Indifferent” group viewed politics (meaning political bureaucracy and governmental strategies) with distance and irony. If Duchamp himself was later to describe politics as “a stupid activity which leads to nothing,”4 Cage once envisioned a future in which “economics and politics as we knew them would disappear and people would be in a position, so to speak, to live anarchistically.”5 Because of this seemingly indifferent attitude to politics, such artists themselves—and most of their critics—have never acknowledged the influence of the historical context in which this aesthetic was formed, namely the Cold-War and McCarthy period. Such aloofness from political events of the time was part of these artists’ general indifference, but now, today, a quarter of a century later, it is a part of their self-image which should be questioned. I do not see how one could paint the American flag in 1954 and claim, as Johns did, that it was merely inspired by a dream. Perhaps so, but dreams are ultimately connected with reality. Nineteen fifty-four was, in reality, a year of hysterical patriotism. Johns could not have been insensitive to this.

In its deliberately apolitical and generally neutral stance, the Aesthetic of Indifference represented a new breed of artist, an alternative to the politically concerned Abstract Expressionists.6 George Segal, a young artist at this time, has described his memory of the typical Abstract Expressionist: heavy-set appearance with drooping mustache and corduroy jacket. As Segal reported, “If you had an education, you had to hide it and sound like a New York cab driver.”7 Segal recalled the contrast when he first encountered Duchamp and Cage, who struck him as models for a new “slender, cerebral, philosophical, iconoclastic type”; physically and intellectually very different from the Abstract-Expressionist one. For Segal and others, the new artist had a dandylike elegance of body build and a manner which delighted in cool and elegant plays of the mind: playfulness indeed was a key characteristic in most of this new breed of artist.

The changes in appearance and temperament were also expressed by differences in sexual mores. The machismo attitudes proudly displayed by the Abstract Expressionists were now countered by the homosexuality and bisexuality permissible and even common among the new aesthetic group. Soon after World War I, Duchamp had created a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, who frequently signed his work and for whose photograph he posed in drag. For the Abstract Expressionists, such a creation must have been one more confirmation of Duchamp’s disturbing artistic tastes. But for the Aesthetic of Indifference, Rrose Sélavy might well have served as a symbol of new sexual and artistic freedoms and flexibilities.

John Cage and Marcel Duchamp provided the keystones for ideas for the new Aesthetic.8 Meeting first in the early 1940s, the American inventor-composer and the European fin-de-siècle dandy formed a gradual friendship, close but characteristically casual and private in tone, unlike the stormy Cedar Bar friendships of the Abstract Expressionists. If Duchamp was the fulcrum of this new movement, Cage was the lever. The artists involved in the aesthetic gravitated toward one another during the 1950s, although they never existed as a group in the public sense of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The chronology is well known, but I will briefly recapitulate certain fundamental facts. Cage and Merce Cunningham had begun work together in the mid-’40s. Cunningham, together with a number of students in about 1949, formed his new dance company with Cage as the company’s musical director. The company became clearly delineated in 1953 during a stay at Black Mountain College (the site of the Cage proto-“happening” in 1952 in which Cunningham and Rauschenberg had taken part), and in 1954 Rauschenberg was appointed the costume and set designer for the ensemble. Cage, already a close friend of Cunningham’s, quickly formed friendships with Rauschenberg and Johns, who had met one another in 1955 when they had studios in the same building in New York, and were to see one another almost daily for several years. Duchamp, also in the city in the 1950s, was a familiar figure on the art scene, courted and admired. Not only was Duchamp accessible to American artists but his art was also, for the first time, publicly accessible in 1954 when the Philadelphia Museum of Art displayed its huge Arensberg Collection of his work.

The group began to define its own artistic history and precedents. The most supportive movement of the past was, of course, Dada, a movement which had been activated by feelings of moral anger, political impotency and nihilism engendered by the First World War. Originally Dada was a bitter art, but its abrupt and dramatic revival in the McCarthy 1950s saw it commercialized and tamed.9 It was in Dada that the Aesthetic of Indifference found its precedents, and it was in Duchamp that its artists sensed their greatest resonance. Duchamp had always been “indifferent” and was thus a perfect older model for the new Aesthetic: the “cool” artist who had made the Readymades, those objects so frequently acclaimed as being “indifferent” to aesthetic values and to the artist’s personal “touch” and taste.

How Duchamp publicly projected himself during this period comes through clearly in a description by Winthrop Sargeant. Collecting material for the 1952 Life magazine lead article, “Dada’s Daddy,” Sargeant visited Duchamp in his New York studio and met “a wiry, genial grey-eyed Frenchman . . . [who] can talk interestingly by the hour, allowing an amazing stream of aesthetic, philosophical and purely Dada ideas to filter through his detached, ironic mind.” Although secretly at work on the Etant donnés, Duchamp presented himself as an elderly, brilliant, but detached artist who produced only occasional works.

Duchamp’s detachment was reflected in both his personality and his art, and this detachment, which had irritated most of the Abstract Expressionists, now delighted the new Indifferent group. Duchamp’s personal “cool” was noted with approval as the cool of a gracious but remote, affable but ironic, old European artist. All this made him a very different type from the anguished and romantic Abstract Expressionist. For the first time, with Duchamp and Cage as guides, American artists began to leave the romantic studio-attic. Many younger artists drew back from the Van Gogh stereotype of the romantic artist—a contemporary portrait of which was readily found in the 1957 film Lust for Life, where Van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas) was seen furiously painting against a darkening crow-covered sky. However, in vanguard circles, the new model was Segal’s “slender and cerebral” cool artist.

For Duchamp and the new aesthetic generally, intelligence was as highly esteemed as coolness. Cool intelligence was the ideal. Unlike most of the Abstract Expressionists, whom Segal has described as publicly denying their education and, by implication, their intelligence, most of the new group loved to air theirs. Coolness and intelligence were the hallmarks of the Aesthetic of Indifference and, as a concomitant, there was among the new group a widespread proclaimed disdain for traditional artistic manual skills and the artist’s personal “touch.” Again, Duchamp was a major model. The taste for readymade materials and images, and often impersonal techniques, brilliantly maneuvered by Duchamp, Cage, Rauschenberg and Johns, spread generally among artists involved in “assemblage” and “junk” sculpture and “happenings.” The vestiges of this indifference toward the artist’s “personal” touch can be seen in the automated techniques which produced much of Pop and Minimalism.

Finally, Duchamp played a central role in this period in terms of the huge shift in the relationship and attitude of American artists toward their European artistic heritage. The Aesthetic of Indifference was formed during the period of profound realignments of world power. The global strength of American political and economic power supported the rising power and prestige of American art in the world.10 In the 1940s and 1950s, American artists and critics increasingly acclaimed the superiority of American art in the contemporary art world: they particularly congratulated themselves on surpassing the French as modernists.11 Living proof of this was the “capture” of a famous French artist, Duchamp. Duchamp had been part of the early history of American modernism through his role in New York Dada and the fact that it was America and not Europe which had originally created his fame (the Nude’s success in the Armory Show of 1913) and had sustained it. Not only did America house Duchamp’s art, but it now housed the artist himself, for since the outbreak of World War II, Duchamp had chosen New York rather than Europe as his home. Other Europeans left America immediately after the war. Not so Duchamp, and this must have had its appeal, consciously or not, in the 1950s. Still lingeringly caught up in the need for European approval, American artists also resented this need. With Duchamp, they could have their cake and eat it, too. Obdurately European in manner and taste, Duchamp was a perfect European cult-hero for this period: part of America’s artistic past, he was also part confirmation of its present.

Duchamp was the European role model for many of the new notions about the artist: the cool, intelligent artist who disdained manual skills in favor of skillful plays of the mind. But Duchamp was old in 1950—over 60—and seemingly not producing much in the way of current art.12 The actual artistic production of the Aesthetic of Indifference came rather from younger American artists.

In 1950, John Cage made a major leap of imagination by entering into his experiments with chance. It was a period of much excitement and exchange between Cage himself, David Tudor and Morton Feldman. But, although the Zen-like chance operations of Cage were exciting to invent, they also exhibited an extreme passivity: a decision not to assert but rather to let happen what may. One of the most famous of these early passive chance pieces by Cage was his 4’ 33“. First performed in 1952, Cage’s ”empty“ composition lasted 4 minutes and 33 seconds, its only sounds being incidental noises from a restless audience and the outside environment. A similar theme of emptiness and passivity resided in Rauschenberg’s white paintings of a year or so earlier. The large all-white canvases contained no image except the fleeting shadows of passers-by. The paintings had perplexed the public who saw them for the first time in 1953, a year after Cage’s 4’ 33” had perplexed its first audience. In 1953, Cage wrote a description of these all-white paintings. His haikulike response constitutes a poetic manifesto of the Aesthetic of Indifference:

To whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No object
No beauty
No message
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling . . .

The American public at large had been presented in that year of the silent, empty white paintings with the violent sounds and gestures of Joe McCarthy’s performance in his new role as Chairman of the Government Operations Committee, following the victory of Eisenhower and the emergence of a Republican majority in the Senate. In the spring of 1953, McCarthy’s henchmen Roy M. Cohn and G. David Schine made a lightning censorship tour of the American overseas information program in Europe. Their search for “subversive” Communist literature led to a monstrous “cleaning up” of libraries and, literally, to bookburning. In the political ambience of hysterical anti-Communism and right-wing action, the Cage poem reads like an unconscious tragic acknowledgment of total paralysis. The Aesthetic of Indifference had literally gone “blank.” There are no messages, no feelings and no ideas. Only emptiness.

Cage would object to such an interpretation. He would, I believe, argue that the denial of conventional meaning was in order to allow a different sort of meaning to emerge: that he was interested in the 4’ 33" piece, for example, in getting the audience to make music/sound rather than merely listen passively. But the negativity and passivity of such works cannot be disassociated from the historical moment at which they were produced.

The chance experiments of Cage, the undramatic movements and narratives of the Cunningham company, the white paintings of Rauschenberg and the artistic stance of Duchamp had been neutral aesthetic moves in a singularly fervent period of American political history. In the work of Jasper Johns, however, the Aesthetic entered its second and more poignant phase.

Nineteen fifty-three was the year when Rauschenberg executed his symbolic negation of Abstract Expressionism, the Erased de Kooning Drawing. In the following year, Johns performed an act of far more radical erasure and denial (of American patriotism rather than an American art movement) when he executed the first of his flat and neutral reproductions of the American flag. This was the year when McCarthy, pushing his luck too far, had taken on the Army as a new domain of investigations, and, goaded into a showdown, the Army confronted McCarthy head-on. The American public was bombarded with uninterrupted media coverage of these Army-McCarthy hearings, including the famous television presentation in which the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, was seen by millions of viewers scoring victory after victory over the beleaguered and finally defeated McCarthy. Even if we assume that Johns had had no television set, had read no newspapers and had had no politically concerned friends, he would still surely have sniffed the hysteria of prevailing patriotic sentiments. Johns took the American flag and reduced it from a potentially emotional symbol to a passive, flat, neutral object: an amazing act by an amazing artist. No longer merely all-white paintings or an “empty” musical score, but now the main symbol of American beliefs during this Cold War period was itself presented through the Aesthetic of Indifference.

Between 1954 and 1956, Johns established most of his basic iconography: flags and targets; concealed or painted-over objects; manipulations of language; and the numbers and alphabet series. Critics (and Johns himself in his rare public utterances) talk about the work in abstract terms of sustained ambiguities, concealment and waiting, disintegration, and of the artist’s play with the viewer’s expectations and perceptions. Johns is almost always presented as a wonderful, wily and convoluted imagination which operates outside the confines and influences of history. No so: Johns was brought up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and his work reflects these years.

Jasper Johns was born in 1930. He grew up, intellectually and emotionally, in the atmosphere of the Cold War. He was 17 when the CIA was created, in 1947; 18 when Hiss was accused of perjury; 20 when McCarthy rose to power; 21 when the Rosenbergs were put on trial (Spillane’s One Lonely Night was a best-seller that year); and 24 when McCarthy’s power collapsed. Johns was a product of just this epoch of paranoia and anger. His upbringing was thus very different from that of older artists in the Aesthetic of Indifference—Cage, who came from a background of the Depression, and Duchamp, whose early work was created in the ambience of late Symbolism and the Cubist revolution of the 1900s.

More than any other artist, Johns incorporated in his early art the Cold War and the McCarthy era preoccupations and moods. This is not to imply that Johns did this consciously and single-mindedly, or that there is one simplistic reading for any particular image, but what emerges out of a collective examination of his work is a dense concentration of metaphors dealing with spying, conspiracy, secrecy and concealment, misleading information, coded messages and clues. These were the very subjects of newspaper headlines of the period, reiterated on the radio and shown on television; and these were the meat and meaning of the early work of Johns. His early work is a warehouse of Cold-War metaphors.

Certain images in the works were relentlessly examined, as if to force a disclosure of meaning: especially the way the newspaper collage surfaces and the numbers and alphabet series suggest secret ciphering. Indeed, Johns himself wrote in 1964, “The ‘spy’ is a different person. . . . The spy must be ready to ‘move,’ must be aware of his entrances and exits. . . . The spy designs himself to be overlooked.”14

The year before Johns’ earliest preserved work was the year of the execution of the Rosenbergs, a couple accused of transmitting information about the atomic bomb to the Russians. The mood of that 1953 summer has been described by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar. The novel begins abruptly: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers . . . I kept hearing about the Rosenbergs over the radio and at the office till I couldn’t get them out of my mind . . . I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs . . .”

The Rosenberg execution occurred the year Johns was 23, the year before he painted his first American flag. He and millions of other Americans in their early 20s had been brought up in the atmosphere of such espionage and loyalty trials: the “Hollywood Ten” trial in 1947, the trial of 11 top-ranking Communist Party officials of 1948, the Judith Coplan scandal in 1949 and the Alger Hiss versus Whittaker Chambers two-year trial of 1948–50. It was a period of endless Communist witchhunts.

In these trials, witnesses and evidence were relentlessly and monotonously questioned. There was always a sense of the trial proceedings being on the brink of revelation: the next examination of witness and/or object will break the code and expose the traitor. Certain objects became endowed with fascinating even magical meaning for the American public: the Jell-O box in the Rosenberg case and the Pumpkin Papers and Woodstock Typewriter in the Hiss trial. It is from this world of investigations of witness and object that Johns, almost certainly unconsciously, drew the substance of his early art. In the world of early Johns, his objects and ciphers invite investigation of their meaning. If the book (the painted-over Book, 1957) were legible, we might know what is going on. If the drawn-down Shade, 1959, could be raised, we might see what is going on. But, like the-Pumpkin Papers and the Woodstock Typewriter, Johns’ objects tantalize but do not prove. These early works of Johns suggest a perpetual and obsessive interrogation of evidence. Unlike the verdicts of guilt in real-life Cold-War trials, however, we are never sure of the conclusion, or of whether Johns himself knows the verdict, or, indeed, whether the trial is really over.

In his interrogation of language, numbers and objects, Johns’ manner is neutral and indifferent. Yet there are undercurrents of poignancy. Max Kozloff relates that Johns had made a special visit while in England to see Leonardo’s “Deluge” drawings. When asked by Kozloff why he had sought out these late Leonardo drawings, drawings of a catastrophe-ridden and eroded world, Johns replied: “Because here was a man depicting the end of the world and his hand was not trembling.” It is impossible to think of any other figure sharing in the Indifferent aesthetic giving exactly such an answer, or, indeed, seeking out such images.

Again and again in the 1950s, Johns took emotion-laden material and ran it through a filter of indifference. Like Leonardo, his hand did not tremble as he depicted a world of disintegration and blankness. At the heart of these early works—and it is this that makes them singularly moving, for me, in spite of their neutral surface—is a pull between the search for meaning and a denial of meaning. Johns chose subjects to paint that revolved around the basic tools of meaning: tools of light, measurement and language by which the world is conventionally apprehended and described. We need light literally to see the world we live in, but the flashlights and lightbulbs (themselves artificial light sources) in Johns are often inoperative: they are embedded in metal or broken (Lightbulb I and Lightbulb II, 1958). Numbers are tools of measurement for establishing one’s spatial position and the size of objects in the world, but Johns’ numbers are useless. His monotonous repetition of numbers and alphabets (such as Gray Alphabets, 1956, or Gray Numbers, 1958) recalls the mutterings of a senile person who once learned in early childhood lessons of counting and memorizing the alphabet, and who vaguely remembers that further lessons made sense of such exercises, but cannot recall anything more.

Johns never develops language meaningfully. The print is usually illegible in his encaustic-covered newspaper collage surfaces. The alphabet is left intact. Words dangle as objects from the canvas. Language is used pedantically to describe what we already know: for example, the objects labeled as “broom,” “stretcher” and “cup” in Fool’s House. Image and word contradict one another: in False Start, 1959, the surface is ridden with colors and their names, but the word for one color is written in another color and placed above yet a third color. For all Johns’ employment of language, we can never “read” his messages with accuracy and trust.

The energy and despairing hope that Johns had invested in his search for a means to decipher the world began to fail. Before finally giving up and moving to safer ground, Johns embarked upon a series of works in the early 1960s, where the sense of search was heightened. Land’s End, 1963, is a sober account of color-words and a circle device is abruptly pierced by an upraised rigid arm: it is an anguished gesture. In Study For Skin I, 1962, a faint image of hands and face (Johns’ own) are pressed against the paper as if peering out in order to prepare for an escape. In Souvenir, 1964, Johns himself again stares out with a Buster Keaton-like deadpan countenance. Light is reflected toward him obliquely from a flashlight shining onto an angled mirror. The work gives the disquieting impression of an interrogation of a person already brainwashed, from whom no further information will be drawn.

Johns shifted into safer, and ultimately less inventive areas in the 1960s, devoting much of his time to printmaking. Most of the other figures participating in the Indifferent aesthetic made similar moves, announcing yet another stage in the evolution of indifference in art. Rauschenberg produced elegant silk-screen paintings and prints and expensive limited editions of objects. Duchamp’s publicly known works in the 1960s were trivial—for example, his etchings of the Large Glass. Cage continued interesting, but less fresh, experiments with elaborate chance scores. In the meantime, the Aesthetic of Indifference had become a major influence on the art movements of the 1960s. Reading-matter for a whole generation of artists was provided by Cage and Duchamp. In 1960, Duchamp’s Green Box notes (to accompany the Large Glass) were translated into English for the first time, and the full range of Duchamp’s ingenious and devious mind could be studied, while in 1959 the first monograph on Duchamp (by Robert Lebel) had been published. Cage’s Silence was a beguiling and playful account of many of the Indifferent aesthetic’s strategies; the book quickly became a poetic guide for younger artists when it first appeared in 1961.

The Aesthetic of Indifference was a dominant model for much of Pop, and less directly, it had a strong influence on Minimalism (with Johns as a major mediator). For Cage, Johns and Rauschenberg to have chosen, consciously or not, to advocate indifference and neutrality as a psychological and intellectual way out of the impasse of the McCarthy period was perhaps not a courageous stance but, in retrospect, was understandable in view of the paralyzing effect that the early 1950s had on so many intellectuals. But Pop and Minimal art developed in a time of far more radical hopes. The period in which these movements evolved was that of sit-ins and freedom rides, then marches, and anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Yet the artistic counterparts to such events were, for the most part, infrequent and bland: Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book war images and Andy Warhol’s race-riot canvases. Usually Pop avoided such loaded material and dealt rather with a Middle American world of affluence and materialism, a world of physical comforts and pleasures whose values were formed by advertising and business. Understandably, these works were immediately a big success with Middle America and sold well and easily. What Minimalism did was similar: corporate-industry materials, clean-cut industrial design and scale were employed to produce large abstract sculpture and paintings which fitted in well with the decor and scale of corporate and public buildings. This art was being produced during the time of high hopes and angers: radicalism was a threat to Middle America, but “radical” avant-garde art was not, for there was virtually no politically radical art in the 1960s.

Yet many of the Pop and Minimal artists were actually sympathetic to radical causes, such as antiwar, or Black Panther support demonstrations and the like. Why did they forget this when they went back to their studios to make art? Why this denial of commitment and feeling in art? Much of this bizarre discrepancy between life and art acts can be ascribed to the legacy of the Aesthetic of Indifference, together with Formalist theories (which were stamped with their own brand of “indifference”). Clement Greenberg and his crew hated the Cage/Duchamp contingency but Formalism and the Aesthetic of Indifference together provided a powerfully persuasive counsel to artists of the 1960s: play it cool. Formalist critics advocated a “cool” making and reading of art: the focus on shape, color and relationship to space. As the Aesthetic of Indifference had been paralyzed by the politics of the McCarthy period, now the sensibilities of many artists of the 1960s were paralyzed by the neutral strategies prescribed by the Aesthetic of Indifference. Formalism, at least, only advocated coolness of form, but the Aesthetic of Indifference was a more potent and dangerous model for the 1960s; it advocated neutrality of feeling and denial of commitment in a period that otherwise might have produced an art of passion and commitment.

Moira Roth teaches art history and criticism at the University of California, San Diego.

I am deeply indebted to Joe and Wanda Corn, and to Nan Rosenthal for sustained intellectual friendship and for their close and highly constructive critical reading of this manuscript. The period I have written about is the period of my adult life: I came to the United States (from England) during the McCarthy period. I lived in Berkeley during the 1960s and wrote a dissertation there on Duchamp and America. I have had a long, intense and ambivalent history of attitudes toward Duchamp, Cage, Rauschenberg and Johns. Writing this essay has been a way of trying to write a partial intellectual autobiography, an accounting of my interest in these artists.



1. The whole issue of a positive cult of neutrality (and the often accompanying Dandyism and Camp) in the 1950s is complex. I have singled out Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns but they did not exist, obviously, in a vacuum either socially or intellectually. Contiguous, among others, was the poetic world of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and their friends. O’Hara and Ashbery had met in 1949 and were lifelong friends until O’Hara’s death in 1966. Both were closely allied with artists and both espoused ideas and artistic stances that moved in parallel directions with those of the Aesthetic of Indifference. Indeed, in 1949 O’Hara had written a poem “Homage to Rrose Sélavy.” Among O’Hara’s many friends, who included Johns and Cunningham. was Larry Rivers, an enigmatic figure of this period whom one would certainly examine if one were to widen the study of neutrality experiments in the early 1950s. Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) was a curious ironic homage to the founder of the American Republic done in the year in which McCarthy’s attack on the democracy of the American Republic was at its most virulent. Other figures appropriate to a broader study of the evolution of a “cool” aesthetic during the 1950s would be Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. I would like to thank David Antin here for a helpful discussion concerning the O’Hara/Ashbery circle affinities with the Aesthetic, and also for referring me to an excellent study: Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters by Marjorie Perloff (1977). Another study germane to these issues is Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’.”

2. Dondero’s diatribes were ominously paralleled by ones from within the ranks of modern art. In a 1952 anthology entitled America In Crisis (edited by Daniel Aaron), Meyer Schapiro, the art historian and critic, contributed a warning essay about these serious assaults on modernism, pointing out that not only bigots such as Dondero, but supposedly sophisticated leaders of the art establishment, as, for example, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Henry Taylor, had condemned modern art as “meaningless” and “pornographic.” A survey of the impact of these attacks is in “The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy period,” by William Hauptman, Artforum, October 1973.

3. In 1952, Harold Rosenberg wrote his famous defense of Abstract Expressionism in the article “The American Action Painters.” This article was astutely characterized by Barbara Rose as “the first clear indication of a displacement of political ideas into the arena of aesthetics . . . writing about art, Rosenberg still resorts on occasion to the vocabulary and political tones that he used as a political writer in the thirties.” (“Problems of Criticism IV: The Politics of Art, Part I,” Artforum, February 1968).

4. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 1971, page 103.

5. Richard Kostelanetz, “Conversation with John Cage,” in Kostelanetz (ed.), John Cage, 1970, page 8.

6. By 1950, the Abstract Expressionists were well established, both in terms of maturity of their work and public recognition of them as a group. For the early 1950s, they were certainly the most publicly visible and recognized of American avant-garde visual artists and were the stereotype of what a contemporary artist was like.

7. These quotations from George Segal come from an unpublished taped interview I did with him on February 26, 1973.

8. John Cage has discussed his impressions of Duchamp at length in “John Cage on Marcel Duchamp,” in Art in America, November-December 1973 (an interview by myself and William Roth). Duchamp when asked by an interviewer why his name was often associated with Cage, replied “We’re great buddies. He comes and plays chess every week. . . . If people choose to associate us it’s because we have a spiritual empathy, and a similar way of looking at things.” (“Passport No. G255300,” an interview with Duchamp by Otto Hahn, Art and Artists, July 1966)

9. Spearheading the revival of Dada in the McCarthy period was Robert Motherwell’s anthology, Dada Painters and Poets (1951), and the relevant Sidney Janis shows between 1950 and 1953: “Challenge and Defy,” 1950; “1913,” 1951; and “Dada 1916–1923.” 1953, the largest show of Dada in America since 1937. Also the Rose Fried gallery put on two shows relating to Duchamp during this period.

10. A seminal article on the subject, and one that has greatly influenced me generally, is Max Kozloff’s “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum, May 1973.

11. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, Clement Greenberg participated in a symposium on “Is the French Avant-Garde Over-Rated?” and answered with a decided yes (the essay was reprinted in his Art and Culture, 1961). Even more emphatic was the Stuart Davis article in the 1959 Arts Yearbook. The whole issue was devoted significantly to the comparison of New York and Paris contemporary art and in it Davis wrote triumphantly of the superiority of New York art.

12. Duchamp’s Etant donnés (1946–1966) was made in secrecy, and its creation only revealed in 1969 although there are veiled references to it in minor post-1946 works. What was publicly known of Duchamp’s current production were such works as the small erotic sculpture pieces (Female Fig Leal, 1950, Objet-Dard 1951 and Wedge of Chastity, 1954) and other occasional pieces

13. Reprinted in Kostelanetz, Cage, p 111, a statement originally distributed in 1953 by the Stable Gallery which had put on the first show of the Rauschenberg au-white paintings that year.

14. This passage from one of Johns’ notebooks was first published in 1965, and reprinted in Richard S. Field’s catalogue of Jasper Johns prints (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1970). Field analyzes this passage concerning a spy and a watchman, and reads it in terms of “rich allegories on the concept of the spectator (critic) and artist.” True enough, it probably does refer to that, but I think what is also significant about the passage is that it shows Cold War imagery, unconsciously, still coloring the thinking of Johns in the 1960s. I would like to acknowledge here a marvellously fruitful discussion with Joe Corn concerning the Cold War implications of Johns’ work. The recent study by Joan Carpenter (“The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns,” Art Journal, Spring 1977) suggests interesting possibilities in extending the “reading” of Johns through the use of infrared photographs.