Modern art - A modern weapon
However, while the U.S. military was out fighting for the American way in Greece, its government was perfecting more peaceful ways of asserting U.S. cultural superiority. It has hardly been kept a secret that Government-connected billionaires donated to burgeoning artists, but recent revelations of ex-CIA operatives put a clincher on the conspiracy: The Man funded modern art.
In 1973, Max Kozloff wrote, “The most concerted accomplishments of American art occurred during precisely the same period as the burgeoning claims of American world hegemony." He didn’t realise that this was more than a mere co-incidence, but noted that the “naked, prepossessing self-confidence” of abstract impressionism paralleled the virtues of Truman’s patriotism. This wasn’t on purpose, but it was used as though it were.
Abstract Expressionism and American modern art, what Nelson Rockefeller termed “free enterprise painting,” was a pillar of cultural symbolism: it was free-form, free-willed, and freedom of expression; it was America. This patriotic symbolism was lost on its creators. The bohemian artists who created the art we still celebrate tended to be leftist and hateful of bourgeoisie materialism. They rejected responsibility of their art once it had been produced, and their pieces often entered the marketplace whether or not their creators had intended for them to contribute to capitalism. On the other hand, Congress and much of the U.S. government hated dirty, lefty, Marxist artists, and didn’t want to approve acquisition of their works. “Freedom of expression” was, though, a strong ideological weapon in the U.S.’s armoury.
The U.S. wasn’t the only culture realising the power to be attained by convincing the world of its cultural superiority. Where they had jazz and painting, the Russians had ballet and chess. Their dancers and dances were exacting and perfect, and reflected the uniformity of life in a totalitarian regime; the U.S.’s jazz was free flowing, impromptu, and the player decided the rules. It provided a stark contrast to the Soviet cultural landscape. Despite the tensions between the countries, there was some touring between them; and although the American public marvelled at the brains on a Russian chess whizz, they could ship a jazz tour right back. It was a two-way street from the beginning.
In 1956, the Moiseyev Dance Company visited the U.S. from their Russian homeland. They made such an impression that soon afterward the Government decided to support an American tour overseas: the American Ballet Theatre, rich in quality and variety, was chosen. It was in the debate over their program that political motives were revealed: should the dances be traditional or contemporary? How should they convey American life through dance in a way it would appeal to the USSR? The dance wasn’t just performance, or art for art’s sake; it was a way of expressing cultural values.
Art for art’s sake was something artists were for, not their patrons. Jackson Pollock, one of the most well-remembered and prominent members of the American modern art movement, created works that demonstrated just how little he cared about the culture in which they were created. “Jack the Dripper” spent the late 1940s flinging paints onto a canvas he rested on the floor, creating images without borders or subjects. It was just paint arranged prettily. He then ceased to name his pictures, instead numbering them. His wife once said of the numbered pieces, “they make people look at a picture for what it is – pure painting.”
Reactions to his works demonstrate how open to interpretation much of modern art was: Physics researchers thought he “intuitively” knew Chaos Theory 10 years before its inception; newspapers rejected it as art and called it
“a joke in bad taste;” and critics called it “action painting.”
The many possible interpretations of work like Pollock’s was in complete juxtaposition with its contemporary works in the Soviet Union. In the early days of Communism, art in all its forms had been celebrated: freedom of expression was vital to fuelling a revolution. Poetry, abstract art, avant-garde; anything non-traditional was celebrated. This was officially censored in 1934, when Socialist realism became state policy under Stalin.
Some members of the Communist party had criticised modern art forms, such as Cubism, for their association with “decadent” bourgeois culture. From 1934, there would be no decadence; no eroticism, religious, or surreal art; and no free form or nonsensical prose. The style of Soviet culture was pictures of leaders with children, and easy-to-understand propaganda.
It’s been claimed that the CIA was a middleman between grumpy, conservative congress and the discontented creative youth. The Central Intelligence Agency was born just after WWII, and was made up of fresh Harvard and Yale graduates. They drank, smoked, wrote, and collected. It was a den of liberal-sympathisers, very different to Congress and co. They were intimately acquainted with modern culture, and were the perfect institution to engage with the filthy commies who made art in America. Art and culture have been intrinsic parts of the CIA’s modus operandi since its inception in 1947.
“We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists,” Tom Braden explained of the plan, “to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers … which was what was going on in the
The first step in this strategy was to set up the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which influenced more than eight hundred newspapers, magazines, and public information organisations. Then there was the International Organisations Division. Agents from this division would infiltrate the publishing industry, the film business, and work for travel guides, and they organised subsidisation of the film Animal Farm, along with international jazz tours and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international tuition program.
Even the famous tale of Dr Zhivago was not exempt from use by the U.S.: when Boris Pasternak managed to smuggle his manuscript into the hands of an Italian writing scout and get it published, it was the U.S. that organised for Russian-language copies to be distributed at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. Once Soviet tourists found it, 9,000 miniature paperback copies were published, suitable for secretive distribution.
They had the placements and the influence, but even getting artists to accept a patron was easier than convincing Congress the art was worth funding. In 1947, “Advancing American Art” was pulled before it could launch its international tour; because it was, apparently, crap. “If that’s art,” President Truman famously said, “then I’m a Hottentot.” Somewhat more concisely, another member of Congress called himself “a dumb American” for paying the taxes that funded the show. The paintings were sold as war surplus, and the Government decided it didn’t want anything to do with modern art; the folks at the CIA would have to push their liberal arts agendas on their own. The U.S. had hoped to move the international centre of culture from Paris to New York, but the distaste – from their own leaders – for this attempt at “cultural supremacy” stymied the effort.
In 1956 they tried again, first with their “Sport in Art” show, shut down because right-wingers didn’t like the communist artists involved; and then with “100 American Artists,” censored then cancelled because 10 artists of the 100 were “social hazards.” Trying to convince masses of people modern art could change the world wasn’t working, so they decided to work within the corporate sphere of influence.
Tom Braden was head of the International Organisations Division at the time, and he could see that the cultural dominance of the U.S. would be best received if it swung a little to the left; he believed the arts were the way to achieve this, but knew the Government would never approve. A strategy was devised:
“We would go to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person and we would say, 'We want to set up a foundation.' We would tell him what we were trying to do and pledge him to secrecy, and he would say, 'Of course I'll do it,' and then you would publish a letterhead and his name would be on it and there would be a foundation.”
These foundations, which had virtually limitless pockets, could step in and fund things when governments wouldn’t. In 1958, “The New American Painting” was touring the world. The Tate Gallery in London desperately wanted it, but the tour didn’t have the funds to send it there. In stepped American millionaire and art enthusiast Julius Fleischmann, with the cash in hand for the move. He had vast stores of his own money, but this donation came from the Farfield Foundation, which he presided over. The Farfield Foundation, though, was a CIA cash conduit. One of the largest CIA fronts was The Congress of Cultural Freedom, which sponsored exhibitions of modern art, and published magazines with abstract-expressionist-friendly reviews.
Overseas tours were imperative to the success of modern art as a weapon; most of the U.S. public was still coming around, but Europe saw only the intellectual freedom and adventurousness of Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and co. Behind most of the international touring and popularisation of the art was what is still among the most influential institutions in art history: New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Abstract Expressionism was an expensive exercise, and required help from museums and their millionaires: multi-millionaires
like Nelson Rockefeller. He was president of the MOMA, and one of the modern art movement’s biggest backers; he was also closely connected with the Congress of Cultural Freedom, and
organised most of its shows.
Arranging for the distribution of the art was one thing, but encouraging its production was another. "Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes," Donald Jameson, a former case officer, explained, "so that there wouldn't be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for example,” the artists could not know who their patrons really were. “It couldn't have been any closer, because most of them were people who had very little respect for the Government ... If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps."
Pop art, although it is usually considered a postmodern art form, existed on the edge of modern art.
Although they were organising fronts and swearing billionaires to secrecy, the actual goals of mole modern art pushers were never very hidden. John Hay Whitney, MOMA’s chairman in 1941 and an old member of the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor), said his hopes for modern art were that it would “educate, inspire, and strengthen the hearts and wills of free men in defence of their own freedom.” He believed it, too. The intent of MOMA’s tours was to display American cultural strength, but this wasn’t just a ploy by some spies; they actually believed in the truth of their mission.
Jameson denied any conspiracies about the CIA “inventing” modern art, even for nefarious purposes: “I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference [between Abstract Expressionism and other art forms]” he explained, “it was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. “ This was a truth and a simple judgement of some art, and it was “exploited” – Jameson’s word – to demonstrate a growing American cultural dominance.
Did it work? Braden believes so: “I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War." Although the end of the Cold War ultimately came down to the economic failure of the U.S.S.R., the perception of the United States as a progressive and liberated culture certainly helped it become less hate-able. Nothing is cooler than a bohemian, and the CIA used that well.
The patronage of the CIA doesn’t have to mean the paintings are capitalist lies, nor does it mean they would never have achieved the eminence they’re viewed with today without this help. The CIA was uniquely placed halfway between Congress and the artists; they had to be twice removed from both directions. The artists hated the government, and the government hated the art. The CIA and their billionaire friends pulled off, in this enterprise, some brilliant intervention and forward thinking, perhaps justifying the coolness with which its agents are portrayed in film.