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Looking at life under the cloud of the hydrogen bomb

Monday, July 1, 2013

The old saying goes that art reflects life, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a direct link between technology, science, history and art. Dr. Catherine Jolivette, associate professor of art and design at Missouri State University, will soon release a new book, “British Art in the Nuclear Age” (Ashgate, 2014), which addresses the role of art and culture in the realm of nuclear science and technology, atomic power and nuclear warfare in Cold War Britain.

While British literary studies and film studies have considered the idea of nuclear culture for the last 10-20 years, Jolivette said historians of British art have only just begun looking at this subject matter.

“I’m excited to bring visual culture into that mix with art,” Jolivette said. “Researching for this book really brought to light that there was no one homogenized response to living in the atomic age. Past historians have had a tendency to generalize about everybody living under a cloud of anxiety and fear. While certainly that plays into some aspects or artistic response, there are also artists that were hopeful and optimistic about what the technology could do.”

The book, which is a collection of nine original essays by international colleagues in a number of disciplines, builds upon her previous book on landscape and art in Britain in the 1950s that only touched briefly on how changes in science and technology were perceived by British artists during the mid-20th century.

“A lot of artists in the 1950s and 60s were talking about the atomic age and of course they were living under the cloud – literally the cloud – of the hydrogen bomb and its development. So this was something that was very much on people’s minds, but the impact of this technology hasn’t been written about a great deal by art historians.”

What she found in writing her own chapter about the works of British born and émigré artists displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain is a heterogeneity of responses to living in that time.

“It’s not just about militarism or nuclear weapons. It was also about the hopes and potential of science for good, and holding those two things in balance,” said Jolivette.

Being British herself, she is excited to be part of the landscape of this part of art history. Engaging in dialogues with colleagues outside of her discipline at conferences, she finds inspiration, and is currently collaborating with a group of other scholars on finding funding for a mobile application related to their collective research.

“It’s an interdisciplinary collaboration – but you could be visiting a site (in Britain), and click on the app. Then you could look at what that place had been during the Cold War and link to documents, link to the archive and maybe some 3-D overlays of images back then and images now,” she explained.

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College of Arts and Letters
The College of Arts and Letters supports more than 45 undergraduate and 10 graduate programs. The college incorporates seven academic departments, including art and design; communication; English; media, journalism and film; modern and classical languages; music; and theatre and dance, and five interdisciplinary programs: antiquities; electronic arts; global studies; linguistics; and musical theatre. The College of Arts and Letters promotes learning, scholarship and service to the broader community in all aspects of human communication — spoken, written, visual, musical, dramatic and electronic.

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