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The Subversive Fifties

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Classroom SimulationClassroom Simulation

The Avant-Garde Artists of the 1950s

Contributing teacher: Andrew Meyers
Time period: 1950s

In this simulation, students become avant-garde artists of the 1950s. Using Professor Alan Brinkley's e-seminar, the 1950s DBQ, the links provided below, and readings from the bibliography, they will create the voice of a historical character to describe in a classroom presentation a genre of avant-garde art. Students must prepare readings, musical excerpts (preferably performed, but recordings are acceptable), visual aids, and direct quotes from their character. Being in character enhances the quality of the investigation and the experience of the audience.

This simulation allows students to discuss central questions about this decade from an artistic, creative perspective. Students who do not consider themselves to be great historians can do great history as they explore this era through its visual, literary, spatial, cinematic, and musical texts. There will be technical requirements involved, such as mastery of the videocassette recorder, slide projector, video camera, and video-editing equipment. Students should tailor their presentations to avoid the most onerous technical requirements.

The Assignment

"In the Belly of the Beast": Avant-Garde Artists of the 1950s
Ten-minute student presentations in the voice of historical artists in one of the following:
  • beat poetry
  • bebop jazz
  • modernism in corporate architecture
  • abstract expressionism in visual arts
  • film noir

Discussion Questions
1. How do the art forms of the 1950s challenge our view of this period as one of complacency and conformity? How do they reinforce our views about the lack of originality of the decade?

2. What political, social, and economic factors caused the rise of the genre you have chosen?

3. In what ways did the artists of your movement reflect and/or challenge the values Americans held in the years after World War II?

4. What might be the effect of McCarthyism on the avant-garde?

5. What is the role of race in the origins and nature of your artistic movement?

6. Is art political?

7. Does art lead or follow cultural change?

Preparation Before the Simulation
In consultation with the teacher, each student will choose and research a character (see Historical Characters and Readings below) using the textbook, the Web, and other sources listed below. A descriptive paper will be written and reviewed by the teacher prior to the simulation; it should include a brief biographical sketch and a succinct statement of the artist's point of view, supported with at least one illustrative quote. Visual artists and architects should include an image of their work, while musicians will provide a musical selection (via tape or CD). Writers should provide a literary excerpt and filmmakers a video clip (VHS).

Day One
The five groups of artists will meet briefly to discuss their views on the nature of avant-garde influences in their particular discipline. The remainder of the class period will be used to do research.

Days Two and Three
Each artist will make a five-minute presentation. Each character will have five minutes (see requirements above). The other characters will ask questions and take notes in preparation for their own response (see below).

After the Simulation
You have been asked to summarize your experiences and reaction to the simulation with a piece of art, whether it be a poem, painting, sculpture, architectural drawing or model, song, performance, or prose. This creative piece should express your character's views on the question of conformity and the work of contemporary artists.

Historical Characters
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Neal Cassady
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • Miles Davis
  • John Coltrane
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Thelonius Monk
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • Phillip Johnson
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Jackson Pollock
  • Clyfford Still
  • Andy Warhol
  • Claes Oldenburg
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Mark Rothko
  • Stanley Kubrick (director of Dr. Strangelove)

Web Resources

Beat Poetry: The Beats
Salon des Refuses Web site; "The Beat Generation" page

Berkeley University Media Resource Center Web site; "The Beat Generation: Audio and Video Materials in the UC Berkeley Libraries" page

Bebop and Cool Jazz Web site; "Bebop" page

WNER-FM's Web site; "The Styles of Jazz" page

Modern Architecture
The Great Buildings Collection Web site; "The Seagram Building" page

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art
World Wide Arts Resource Web site; "Artists: Masters" page

WebMuseum (Paris) Web site; "Jackson Pollock" page

Film Noir
Greatest Films Web site; "Film Noir" page

University of North Carolina Media Resources Center's Web site

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