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Louis Menand

Before the start of his 92U course Art and Thought in the Cold War, Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Louis Menand talked to us about the protean politics around the concept of freedom in America, the value of the humanities in higher education, and his new book, The Free World.

The Free World draws on the lives and work of a huge range of artists, thinkers, schools, and movements. Your class at 92Y, Art and Thought in the Cold War, is focused on four specific works by four artists: John Cage’s 4’33’’, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Why? What is it about these particular artists and these particular works?

They’re iconic works. Everyone over a certain age has heard of them. And each of them has an interesting backstory — what John Cage thought he was doing when he worked on a silent piece for the piano, where Bonnie and Clyde came from. Part of what The Free World tries to do is excavate around some very famous books and works of art to find out what their creators were up to. Understanding the social conditions and the people behind these works helps us understand the world they lived in. They provide a lens on the wider culture.

The Free World is a sprawling project — one of the many things you’re attempting to do in this book is find out what we meant when we talked about “freedom” from the end of World War II to the beginning of the war in Vietnam. What did freedom mean during the beginning of the Cold War?

Nothing! [Laughs] Everybody uses that word. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and John Cage all use it, and it means something different to all of them. What does that mean? A good example of how we commonly think about this is the act of driving a car. A lot of us feel more free when we’re driving, including me. There’s a sense of agency and power. But in fact what we’re doing here is a highly regulated and officially monitored activity. What’s that about? I don’t have the definitive answer. I’m trying to help readers decide for themselves.

How do you think our conceptions of freedom have changed since then? How did the events of that era define, influence, or shift the way we think about freedom now?

Immediately after Vietnam, our political stock went down around the world and our talk of freedom lost a lot of meaning. Today, interestingly, freedom is often a right-wing slogan: “Don’t tell me what to do.” These days the left talks about equality and justice. The right talks about the freedom to carry weapons or not to wear a mask. That’s not what we meant, for the most part, during the Cold War.

You offer an inspired defense of liberal arts education in a chapter about higher education in The Free World, and your work as a teacher was one of the initial sparks for this book. As science, technology, and the streamlined track toward career have become more dominant in our understanding of higher education’s purpose in our society, why do you think the liberal arts and the humanities continue to be essential?

At schools like Harvard, where I work, the liberal arts and sciences are taught disinterestedly — in other words, not as preparation for a career. You’re just trying to figure out how the world works. When you graduate, then you go to graduate or professional school and are trained for a profession. The humanities, however, is in crisis. Students aren’t enrolling in humanities classes nearly as much as they once did. So we’re trying to figure out how to teach our subjects in a way that feels more urgent to students. The exception to this trend is art-making and creative writing — students like to create things, and companies like to hire creative people (or there is a perception that they do). The study of literature and culture historically isn’t as valuable to students at the moment. We try to persuade them that they should know the cultural backstory of contemporary life. We also try to persuade them that works of literature and philosophy are about what it means to be a human being. Wouldn’t they want to know what people have thought about that subject?

Don’t miss Louis Menand’s 92U course Art and Thought in the Cold War, beginning Wednesday, May 5.