b'Action HeroesMagnus af PetersensAfter World War II, many artists and intellectuals felt the need to start anew. The old culture that had failed to prevent such a barbaric war was considered decadent or dead. A new art, often called Abstract Expressionism or action painting in the United States, was influenced by Surrealism and its explora-tion of the unconscious, and Surrealism came in part out of Dada, which re-flected a reaction against World War I and a similar desire to start from zero. So Abstract Expressionism was not without history.The dominant tendency in art and philosophy after the war was exis-tentialism, according to which humans defined themselves through their actions. In the spirit of this thinking, painting could be considered the result of an actionthe act of paintingwhich put a focus on the physical and bodily presence of the painter. The painting became a visualization, a trace, of the artists gestures, and this close relation to the body made the work sensual and signified a freedom from old rules. Improvisation and intuition became important, as they were in jazz, and painting could be seen as a kind of cel-ebration of lifeessentially a positive position, yet Abstract Expressionist action painting was often described as tragic, partly because of its some-times grandiose size. Dealing in the awe-inspiring and sublime, it was often inspired by nature. The artists who took the leap into this new, unknown territory were considered heroic. The critical discourse of the postwar era, with its use of words like tragic and heroic to describe the new art, framed it as masculine, even macho. The most celebrated action painter was Jackson Pollock, and it has been argued that Hans Namuths photographs of him painting in jeans and T-shirt, hovering over his canvas on the floor of his barnlike studio, pub-lished in Life magazine in 1950, were instrumental in catapulting his career and reputation as the greatest living painter in the United States. 1At least that was the claim of the articles title, although with a touch of incredulity, making the phrase a question by beginning it with Is he. . . . ?which only emphasized the radicality of the artists practice. Like a noble savage on the frontier, Pollock said, I am nature. He was a long way from the artist as an old-world European dandy. So how could women artists be accepted at a time when being an artist was more or less by definition a male occupation ? Yet in these paintings full of energy, vitality, even rage, we may not have to see masculine qualities ; today we could understand this art differently and emphasize other aspects. Which is something we do all the time, since we can only ever see things in light of what has come sincein light of where we are. Rewriting Art HistoryFor a long time, the practices of art historians and museum curators limited Abstract Expressionism by defining it as a movement invented and prac-ticed by a handful of white men in the United States. A rewriting of art his-tory is necessary if we want it to include great artists who have been over-looked because they did not fit the idea of what an artist should be. Despite male chauvinism and racism, some women and people of color did make a'