American art’s seven-decade-long primacy, which began in the post-war era, has continued to the present day. The American art market is still the largest in the world, accounting for 40% of global sales in 2016, according to UBS and Art Basel’s The Art Market 2017.
The American era was fueled by the explosive energy of mid-20th century abstract artists whose expressive, intuitive work was seen as a manifestation of the liberal, individualistic ideology at the heart of American foreign policy.
What is less well-known is the role that foreign policy played in helping establish this avant-garde movement’s supremacy, a story recounted in “The Economics of American Art,” published in August by Oxford University Press.
“One of the great sources of contemporary art was politics, pure and simple,” says Auburn University economist Robert Ekelund, Jr. He is the co-author, along with John Jackson, also an economist at Auburn, and the late Robert Tollison of Clemson University, of the book. “Innovation and intuitive art were born from that initial impact but now have a life of their own.”
This excerpt, adapted from their new book, traces the impact of politics on American art movements in the mid-20th century.