#see power tuesdays: Self-deprecation as marker of power

image

Main Street–Small Town, section of The Americans
mural,
American Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958 (Musées
Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

“Few countries can afford to smile at themselves – we can”

Saul Steinberg, the man who spoke the words above designed the
centrepiece of the US contribution to the Brussels World’s Fair in
1958, a mural collage totaling 70 meters, which was displayed inside the American
pavilion. It was simply titled “The Americans.”

The first World Fair after WWII took place just a year after the Sputnik shock. The
first satellite in orbit had put serious doubts on America’s
ability to rival the Soviet Union in the area of technology. How would the US react to such a challenge?

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Baseball – section of The Americans
mural
 

The
Fair in Brussels was an important staging ground for the ongoing
system competition between America and the USSR
. Rather than
trying to chase after the Soviet Union in the technological realm,
the US chose instead to focus on cultural displays and consumer
goods. Art, modern art, was consciously used to provide visual cues
as to what America stood for, a strategy in operation since the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 (read here an article of CIA
involvement in the art scene
, as well as an assessment of the success or failure of such a strategy).

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Farmers, Middle West – section of The Americans
mural

Steinberg’s whimsical, sharply observed and wryly humorous
cardboard and paper collages of American people walking down US streets,
attending baseball games, sitting in bars or engaging in farming broadcast a message of
individual creativity, of freedom of expression – and of the ability
for self-deprecation, an attitude reserved for the decidedly self-assured.

The contrast with the USSR’s pavilion could not have been more
striking. Both the Soviet message and its display appeared serious and a bit grey in comparison.

image

Main Street–Small Town, section of The Americans
mural

Steinberg, a Jewish Romanian-born artist who escaped to the U.S. in 1942
was not blind to America’s dark sides. He famously observed: “A
mask represents how people want to appear, what they want to be. What
people do, especially in America is to manufacture a mask of
happiness for themselves.”

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Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), Mask series 1961, photo Inge Morath

Interestingly,
the public at the World Fair in Brussels was neither completely swayed by American artistic creativity, nor by the sober technological exhibits of the Soviet Union. It preferred instead the pavilion of Czechoslovakia – perceived as friendly, light and modern.

Johanna M

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