Think Tank Aesthetics
Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present
360 pp., 7 x 9 in, 15 color illus., 54 b&w illus.
- Published: March 17, 2020
- Published: April 3, 2020
How the approaches and methods of think tanks—including systems theory, operational research, and cybernetics—paved the way for a peculiar genre of midcentury modernism.
In Think Tank Aesthetics, Pamela Lee traces the complex encounters between Cold War think tanks and the art of that era. Lee shows how the approaches and methods of think tanks—including systems theory, operations research, and cybernetics—paved the way for a peculiar genre of midcentury modernism and set the terms for contemporary neoliberalism. Lee casts these shadowy institutions as sites of radical creativity and interdisciplinary practice in the service of defense strategy. Describing the distinctive aesthetics that emerged from such institutions as the RAND Corporation, she maps the multiple and overlapping networks that connected nuclear strategists, mathematicians, economists, anthropologists, artists, designers, and art historians.
Lee recounts, among other things, the decades-long colloquy between Albert Wohlstetter, a RAND analyst, and his former professor, the famous art historian Meyer Schapiro; the anthropologist Margaret Mead's deployment of innovative visual aids that recall midcentury abstract art; and the combination of cybernetics and modernist design in an “Opsroom” for the short-lived socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1970s Chile (and its restaging many years later as a work of art). Lee suggests that we think of these connections less as disciplinary border crossings than as colonization of the specific interests of arts by the approaches and methods of the sciences. Hearing the echoes of think tank aesthetics in today's pursuit of the interdisciplinary and in academia's science-infused justification of the humanities, Lee wonders what territory has been ceded in a laboratory approach to the arts.
Who better a guide than Pamela M. Lee—our sharpest critic on the entanglements of art and technology—to lead us from California to Chile in pursuit of the political and aesthetic histories of neoliberalism? Archivally rich, powerfully argued, utterly timely, and unexpectedly riveting.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, Doris and Clarence Malo Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley; author of Fray: Art and Textile Politics.
Here, one of the smartest, most imaginative art historians working today offers a new analytic frame for cultural work undertaken at a time when institutions of strategy were redefining representation through experiments with thought and communication. These experiments—like the larger dream of technological control that powered them—transformed the disciplines and, indeed, entire domains of experience. Among its many lessons, Think Tank Aesthetics shows that their results still resonate.
Darby English, Carl Darling Buck Professor, Department of Art History, University of Chicago; author of To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror.
This is a brilliant remapping of the power of aesthetics in the cold war research world and of the research world's impact on American art. It should be required reading—not only for historians, but for artists and military strategists too.
Fred Turner, author of The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties