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Serving Man: The United Nations Art Collection, Mid-century Modernisms, and the Apparition of Universality

“Respectfully submitted for your perusal—a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown.” So begins Rod Serling’s characteristically clipped voice-over narration near the beginning of “To Serve Man,” a 1962 episode of the cannily uncanny half-hour television series The Twilight Zone, in which one such Kanamit arrives in his spaceship in New York City and soon afterward appears before the Security Council of the United Nations. There the hyperintelligent giant, speaking perfect English (though without moving his lips) offers Earthlings freedom from war, hunger, and disease—problems that the Kanamits themselves, he says, long ago overcame.

Stills from “To Serve Man."
Figs. 1 and 2. Stills from “To Serve Man,” The Twilight Zone, season 3, episode 24 (1962), directed by Richard L. Bare. 

Argentinian, French, and Soviet UN delegates are initially somewhat suspicious of the colossally-brained Kanamit, and pepper him politely but forcefully with questions in accented English, but after he passes a lie detector test, they (and, it seems, the entire UN General Assembly) are placated. The story focuses on Michael Chambers, an American “decoding specialist” whose initial responsibility it is to decipher the large book that the eloquent Kanamit leaves at the UN, the title of which Chambers’s assistant Patty soon renders as To Serve Man. But as the Kanamit’s promises have been borne out in a short time––there is no longer disease, hunger, or war anywhere in the world—Chambers’s task seems less and less necessary. Like many other Earthlings, he is planning to visit the plentiful, peaceful planet of the Kanamits, who have now established embassies in every major country on Earth. Just as Chambers is preparing to enter the Kanamits’ spaceship for his interplanetary journey, Patty, who has, off-screen, apparently been working assiduously on the translation, rushes toward the boarding ramp and, held back by a dapper Kanamit security guard, frantically cries out, “Mr. Chambers, don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man: it’s . . . it’s a cookbook!” But she is too late: the ramp is quickly closed and the spaceship lifts off in spectacularly low-tech fashion. The episode ends with Chambers on board the vessel being offered food gesturally by a Kanamit and verbally by his sinisterly unctuous voice: “Enjoy!  Eat Hearty!”[1]

Serling’s teleplay for the episode, based on a 1950 short story by science fiction writer Damon Knight, exposes the profound ambivalence, especially in the United States, surrounding the establishment and early growth of the United Nations, whose charter was signed by forty-five countries in 1945 immediately after the second World War.  In 1952 the UN moved into its current headquarters on Manhattan’s east side, in a large glass complex designed by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, working with a group of other internationally renowned architects from five continents.[2]

Oscar Niemeyer, April 18, 1947.
Fig. 3. Oscar Niemeyer, April 18, 1947. Niemeyer was an architect on the ten-member Board of Design Consultants assisting Wallace K. Harrison, Director of Planning, in the development of plans for the United Nations permanent headquarters on the Manhattan East River site. UN Photo.

The land for the site had been donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., heir to the Standard Oil fortune, along the East River in an area of former slaughterhouses—this only five years after Rockefeller’s wife Abby and son Nelson had a major role in completing the nearby Museum of Modern Art (which was formerly housed in Rockefeller Center, also nearby). Indeed, the construction of the UN headquarters, in which discourse around international law and human rights was framed after the Second World War, bears a crucial relation to the establishment of MoMA, the institution that in the same period helped establish the parameters of “modern” art as the nexus of the global art world shifted from Paris to New York.

That Berlin, Indochina, and Algeria are mentioned in passing in Chambers’s voice-over narration at the beginning of the episode indicates the global political context of “To Serve Man.” The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had heated up throughout the 1950s, and proxy wars (and national and regional liberation struggles) continued unabated despite the UN’s central mission concerning the maintenance of international peace, security, and development. Many government leaders feared that the UN might go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which had proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s.[3] In the United States especially, there was also significant and persistent resistance to the legislation emerging from the global governing body, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 through the UN’s support of early postcolonial governments like Ghana, which was admitted to the body two days after it attained independence from Britain in 1960.[4] The uncertainty surrounding the mission and utility of the United Nations—fears of a world government usurping national sovereignty were routinely voiced by the John Birch Society’s leaders Robert Welch, Fred C. Koch, and others––is crystallized in The Twilight Zone episode’s titular pun, in which the notion of “serving man” by helping to ensure health, economic development, and peace, is transformed, nightmarishly, into the ghastly fate of becoming food for an alien invader. That this transformation from hospitality to creophagy involves a book that must be deciphered, whose decipherment is tragically belated, is especially telling: by the time the Kanamits’ written language is apprehended by the “decoding specialists,” Chambers is being fattened up for inclusion in an extraterrestrial terrine.

This persistent ambivalence about the mission of the United Nations, and fears about the organization’s utility, invites further reflection on the status of the UN both as an idea and as a building complex in which the project of modernity converges and collides with midcentury modernisms. The product of more than a century and a half of Enlightenment discourse concerning humanity, progress, and national and international development, the UN headquarters is a set of architectural structures that themselves showcase transparency, solidity, basic geometry, and the principle of form following function. It is also––and this is less well known––a repository of over one hundred artworks, most of which were made and donated between 1950 and 1970, that reveal starkly different aesthetic approaches to the ideals of freedom and international cooperation propounded by the UN, from various kinds of abstraction, to Socialist Realism, to the revival of more traditional, local sculptural forms.

In this essay, I explore in greater detail some of these little-studied artworks, and argue that they demonstrate how complex, contradictory, and imbricated these various midcentury modernisms were. In his recent book Cold War Modernists, Greg Barnhisel persuasively shows that through literary magazines, art exhibits, and radio programs, American cultural producers deployed the aesthetics of high modernism to prove that American art and literature were to be taken seriously.[5]  My proposed expansion and pluralization of the term “midcentury modernism,” typically associated with American architecture, décor and fashion (Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Mad Men style), is intended to draw Barnheisel’s insights into a conversation about a wider set of practices, including the International Style in architecture as well as emergent postcolonial art, whose parameters cannot entirely be accounted for in terms of Cold War aesthetics and politics.

The United Nations art collection, in its specific location, raises important questions not only about what kind of art best represents the declared aspirations of the UN concerning peace, human rights, and development, but about how, at midcentury, artists, collectors, and diplomats conceived modernity and universality. I contend that the competition between these various conceptions is crucial to understand in order to have a better grasp of midcentury modernisms, and to perceive their connections to twenty-first-century art, politics and theory. Addressing these questions, I trace a trajectory of recent critical approaches to the question of the United Nations in the era of globalization––an era in which the nation-state-driven model of universalist internationalism on which the UN was founded has been displaced, as also exemplified by recent “global” tendencies in literature and art scholarship. To challenge the implications of some of this work in light of renewed nationalisms in contemporary geopolitics, I conclude with a brief coda concerning the 2018 Hollywood blockbuster film Black Panther, which begins and ends its narrative with short but crucial scenes involving the United Nations and offers a fictional African country’s response to the UN’s putatively universal positions.

Encompassment: North, Northwest, and Global South

The New York City United Nations headquarters consists of four main structures: the tall, International Style blue glass, iron, and marble Secretariat building (originally designed by Le Corbusier); the low, curving, domed, tropical modernist General Assembly building (designed by Niemeyer); a smaller conference building that connects these two buildings (and that contains the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council, intended to prepare formerly colonized lands for self-government but defunct since 1994 because its primary task has supposedly been completed); and a library, completed in 1961, that functions architecturally as a sort of hybrid of the three other forms, punctuating a low-to-the ground curved stone space with blue glass windows.[6]

Still of the UN headquarters from North by Northwest, 1959.
Fig. 4. Still of the UN headquarters from North by Northwest, 1959, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

These four main buildings sit on an eighteen-acre site along New York’s East River between 42nd and 48th Streets, and the spaces between the buildings and to the north of them are meant to function as a sort of civic square or plaza, albeit one cut off to the general public and surrounded by security fences. A number of large sculptures are placed outside, in this plaza, but the majority of the pieces in the collection appear in the interior of the Secretariat Building, with a smaller number in the General Assembly building and still fewer in the library. It was the iconic Secretariat building that Alfred Hitchcock featured in his 1959 comedic thriller North by Northwest, both in the opening credits (with their then-state of the art kinetic typography) by his frequent collaborator Saul Bass, who riffed on their gridded exterior, and in an early scene of a matte-painted replica of the Secretariat’s wavy interior.

Saul Bass, title design for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Fig. 5. Saul Bass, title design for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Matte-painted still of the Secretariat building’s exterior from North by Northwest.
Fig. 6. Matte-painted still of the Secretariat building’s exterior from North by Northwest.

The United Nations collection of paintings, sculptures, and artworks in other media, ranges widely in genre, technique, and political presumption. The collection consists primarily of donations from individual artists, private collectors, and nations—gifts which, as we will see, are often ideologically inflected.[7] Its most high-profile artworks serve as late examples of pieces by European artists whose best-known work is typically associated with high modernist abstraction. Chief among these are the enormous untitled wall murals with blob-like shapes and condensed color palettes, in the large General Assembly Hall, designed by Fernand Léger.

Fernand Léger murals.
Figs. 7 and 8. Fernand Léger murals in the plenary hall of the General Assembly building at United Nations Headquarters in New York, 1971. UN Photo.

These murals were not actually painted by Léger himself but by his former pupil Bruce Gregory, in part because Léger, a member of the Communist Party since returning to France in 1945 (after spending the war years in New Haven and New York), was concerned he would not be admitted into the United States in 1950–51. During the war, while in New York, Léger had created very small sketches of different organic forms, and asked two children to pick out their favorite. (One of the children was the son of Max Abramowitz, construction partner to architect Harrison).[8] The resulting murals, floating against black backgrounds, represent a decided departure from Léger’s earlier “realist abstraction” and “mechanistic enthusiasm”; indeed, their moving away from recognizable objects and toward a generalized organicism provoked the befuddled bemusement that often, in the early and mid-twentieth century, greeted abstract paintings.[9] Seeing, in 1952, these two huge works prominently featured on two walls enveloping the just-completed General Assembly, then-president Harry Truman reportedly exclaimed of the mural on the East Wall, “I just don’t understand this. It looks to me to be scrambled eggs.” As if demonstrating the extent of his interpretive openness and quasi-psychoanalytic free association, he went on to compare the West Wall mural to “Bugs Bunny.” Truman’s names have stuck, and UN delegates and employees refer to the untitled works by their unofficial monikers.[10]

Another prominent work by a refugee artist associated with European high modernism is the Peace Window by Russian-empire-born Marc Chagall, who had fled Paris for New York in 1941 and was the subject of a major retrospective at MoMA in 1946.

Marc Chagall, Peace Window, 1964.
Fig. 9. Marc Chagall, Peace Window, 1964, stained glass. UN Photo by Lois Conner.

This free-standing glass work, placed in the Secretariat lobby, was dedicated to the memory of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in a plane crash in Southern Africa in 1961. For the Peace Window, Chagall draws heavily on biblical imagery: the tree of paradise in the center of the scene divides the panel in two. On the viewer’s left, nude humans and animals float in a kind of prelapsarian bliss; on the right a group of human beings gathers around the cross. At the base, a snake slithers; from the top appears tablets of the law. Vaguely cubistic painted shards are assembled into the glass panels, giving the impression of reassembled fragments of a broken vessel.[11]

Also dedicated by its maker to the memory of Hammarskjöld is a monumental bronze sculpture called Single Form (1964) by British artist Barbara Hepworth (fig. 10)—a work commissioned by Jacob Blaustein, former United States delegate to the UN. Unlike Léger and Chagall, Hepworth had not achieved international recognition until after the war, but her organic sculptures, like those of her compatriot Henry Moore, became ubiquitous in institutional spaces in the United States during the Cold War era.[12]

Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form.
Fig. 10. Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form outside of the Secretariat building. UN/DPI Photo by Andrea Brizzi.

Single Form clearly draws on both the idea of the human body and the tombstone with a gesture toward prehistoric monuments. Placed on a Brancusi-esque dual-level cement plinth, the work is installed outside the Secretariat building next to a large fountain.

Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting No. 90.
Fig. 11. Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting No. 90, mural measuring 24 feet x 11 feet, 1961. UN Photo by Lois Conner.

Relational Painting Number 90, a large mural of colorful rectangular shapes (fig.11), traverses two levels in the library on a wall facing a staircase. Created in 1961 by Swiss-American artist Fritz Glarner, it strikingly resembles paintings by Glarner’s friend and mentor Piet Mondrian, who lived in Manhattan in the 1950s about a mile from the United Nations. Mondrian, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, was an advocate of the use of primary colors, horizontality, and verticality to reveal an ostensibly universal harmony. Glarner, who slightly modified Mondrian’s strict grids by introducing diagonal lines to create irregular rhythmical patterns and using the (non-primary) color grey, nevertheless shared his mentor’s investment in dynamism and fascination with freedom within limitation. (Glarner’s work was also supported by the Rockefellers, for whom he designed a dining room in 1963–64, two years after the UN commission.)

The piece that most clearly invokes the work of an artist associated with high modernism is the very large tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica (fig. 12), created by Jacqueline de la Baume-Dürrbach (supposedly with the approval of Picasso himself), but with colors added, perhaps for emphasis.

Jacqueline de la Baume-Dürrbach, replica tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1955.
Fig. 12. Jacqueline de la Baume-Dürrbach, replica tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1955. UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe.

The original painting, of course, in its “recombination of cubist and expressionist-surrealist illustration” depicts Picasso’s response to the destruction of the Basque village Gernika by Nazi-supported ultranationalist Franquista forces, but, especially since the 1950s, it has frequently been characterized as a universal cry against the disastrous cruelty of war in general.[13] Commissioned and purchased by Nelson Rockefeller in 1955 and on permanent loan to the UN from his wife Happy, the tapestry was placed at the interior entrance to the Security Council. (This otherwise fairly obscure tapestry version of the famous painting briefly made worldwide news in 2003 when UN staff covered it with a large blue sheet on the day that Secretary of State Colin Powell made the Bush administration’s highly dubious case for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and, recognizing that the war would not be endorsed by the Security Council, requested the military participation of a “coalition of the willing.”)[14]

All of these artworks, whose creators (from Europe and Britain) are responding to a greater or lesser degree to art typically associated with high modernism but which were produced in midcentury for (or were donated to) the United Nations, draw to a greater or lesser extent on the potentialities of abstraction, but offer it in its “middlebrow”—more domesticated, more popularly accessible—form.[15] The unstated rationale for their being housed in the United Nations headquarters likely inheres in the idea that freedom from direct representation in artmaking is akin to the UN mission’s “foundation” in freedom, justice, and peace. That this rhetoric of freedom (even when produced by communist and socialist artists from Western Europe) dovetailed with US-promoted ideas of culture during the Cold War––especially in supporting and disseminating Abstract Expressionism––has been much discussed and debated.[16]

Yet what is certainly remarkable concerning the UN’s art collection, given this history, is that examples of Abstract Expressionism are practically nowhere to be found, and that of more radical art movements of the later midcentury––minimalism, post-minimalism, conceptualism––are likewise virtually entirely absent.[17] In fact, very few American artists of the 1950s to the 1970s are included in the UN’s Collection. One exception is ex-first lady Nancy Reagan’s personal gift to the UN, “The Golden Rule” (fig. 13), an early-1980s reproduction of a 1961 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, transformed into a giant glass mosaic by “Venetian craftsmen” advertising a picturesque, indeed Reaganesque, notion of multiculturalism.

Mosaic representation of Norman Rockwell’s painting The Golden Rule, 1985, Murano glass tile.
Fig. 13. Coop Mosaic Artistico Veneziano, mosaic representation of Norman Rockwell’s painting The Golden Rule, 1985, Murano glass tile, 125 ½ inches x 108 ½ inches x 13 ½ inches. UN Photo by Milton Grant.

The artist is pictured near the center of the image among representatives of colorfully different religious and racial types (bearded Jew, headscarf-wearing Muslim, Chinese girl, etc.) and underlining these figures is a caption from the gospel of Matthew in bold, appropriately golden text: “DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU.” (If the works discussed above might be considered “middlebrow” versions of high modernism, Rockwell’s mosaicized magazine cover is best described as “low-middlebrow.”)[18]

The most frequently promoted artwork in the collection was thus created (or designed) by European artists associated with modernism, yet a number of works donated by the former Soviet Union and other countries in the former Eastern Bloc challenge some of the presumptions of Western European abstraction through their fidelity to figuration and their more didactic engagement with politics. An excellent example of Socialist Realist-oriented works from the USSR is the bronze sculpture Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1958), by Evgeny Vuchetich, placed in the exterior plaza to the North of the UN’s buildings. The sculpture (fig. 14) features a muscularly heroic nude male figure, hammer raised in his raised right hand, bent sword placed against the ground, ready to be struck by the hammer.

Evgeny Vuchetich, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares, 1958.
Fig. 14. Evgeny Vuchetich, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares, 1958, bronze. UN Photo by Andrea Brizzi.

Here the artist who won the Lenin Prize twice and later was given the honorary title “USSR People’s Artist” draws his title from the biblical book of Isaiah, the following line of which reads “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”[19] As Australian-American novelist Shirley Hazzard wryly notes concerning this sculpture in People in Glass Houses, a 1970 collection of short stories about her experience working for “The Organization,” the figure in the “statue [appears] ferociously engaged in beating swords into ploughshares.”[20] The hortatory sculpture’s riverside location opens to a vista across the East River to what Hazzard describes as “a low-lying labyrinth of docks and factories, surmounted by an immense Frosti-Cola sign” (Hazzard, People, 42). The iconic neon sign, in Long Island City, Queens, actually advertises Pepsi-Cola, and it was declared a New York City landmark in 2016; the docks and factories in this once industrial area have long been closed, having been replaced by condo towers featuring “city views.”

While the majority of works in the UN’s art collection were created by artists in the geopolitical North and Northwest, a large number were made in what would now be called the Global South; many of these are not strictly speaking either abstract or Socialist Realist (and indeed we’ve already seen that the “abstract” works are only somewhat abstract) but rather “allegorical” in ways that limn both abstraction and realism. One of these is Brazilian Cândido Portinari’s gigantic Dantesque diptych Guerra e Paz (1952, 1956), placed at the interior entrance to the General Assembly building.

These works by Portinari, a child of Italian immigrants and member beginning in 1945 of Brazil’s Communist Party, juxtapose chaos and suffering (on the “war” canvas, fig. 15) and evoke order and progress (on the “peace” canvas). According to UN guides, the works, in their location, are intended to remind diplomats on their way in and out of the General Assembly building that, given the stakes of “total war,” they ought to embrace their role in creating peace. (Delegates who enter the General Assembly building from ground level see “War” on their way up the escalator and “Peace” on the way down).[21]

Cândido Portinari, War, 1952.
Fig. 15. Cândido Portinari, War, 1952, oil on plywood, 46 feet x 34 feet. UN Photo.

Other works in the collection evincing an allegorical sensibility were produced in Asia and Africa during the early years of postcoloniality (1950–70); these works vary widely in subject matter, but often engage questions of modernity and universality in ways other than, and arguably in competition with, those discussed above. They include the painting Rice Cultivators of Ceylon (fig. 16), by Senaka Senanayake, a 1965 gift from the country that would come to be called Sri Lanka, which features male and female villagers toiling assiduously and collectively in a field at sunrise in order to produce a staple food; and the sculpture Prosperity  (fig. 17), carved out of local Bentawas wood by Balinese artist M. D. (Made) Runda, depicting Devi Sri, the traditional goddess of rice (and hence satiety).

Senaka Senanayake, Rice Cultivators of Ceylon, 1965.
Fig. 16. Senaka Senanayake, Rice Cultivators of Ceylon, 1965. UN Photo 167158 by Lois Conner.
M. D. (Made) Runda, Prosperity, 1954.
Fig. 17. M. D. (Made) Runda, Prosperity, 1954, Bentawas wood, 42 inches high. UN Photo.

Runda’s evocation of a traditional regional art form linked to Hinduism was gifted, in 1954, by the new (Muslim-dominated) Indonesian state (during the regime of Sukarno) to the international organization charged with promoting, precisely, universal peace and prosperity.

Two other especially significant early postcolonial artworks are Pilgrimage to Touba,1970 (fig. 18), by Papa Ibra Tall, a gift from Senegal celebrating a city traditionally known for its Sufism, for which Tall draws on an array of patterns, shapes, and colors to depict female figures in traditional clothing in a marketplace; and the six-foot-tall bronze cast of the sculpture Anyanwu (Awakening), 1966 (fig. 19), by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, depicting the Igbo sun goddess Ani, whom Enwonwu suggests in an artist’s statement is metaphoric of the rising sun of a new nation. Like Runda, Enwonwu relies on a traditional female figure to express a particular set of modern conditions and aspirations; like Tall his work engages modernist techniques—in Tall’s case cubist collage, and in Enwonwu’s Giacometti-like sculpture.

Papa Ibra Tall, Pilgrimage to Touba, 1970.
Fig. 18. Papa Ibra Tall, Pilgrimage to Touba, 1970, tapestry. UN Photo by Yutaka Nagata.
Ben Enwonwu, Anyanwu (Awakening), 1966.
Fig. 19. Ben Enwonwu, Anyanwu (Awakening), 1966, bronze. UN Photo.

Moreover, as art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu shows in his recent book Postcolonial Modernism, both Enwonwu and Tall were also drawn to the rhetoric of the Négritude movement of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor. As this movement was itself indebted to surrealist ideas of unconsciousness and difference, artwork like theirs, while figurative and hence seemingly “not-modernist” at first glance, is fully imbricated in the logics and rhetorics of modernism, a mode of artistic production that is itself unthinkable without recognizing the crucial role of ideas and forms associated with Africa. Indeed, the movements or artists Tall and Enwonwu may seem to be “influenced” by––cubism, surrealism, Giacometti—themselves clearly drew inspiration from (and on ideas associated with) traditional African art.[22]

A crucial dimension of these African artists’ dialogue with modernism involved a commitment to ideas of universality. Indeed, in their embrace of this complicatedly modern-inflected traditionality (or tradition-inflected modernity), Enwonwu and Tall, according to Okeke-Agulu, “claimed the African’s right to contribute to what . . . Senghor called ‘the civilization of the universal.’”[23] So while works like Runda’s or Enwonwu’s might initially seem merely to reiterate a national-allegorical model of postcolonial art and literature in which sculptural depictions of individuals, whether human or godlike, signify the plight of the nation of their producer, their investments in and responses to modernism and modernity more generally complicate that characterization.[24] Even the fact that other casts of the same Enwonwu sculpture (Anyanwu) are housed at the national museums in Lagos, Nigeria and Harare, Zimbabwe, indicates how the logic of nationhood and nationality in the African context can accrue regional, continental significance that at once embraces decolonial specificity and participates in a potentially universalist postcolonial project.

Beyond this, their inclusion in the UN collection exemplifies how this work can be viewed as participating in the UN mission’s rhetoric of modern development while also both endorsing universalism—this point cannot be overemphasized—as well as challenging the exclusions and contradictions embedded in the universalist rhetoric that accompanied colonial domination.[25] And yet, given these investments, it is worth reflecting on the fact that none of the works from Asia or Africa I’ve just described are open to public viewing—they can be seen only by UN delegates and some UN employees––whereas all of the other works discussed before, with the notable exception of the Guernica tapestry, can be viewed during a paid public tour of the UN Headquarters.

The Universalities of the United Nations Mission: Nation, Region, Globe

Though I have described fewer than one-fifth of the artworks in the collection, it should be evident by now that the gifts assembled in the New York United Nations headquarters form an important archive. Unlike art in a typical museum collection, the works have not been curated by museum personnel determined to give shape to different narratives about art history; as far as I can ascertain, the exhibition has changed little over the last two decades (a period during which many museums and other institutions have foregrounded the political contradictions in their permanent collections).[26] And yet, despite what might seem to be a kind of internal incoherence, what must be emphasized is that each of the works is already “political,” either explicitly, in its artist’s expressed motivations (or the aims of a commissioning body) or individual donor’s or governmental body’s attempt to suggest what kind of art best represents the ideals of the UN; or implicitly, simply by entering the discursive space of the United Nations, where the art constellates different ideas of what a nation is, what a collective is, and what art’s responsibility is or might be.

As I claimed above, what is apparent in considering the artworks together—even in a relatively small set of exemplars––is how their different notions of modernity and universality converge and compete with one another: in the first approach, the recognizably “modernist” works of Léger, Hepworth, or Glarner, in their (at least partial) abstraction, expose a not-readily-visible horizon of harmony or cultural memory or “freedom”; in the second, the avowedly internationalist ideas of the Soviet Union and its allies (and some fellow travelers) espouse in Socialist Realist fashion the image of heroic Man overcoming both the harms of class-stratified society and the cruelties and senselessness of imperialist war; in the third, ideas of locality and tradition (Balinese or Igbo Gods) are repurposed to enter first the logic of nationality (Indonesia, Nigeria) and regionality in geographic zones carved out by former colonial overlords, and, in part through this logic of nationality and regionality, they espouse the rhetoric of universality—albeit a universality implicitly or explicitly critical of the exclusions that accompanied universalist discourse. All of these works, housed in the Le Corbusier- and Niemeyer-designed buildings on land donated by the Museum of Modern Art’s primary benefactor, ought to be considered part of an expanded field of midcentury modernisms.

The three approaches articulated above largely correspond to the familiar theory of the three “worlds” established in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 and frequently rehearsed between 1955 and 1989: the so-called first world of the economically developed, capitalist United States, Western Europe, Canada, and Australia; the second world of the avowedly socialist USSR and Eastern Europe; and the third world of nominally non-aligned and anti-colonialist nations in Asia, Africa, and (parts of) Latin America, with their own shifting alliances in relation to the first or second “worlds.”[27] As these were the positions negotiated constantly in UN policy between the 1950s and the 1970s—informing debates over national sovereignty, international peacekeeping, and the adoption of condemnatory resolutions––it is essential to recognize not only what distinguishes these “worlds” but also which discourses and rhetorics they share.

As is well known, Kant laid the groundwork for philosophical universalism in his three critiques (1781–90), in which, for example, he posited the categorical imperative as the possibility that a maxim could hold as a universal practical law, and suggested that beautiful art stimulates a “universally communicable” aesthetic pleasure.[28] Yet it is Kant’s “philosophical sketch” For an Eternal Peace (Zum Ewigen Frieden, 1795) that is most frequently recognized as the source for the type of human-rights-based international cooperation envisioned by both the League of Nations, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, eventually, in the middle of that century, the United Nations. In the preliminary articles to Eternal Peace Kant lays out several doctrines to diminish hostilities—for example that "No independently existing state, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, or purchase,” and that "No state shall by force interfere in the constitution or government of another state.”[29] Yet Kant seeks a foundation not only to end war, but also to promote “eternal” peace.[30] In the Definitive Articles that follow the Preliminary Articles, he proposes that “World citizenship should be limited to conditions of universal hospitality” (Das Weltbürgerrecht soll auf Bedingungen der allgemeinen Hospitalität eingeschränkt sein), with hospitality to be considered a universal human right (Recht) and not merely an act of kindness or philanthropy (Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, Bd. 11, 214, translation mine). To better explain the “limitations” he has in mind for his thesis on international cooperation, Kant draws on the geometric idea of the Earth as globe: “Since [Earth] is the surface of a sphere (Kugelfläche), [people] cannot scatter themselves on it without limit, but they must rather ultimately tolerate one another as neighbors, and originally no one has more of a right to be at a given place on earth than anyone else” (Toward Perpetual Peace, 82).[31]

While this is hardly a ringing endorsement of open national borders, Kant’s dual prescription of a right to be treated as a guest (though not as a citizen), and the need to mutually “tolerate” (dulden) one another clearly informs the United Nations self-declared purpose(s), “to maintain international peace and security” by “developing friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”[32] It further provides the philosophical basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts first of all that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[33]

Of course, whether philosophical universalism is genuinely universal—applicable to everyone––has been questioned practically since its inception, and arguably never more intensely and incisively than shortly after World War II, during the very moment when universal human rights law was being codified. In different ways, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, and Frantz Fanon all participated in this debate, staking out affirmative, negative, or negatively dialectical positions concerning universality.[34] Post-structuralism in its various forms extended the critique of universalism into the 1970s and 1980s.

But it is with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the birth of the most recent era of economic and cultural globalization that universalism––and its secret sharer, internationalism––have been increasingly eschewed, especially by scholars in the humanities. The ascendance of newly articulated conceptions of the politics of identity and difference, especially as they pertain to historically dominated or underrepresented peoples, has entailed a situation in which scholars promoting “global” directions of scholarship simultaneously have viewed “the universal” with suspicion if not contempt. The case of literary studies is in this regard exemplary. The discipline of comparative literature, since its inauguration in the nineteenth century, has relied on a certain idea of internationalism, one largely based on European languages and, like the United Nations itself, European ideas of national cultures and “civilizations.” Beginning around the turn of the millennium, however, comparative literature studies began to conceive itself as moving beyond Goethian notions of “world literature” (as “the universal possession of mankind”) and its presumed cosmopolitan positionality, in order to consider “distinctive reflections and refractions of the political, economic, and religious forces sweeping the globe” (this from the mission statement of The Institute for World Literature, based at Harvard University).[35] The new emphasis on a globalized “world literature” took shape in the 2000s in various forms and in different scales, from Franco Moretti’s conception of “planetary” literature to be understood by “distant reading” and Pascale Casanova’s account of the production, circulation, and axiology-creation of literature in different regions, to Gayatri Spivak’s idea that comparative literature ought to be combined with what used to be called area studies to produce a fresh account of literary production amid a new military, political, and economic order and Emily Apter’s theorization of translation (and translation zones) as a way to think through the impasses of transnationality.[36]

During the same period—that is, beginning around 2000—a number of influential texts in the fields of literary and cultural criticism and political theory addressed the United Nations in particular, and took issue with the UN’s presumptions, structure, and peacekeeping operations. In Empire (2000), for example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri note that “the entire U.N. conceptual structure is predicated on the recognition and legitimation of the sovereignty of individual states, . . . [but] this process of legitimation is effective only insofar as it transfers sovereign right to a real supranational center.”[37] Exploring the implications for conceptions of sovereignty of the UN Charter and the UN Security Council, Hardt and Negri view the UN as functioning as a “hinge in the genealogy from international to global juridical structures,” but see the UN’s decisions to support military intervention in Iraq and Yugoslavia as expressions not of genuine global democracy but of the new, late-capitalist world order, what they call “Empire” (Empire, 4).[38] A few years later, but in a similar vein, Joseph Slaughter, in his Human Rights Inc. (2007), claimed that human rights law—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is his primary source––shares with the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman an idea both of social development and of the human person, both of which have shaped the direction of postcolonial literature and potentially liberatory postcolonial politics. Slaughter suggests that “the movement of the subject from pure subjection to self-regulation”—Foucauldian disciplinarity neatly summarized—“describes the plot trajectory of the dominant transition narrative of modernization, which both the Bildungsroman and human rights law take for granted and intensify in their progressive visions of human personality development.”[39] Addressing the generic continuity between early nineteenth-century European aesthetic education and the emerging Realist novel on the one hand, and the postcolonial novel and post-World War Two international law on the other, Slaughter focuses much of his analysis on the UDHR, which grounds its legal claims for international military interventions on the basis of a humanness that Slaughter avows is both commonsensical and elusive.[40]

The punning title of the Twilight Zone episode with which this essay began, “To Serve Man,” is apposite to Slaughter’s argument in that from the perspective of what is now usually called the Global South, the United Nations “serves man” in a dual and contradictory sense: it (theoretically) offers to help people by ensuring peace and supporting health and education (hence epitomizing “service”), but by promoting an idea of the developing human personality that is inextricably bound up with nineteenth-century ideas of universal humanness, it ends up, according to Slaughter, merely reasserting the sovereignty of the already-powerful countries, seemingly perpetually rendering countries and citizens from the Global South as inadequate and in need of aid, or, worse, basket cases beyond help.

While the political aims of Slaughter’s critique are worthy and his intervention salutary, his route leading from the nineteenth-century European Bildungsroman to the late-twentieth-century postcolonial novel and international law curiously bypasses the literature of modernism, which Slaughter, in a quasi-Lukácsian gesture, swiftly relegates to the domain of “irony and  . . . suspicion” and associates with the “already-incorporated and capacitated citizen,” particularly the “Anglo-European white male” for whom the novel ceases to perform “viable social work” in the way that the Bildungsroman supposedly did or does with its audiences, audiences which it both presupposes and interpellates as subjects (Human Rights, Inc., 27).[41] To be sure, Slaughter has reason to be wary of the tendency of modernist literary studies simply to co-opt postcolonial fiction and decolonial politics to its own disciplinarily colonizing ends. Yet it could fairly be argued that even a figure as central to modernist studies as James Joyce calls into question Slaughter’s claims. After all, Joyce is an “ironic” and “suspicious” writer to say the least––as well as “European,” “white” and “male”––but his writing certainly questions the assumptions of “citizenship” and is decidedly post- (and de- and anti-) colonial, in ways that trouble Slaughter’s thesis—a thesis that likewise ignores the centrality of modernism in the development of the postcolonial novel.[42] The stakes of this swerve around modernism are significant, and consist not simply in misrecognizing the critical force of the modernist engagement with (and destructions of) form, but in ignoring the broader economic and cultural environment that contributed to the postcolonial challenge to Western hegemonic political formations (including that of the “human person” and international law) as well.

In order better to understand the universalisms that subtend and sustain the United Nations project, it is necessary to account, on the one hand, for the affinities and discontinuities between modernist, international socialist, and emerging postcolonial notions of selfhood, collectivity, nationality, regionality, internationalism, and globality, and, on the other, for the role of art (broadly understood) in shaping, defining, and challenging those notions. To begin such a task, I have found it instructive to move outside the more congested zone of literature and literary analysis and, in this article, to consider the field of visual art. Although contemporary art history and, especially, the international art market, have, like literary studies, made a “global turn” over the past two decades with art historians, critics, and curators now routinely considering in their research artworks from outside the familiar vectors of Europe and the United States, the discourse around transnationalism and cosmopolitanism is arguably not as engrained in current visual arts scholarship.[43] This relative lack of disciplinary rootedness provides an opportunity to clarify some important considerations that apply to midcentury modernist and contemporary cultural production more generally. I employ the term “contemporary” here in the familiar disciplinary-chronological sense (in reference to post-1970 visual art) but also in relation to the political economies of our immediate moment, a period in which the early post-Cold War enthusiasm for (and early-2000s theorizing of) globalization, sketched above, has receded and new forms of resurgent (frequently xenophobic) nationalism are asserting themselves while in no significant way displacing the neoliberal logic of the globalization that new-nationalist leaders rail against. In this moment of nationalist revival, potential international conflict, and retreat from the commitment to international treaties and aid, the United Nations becomes more than a midcentury modernist relic based on retrograde ideas, including that of the “development” of the legal subject. Rather, it is a potentially contemporary enterprise in which the very ideas of nation, region, and globe are (and have arguably always been) constantly “decoded,” contested, and worked through, if with characteristic bureaucratic slowness.

I hope, in any case, to have demonstrated that the United Nations art collection, with its focus on work produced between 1950 and 1970, indicates, in spite (or perhaps because) of its status as “middlebrow” and potentially didactic, that to label this midcentury modernist artwork as merely “ironic and suspicious” would be erroneous. Whether that art performs “viable social work” is open to question, but it is clear that just as there is no strict analogy between the bildungsroman and nineteenth-century “realist” visual art, so carving out strict formal delineations between first, second, and third world (or modernist and postcolonial) art in the mid-twentieth century proves decidedly difficult. Furthermore, while it is certainly true that the collection could be said to contain rather than allow the proliferation of difference, in the way that the Norman Rockwell mosaic presents a clichéd, domesticated notion of national or religious types, this does not mean that the ideas of universalism on which the collection is based ought to be jettisoned, any more than the crucial challenges facing the UN in the twenty-first century—climate change, mass migration, threats from conflict between states, international so-called terrorist movements, human rights abuses, taxation avoidance through off-shore fund-shifting schemes, etc., etc.––can be approached without some working conception of commonality. What is needed is decidedly not a return to late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophical universalism or an outright rejection of modernisms and modernities in the name of engendering and sustaining difference, but a critical decipherment of the differences and linkages between these positions.

Coda: Wakandan Technics 

Based on a comic book series from the 1960s, the Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy film Black Panther (2018) tracks the adventures of Wakanda, an imaginary African nation that maintains sovereignty over its local minerals and technology in the face of foreign aggression.[44] An international blockbuster, the movie grossed well over one billion US dollars worldwide, and earned mostly adoring reviews.  Largely unremarked, however, in the many essays about the film, is that Black Panther’s narrative is framed by key scenes involving the United Nations. Early in the story, the protagonist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes King of Wakanda only after his father is killed during a terrorist bombing at the Vienna Headquarters of the UN.[45] This discord generates the entire narrative course of the film, in which not only is T’challa’s sovereignty put to the test, but so is his father’s isolationist position regarding Wakanda’s role in the world. After his many heroic tasks and travails are completed—including the defeat, with the help of a benevolent CIA agent, of his biological cousin and central opponent, Erik Killmonger, who espouses violent black liberation rhetoric––a now-wiser King T'Challa, in a post-closing credits scene (fig. 20), gives a speech at the UN.

Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa.
Fig. 20. Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa, addressing the UN. Still from Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018), directed by Ryan Coogler.

There he reveals Wakanda's “true nature to the world” as a technologically advanced black African country, and promises that the formerly isolationist nation will openly share its knowledge, resources, and technology with the rest of humanity. “Now more than ever,” he says, “the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us.  But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”[46]

It would be not be difficult to lambaste Black Panther as a Hollywood fable promoting a saccharine fantasy of neoliberalism aligned all too neatly with the international funding streams and distribution networks of the film, and moreover to note that the primary function of the concluding scene is to promote a sequel (and other films in the Marvel franchise), whose funding was secured before Black Panther was even released.[47] But the framing of Black Panther in terms of the institution, location and rhetoric of the United Nations cannot be dismissed so readily. Given that the film’s release coincided with a period of nationalist retrenchment in the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere, Black Panther’s Afrofuturist-themed endorsement of the UN’s ideals of international cooperation is importantly critical. T’Challa’s final speech, strikingly reminiscent of the opening scene of “To Serve Man,” with its brilliant, eloquent alien, is an implied rebuke (radical in Hollywood terms) of what advanced capitalist countries in the current world order have themselves long been doing: despoiling the planet while doling out aid and pursuing a model of development that continues to produce “basket cases” in the Global South, vast economic inequality within those nations themselves, and massive, inhospitable emigration worldwide. It is also, in its own phantasmatic and compromised way, an endorsement of the kind of (ever-contested) universal principles on which the United Nations were constructed. King T’Challa suggests that the United Nations, if open to the complexities and potentialities of singular universalisms, might actually serve man otherwise.


[1] “To Serve Man,” The Twilight Zone, season 3, episode 24 (1962), directed by Richard L. Bare.

[2] In the immediate aftermath of the war, the fledgling UN was based in London, then moved to San Francisco, and then, after a bidding process was completed, ended up in New York City. Significant parts of the United Nations’s international apparatus are now based in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, and Nairobi. The international bidding process is one of many aspects that link the UN to the Olympic Movement, which, in its current charter, seeks “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (See the Olympic Charter. In force as from June 24, 2019. International Olympic Committee: Lausanne, 2019. For the current as well as all of the historically approved Olympic charters since 1908, see Olympic Charters). The architectural team for the UN’s New York headquarters was helmed by Wallace Harrison, who had worked on the Rockefeller Center complex and would later design the Metropolitan Opera building at Lincoln Center; he had a long, friendly working relationship with Nelson Rockefeller. The collaborating architects hailed from the Soviet Union, Belgium, Canada, China, Sweden, the UK, Australia, and Uruguay. Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius wanted to participate in the work on the headquarters but were excluded from the team because Finland and Germany were not then members of the UN.

[3] The League of Nations was established in 1920 with a principal mission of maintaining world peace through negotiation and arbitration. Other important missions included the promotion of global health, the improvement of labor conditions, and the protection of minority communities in Europe. Original members of the Executive Council (a proto-Security Council Permanent Membership of sorts) consisted of the victorious nations of the Great War (France, the United Kingdom, and Italy) and Japan. At its height, in 1935, it had 58 members. The United States never joined because the US Senate failed to ratify Woodrow Wilson’s membership plan; the Soviet Union joined late (1934) and stayed briefly (being expelled only five years later); while Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, and other fascist or ultra-nationalist states withdrew beginning in the mid-1930s.

[4] For an overview of the wrangling between the United States and Soviet Union over the UDHR, see Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

[5] Barnhisel’s argument offers a more nuanced account than more loudly trumpeted theses such as that of Serge Guilbaut, in his How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[6] As noted above, the architects worked as a team. Harrison called the collaboration "a workshop for peace” but there was discord among the teammates, with Le Corbusier particularly in conflict with Harrison. As Niemeyer commented in 1947: “When we make a building for the UN, we must have in mind [that the UN is] an organization to set the nations of the world in a common direction and gives to the world security . . . [I]t is difficult to get this into steel and stone. But if we make something representing the true spirit of our age, of [mutual] comprehension and solidarity, it will by its own strength give the idea that that is the big political effort, too” (Serge Wolff Collection, Album #3, United Nations Library).

[7] The most celebrated gifts featured in the Secretariat building are not artworks per se; these include a large Foucault’s pendulum (from the Netherlands); a life-sized model of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik (USSR); and a peace bell (Japan), located in the interior courtyard and donated in 1954, which was fabricated from coins and metal collected by the representatives of Member States, Pope Pius XII, and children from over sixty different nation-states.

[8] Gregory up-scaled the chosen drawing. See Edward Marks, A World of Art: The U.N. Collection (Rome: Il Cigno Galileo Galilei, 1998), 35. These works were donated to the UN by an anonymous source, likely Harrison or Rockefeller.

[9] Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, ed. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 120, 199. Léger had claimed in 1923 that his aim was to “find a balance between [these] two poles” of subjective art and “‘objective’ raw material” and that “to make either pure abstractions or imitations of nature, is really too easy” (Robert L. Herbert, From Millet to Léger, Essays in Social Art History [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002], 129).

[10] Edward Marks, Still Counting: Achievements and Follies of a Nonagenarian (Toronto: Hamilton Books, 2005), 374.

[11] The Peace Window is one of many such large glass windows Chagall was working on in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including one for the Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. See Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 858, 895, 897.

[12] For various essays addressing the career of Hepworth, and the relationship between Moore and Hepworth, see David Thistlewood and Anne MacPhee, Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996).

[13] The description of Guernica is by painter Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s undated reflections, headlined “Picasso ‘Guernica’ Mural,” are part of a series of tear sheets called How to Look, found in a box of ephemera at the Museum of Modern Art. Accessed through the Reina Sofia museum website.

[14] It is not entirely clear whether the decision to cover the work was a deliberate act of censorship—i.e. that the juxtaposition of a demand for war and demonstration of the effects of war on civilians by an army with far-superior air power was considered unseemly—or simply a tactical problem that the UN staff had to encounter when, suddenly confronted with a massive international press presence, they had to move a rostrum (which normally had a blue UN backdrop behind it) to an adjacent area where the Guernica tapestry was installed. American journalist Maureen Dowd passionately pursued the censorship angle. See her “Powell without Picasso,” New York Times, February 5, 2003. Some UN employees have suggested to me that the latter is the more plausible explanation.

[15] I am deploying this term to describe a sort of genre, rather than as a pejorative. See Greg Barnhisel’s fruitful discussion of the friction between highbrow and middlebrow cultural forms in his Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 35–40.

[16] Barnhisel nicely summarizes the complicated history of the promotion by the Congress of Cultural Freedom of American postwar art and music and the “revisionist thesis” of Max Kozloff and Eva Cockroft regarding that art. Cockroft in particular connected Rockefeller to US governmental advocacy of American visual art (Cold War Modernists, 4­–11).

[17] High up on an exterior wall of the General Assembly building, on the east side facing the East River, appears a large but initially almost invisible untitled abstract sculpture (1961) by American artist Ezio Martinelli. Martinelli is sometimes associated with Abstract Expressionism, but this sculpture is hard to define as such.

[18] I owe the rubric “low middlebrow” to Richard Halpern’s important reconsideration of Rockwell’s art in Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[19] Isaiah 2:4, New International Version. For more on the context in which Vuchetich produced his art, see Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in a One-Party State, 1917–1992, ed. Matthew Cullerne Bown and Brandon Taylor (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).

[20] Shirley Hazzard, People in Glass Houses (New York: Picador, 2004), 42.

[21] Hammarskjöld, who was an avid art collector, declared Portinari’s diptych to be the most important monumental work of art donated to the UN. Polinari died in 1962 of lead poisoning, said to be due to his use of lead paint in the diptych.

[22] That modernist visual artists were responding to ethnographic displays of “tribal” art from Africa, Oceania, and Latin America in France of the early 1920s is well-established; in Giacometti’s specific case, the Swiss sculptor is often said to have been profoundly impressed by Dogon sculpture of Mali, which he learned about from ex-Surrealist ethnographer Michel Leiris and others.

[23] Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 96. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie states this position even more emphatically concerning Enwonwu: “Enwonwu operated within a context of modernist discourses, emphatically defended his identity as a modern artist, and asserted this identity above all else through the long decades of his changing historical contexts” (Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist [Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2008], 17).

[24] See Fredric Jameson’s oft-criticized essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986), 65–88, in which Jameson lays out his conception of national allegory. It is infrequently recognized that Jameson first developed his conception of national allegory not when discussing “third world literature” but in his book on Wyndham Lewis.

[25] See for example Aimé Césaire’s strong defense of universalism in his interview with Charles Rowell: “It is Through Poetry That One Copes with Solitude,” Callaloo 38 (1989): 49–67, especially 65. See also Ato Sekyi-Otu’s Left Universalism, Africacentric Essays (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[26] The UN Headquarters has an Arts Committee, which was originally established in 1967 to examine offers of works of art and make recommendations to the Secretary-General regarding their acceptance. At that time, the advisory body included both Secretariat officials and outside experts. The current composition of the Arts Committee has no outside experts and includes seven Secretariat members.

[27] Argentine artist Marta Minujin’s Todos Hombres del Mundo, 1984, in the UN collection, is (like Argentina itself) perhaps more in dialogue with Europe and its artistic and political traditions than with those of the “third world”; this sculptural work featuring seven composite heads sliced and re-assembled into a kind of bronzed collage of faces was created just after the demise of the seven-year Argentine dictatorship and seems addressed in part to it, and to a notion of humanity that exceeds the strictures of circumscribed national identity.

[28] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 317. In German, the word “Allgemein,” which Kant uses very often, implies both general and universal (as well as more simply “common,” “wide,” and “broad”).

[29] Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, ed. Pauline Kleingeld, trans. David L. Colclasure (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 68, 70, translation slightly altered for clarity. Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf in Kants gesammelte Schriften. Heinrich Maier, ed. Berlin: Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, 1912, Bd. 8, 341-86, 344–45. Originally published in Königsberg, 1795.

[30] Kant himself alludes to the pun of his own title when referring to the inscription on a Dutch innkeeper's sign on which a burial ground was painted (Zum ewigen Frieden, Bd. 8, 344).

[31] Kant’s original reads: “[A]ls Kugelfläche, sie sich nicht ins Unendliche zerstreuen können, sondern endlich sich doch neben einander dulden zu müssen, ursprünglich aber niemand an einem Orte der Erde zu sein mehr Recht hat, als der andere” (Bd. 8, 358).

[32] The Charter of the United Nations, ratified June 26, 1945.

[33] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified December 10, 1948.

[34] In the field of art criticism during the 1950s and early 1960s, Clement Greenberg drew on Kantian ideas (particularly that of “self-criticality”) to claim the “universal validity” of Abstract Expressionism and, later, Color Field painting. 

[35] The Institute operates under the supervision of David Damrosch, author of What is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[36] Franco Moretti, “Conjectures of World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54–68, and Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013); Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. Malcolm DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Gayatri C. Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Emily Apter, The Translation Zone (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). Over the past two decades modernist literary studies in the discipline of English literature (i.e. British, American, and Anglophone literature) itself underwent a “global turn,” with scholars addressing various forms of transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, oceanic studies, climate studies, etc. Salient examples include Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation, ed. Bruce Robbins and Pheng Cheah (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Jessica Berman, Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism and the Politics of Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Jed Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); and Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity, ed. Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005). It is significant that in his most recent work, Robbins recognizes the limitations of critical (or “new”) cosmopolitanism (which he had earlier advocated) and argues for a return to some earlier forms of (“old”) cosmopolitanism—this four years before the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. See Bruce Robbins, Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

[37] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 5, emphasis in original.

[38] Hardt and Negri try to imagine an alternative to what they view as an oligarchical, capitalist world system, while acknowledging, à la Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, their acknowledged primary theoretical source, that there is no “outside” to Empire. Their response in Empire, and in their two subsequent volumes, is to theorize a “multitude” that both resists and participates in power.

[39] Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 9.

[40] According to Slaughter, both the discourse of human rights and recent postcolonial fiction project “the proper relations between the individual and society and the normative career of free and full human personality” (Human Rights, Inc., 4). The bildungsroman thus provides a formal, narratological model for socialization, one that relies on a rhetoric of personhood or “personality.” Slaughter complicates this idea of personality with a theory of incorporation, which connects the legal-theoretical/narrative idea of the human person to actual bodies in particular geographies (first in Europe and later in the “developing” world). This theme of incorporation gives Slaughter the overdetermined “Inc.” of his title, “incorporated” also suggesting how international corporations often advertise their concern with human rights, ecological protection, and economic development, while still pursuing profits in a neo-liberal economic environment. (British Petroleum’s “BP” logo and “green” posturing would be an excellent example of this type of corporate branding, although Slaughter does not offer it.) Given its titular proximity to Limited, Inc., Jacques Derrida’s trenchant deconstruction of J. L. Austin’s strictly delineated idea of performativity, critique of the idea of containing or privatizing language and intellectual property, and questioning of the end of writing through the metaphor of “limited ink,” it is curious that Slaughter does not directly refer to Derrida anywhere in his book.

[41] In these sentences, Slaughter uses the adverbs “allegedly” and “ostensibly,” though without attribution, so it is difficult to know whether he himself endorses the characterization or whether he is simply drawing on what he perceives to be a familiar critique.

[42] In addition to being postcolonial, Joyce’s novels are also, of course, Bildungsromane.

[43] Examples of some recent books on art and globalization include the conversations collected in Is Art History Global? (The Art Seminar), ed. James Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2006), and Art and Globalization, ed. James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2010); Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms, ed. Elaine O’Brien et al. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Aruna D’Souza and Jill Casid, Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn (Williamstown, MA: Clark Art Institute, 2014); and Kitty Zijlmans and Richard Anderson, World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008).

[44] The Marvel comic book series, created by Stan Lee in July 1966, actually preceded the use of the name Black Panther by the US political party of the same name; Huey Newton and Bobby Seal established the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October that same year. Curiously, Black Panther was the nickname of a South African Boer named Frederick Joubert Duquesne, who fought against the British Imperial forces in the second Boer War (and went on to spy for the Nazi-led German state). It is not clear whether Lee or Newton and Seale knew of this Black Panther, but the Boer black panther makes an appearance in Haines’s nightmare early in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, nocturnally terrorizing the Oxford student whose family made their fortune “by selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle” (James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler [New York: Norton, 1988], 44).

[45] The explosion leading to T’Challa’s father’s death had originally been shown in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and appears as a flashback in Black Panther. It is not clear why the filmmakers chose Vienna as opposed to the New York headquarters for this scene; possibly there was a logistical or financial incentive to do so. In any case, the Vienna UN headquarters houses the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Industrial Development Organization, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Environment Program, and many other bureaus, including the office for Outer Space affairs—all apposite to the film’s narrative.

[46] Black Panther, 2018, directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.

[47] In his “Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of ‘Black Panther,’Los Angeles Review of Books (March 3, 2018), Slavoj Žižek claims that Killmonger, not King T’Challa, is the film’s true hero.