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The Democratic Surround

The Democratic Surround

The Democratic SurroundThe Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties

 “The Democratic Surround is a dazzling cultural history that demonstrates how American intellectuals, artists, and designers from the 1930s-1960s imagined new kinds of collective events—different from Fascism’s crowds—that were intended to promote a powerful experience of American democracy in action. Drawing parallels across a wide set of venues—from MoMA’s Road to Victory and Family of Man shows of the midcentury period to the 1959 National Exhibition in Moscow to the Happenings of the 1960s counterculture, Turner challenges us to think about the lines between information, entertainment, art, and propaganda. Along the way he shows how important the media have become to the design of collective experiences and forms of democratic citizenship. A brilliant argument from a gifted writer, this book not only informs but also surprises!”

— Lynn Spigel, author of TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television

“The photographic war-time propaganda of Road to Victory or the post-war humanism of The Family of Man usually don’t come to mind when accounting for Happenings, Be-Ins, expanded cinema, or Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but they are tightly woven in the social fabric of Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround. In what will surely be a controversial revision, Turner maps the attempts of social scientists, industrial designers, European expats and others to mold democratic personalities as a bulwark against authoritarianism, forming a civil foundation upon which arose spatial media experiments of the arts and counterculture of the 1960s. From an Americana more associated with Aaron Copland comes the radical surround sound of John Cage; from image management of psyches, psychedelic media environments.”

— Douglas Kahn, author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

From The University of Chicago Press:

We commonly think of the psychedelic ’60s as an explosion of creative energy and freedom that arose in direct revolt against the social restraint and authoritarian hierarchy of the early Cold War years. Yet, as Fred Turner reveals in The Democratic Surround, the decades that brought us the Korean War and communist witch hunts also witnessed an extraordinary turn toward explicitly democratic, open, and inclusive ideas of communication and with them new, flexible models of social order. Surprisingly, he shows that it was this turn that brought us the revolutionary multimedia and the wild-eyed individualism of the 1960s counterculture.

In this prequel to his celebrated book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner rewrites the history of postwar America, showing how in the 1940s and ’50s American liberalism offered a far more radical social vision than we now remember. Turner tracks the influential mid-century entwining of Bauhaus aesthetics with American social science and psychology. From the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the New Bauhaus in Chicago and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Turner shows how some of the most well-known artists and intellectuals of the forties developed new models of media, new theories of interpersonal and international collaboration, and new visions of an open, tolerant, and democratic self in direct contrast to the repression and conformity associated with the fascist and communist movements. He then shows how their work shaped some of the most significant media events of the Cold War, including Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition, the multimedia performances of John Cage, and, ultimately, the psychedelic Be-Ins of the sixties. Turner demonstrates that by the end of the 1950s this vision of the democratic self and the media built to promote it would actually become part of the mainstream, even shaping American propaganda efforts in Europe.

Overturning common misconceptions of these transformational years, The Democratic Surround shows that the artistic and social radicalism of the sixties grew out of the liberal ideas of Cold War America, a democratic vision that still underlies our hopes for digital media today.