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The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War.

The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War. By David Caute. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 788. $39.95.)

The Dancer Defects is a fine, panoramic history of the cultural Cold War. The author has many wise and interesting things to say about culture in general and the Cold War in particular.

David Caute returns to one of his previous themes, arguing that cultural struggle was more than an epiphenomenon of political conflict. For him, the Cold War was nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Enlightenment. The cultural Cold War is seen through this central framing device, as a secular struggle between two sides that were playing to similar rules--although seeking quite different outcomes. Thus "culture" is defined as the "high culture" of the European elite. Cinema is a marginally new element, but is seen through the prism of the art house and the auteur rather than through the mass market. The only original American contribution to the mix is jazz. Jazz's mature, Europeanized form, appealing to the cognoscenti, appears more important than its popular roots. Caute provides an enlightened history of the late Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment defines the ground Caute's work covers. The energy of Caute's book is derived from a different source. The Dancer Defects can be read as a prolonged attack on what the author sees as conspiracy-minded leftist historians. He objects to attempts to rewrite cultural history as the product of a "hidden hand" that can be traced back to the Western intelligence services. Caute argues that secret agency had little role to play in Western culture. That culture was so vibrant and self-energized that outsiders could only fiddle at the edges; each page of this long book is powered by a desire to prove this contention. Caute makes a powerful case for the autonomy of Western culture. He attempts to make a similar case for Soviet culture; its genuine virtues meant that, "with good reason the Soviet public enjoyed a cultural superiority complex" (11). His efforts to prove the autonomy of that culture are, however, much less convincing than his argument for the West. Party and state could hardly take a peripheral role in the Soviet system.

Caute's interest in the autonomy of culture enables him to land some well-judged blows on conspiracy theorists. It leads him also to question the value of research in government archives for the pursuit of cultural history. He wishes to establish that only public acts have real cultural value. This is a very "All Souls College" view of history--archives can tell one what Mozart had for breakfast, not why he was a genius. The toil of examining archives can thus be avoided with little loss to the historical endeavor. Unfortunately, Caute's chosen source materials are open to the same objection; warmed-over concert and exhibition reviews can be a peculiarly desiccated medium through which to view culture.

Simon Ball

University of Glasgow

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Author:Ball, Simon
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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