With Modern Art
It’s not exactly a secret that capitalism and communism had a bit of a tiff after the end of World War II. Even less of a secret is that many of the CIA’s actions during the Cold War were rather … inspired. Indeed, when it fell upon them to undermine the USSR using subterfuge, their first action was to jump straight into the insanity pit, balls out and screaming.
What followed were spy operations featuring kitty cats, assassinations via exploding cigars and general covert warfare using the Wile E. Coyote approach. Most of their more insane plans unsurprisingly fell flat, which is why you wouldn’t hold out much hope for a plan to undermine communism with the power of modern art.
First, they set up the not-at-all-Orwellian-sounding Congress for Cultural Freedom as a front for their meddling with the art world. Through it, CIA spooks infiltrated each and every aspect of modern culture, from film to music to, yes, modern art. The CIA loved themselves some squiggly lines, and sank millions of public dollars through front companies to promote it. In fact, the Congress for Cultural Freedom directly sponsored artists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, who in essence got to showcase their mind-bending talents for the U.S.A. thanks largely to the Company.
Yes, the CIA made Jackson Pollock’s career to undermine communism. It makes a strange kind of sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?
No. No, it doesn’t.
How It Worked:
It was an ideas fight all along. The CIA knew modern art showed the world that America didn’t play by anyone’s rules. The underlying message was this: “We’re not squares like those commies. We can just vomit paint at a canvas like we don’t care and call it art, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.”
Despite this apparently ridiculous line of thinking, the CIA’s plan worked like a dream. Modern abstract art made big leaps forward while the communists’ socialist realism style was pushed back.
Shows in Europe began to feature abstract American art and deemphasize communist artists with their boring pictures that people could actually understand. Even communist artists themselves started to surreptitiously rebel by sneaking abstract elements into their paintings.
But surely this was just some minor slice of insanity, one of many the CIA was toying with? Nope. As one of the head honchos of the art operation has said: “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.”
Keep that in mind the next time someone drags you to an art gallery. Those blots and squiggles? They’re blots and squiggles of freedom.
CIA Used Modern Art to Fight Cold War
While rumored to be true in art circles for decades, the CIA finally comes clean: they used the existence of American abstract expressionism to prove American exceptionalism during the Cold War: and exceptional it is!
After so much speculation, the CIA admits that the promotion of American abstract expressionism was a direct move to counteract the rigid, realist movements that were popular in the Soviet Union; demonstrating America’s ability to be flexible, unique and forward thinking as it relates to societal opportunity and expression. Former case officer, Donald Jameson, says :
“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!” he joked. “But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions…In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”
This is so interesting because artists of that time, working in New York around the 40′s to the 60′s, artists working in the Modern period, and specifically doing abstract expressionism, were very wary of authority, of the government and of authoritarian power. They were bohemian in their approach to art and life, radical in many ways, many even Marxist. And many of these artists in New York who pushed the movement were Europeans who fled their countries during World War II, and some Russian (which I am sure was even more of a kick-in-the-ass to the Soviets as they saw their former kinsman’s work promoted in the enemy country).
Though it seems that the promotion of these boundary-pushing artists though the CIA-createdCongress for Cultural Freedom (the organization that could promote these artists with enough separation from the government as to not indicate any involvement) is ironic and bitter sweet considering the US government has not been so kind to artists who push other boundaries. It seems that every year, conservative politicians do their best to cut the National Endowment for the Arts budget (as it provides government funding for art projects, some of which have been scandalized). So perhaps radical art is only good if the government can use it to their benefit?
Here is an example of their work:
“In 1958 the touring exhibition “The New American Painting”, including works by Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others, was on show in Paris. The Tate Gallery was keen to have it next, but could not afford to bring it over. Late in the day, an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann, stepped in with the cash and the show was brought to London.
The money that Fleischmann provided, however, was not his but the CIA’s. It came through a body called the Farfield Foundation, of which Fleischmann was president, but far from being a millionaire’s charitable arm, the foundation was a secret conduit for CIA funds. So, unknown to the Tate, the public or the artists, the exhibition was transferred to London at American taxpayers’ expense to serve subtle Cold War propaganda purposes.”
Interestingly, many artists in Russia were pushing boundaries themselves by also rejecting realism and choosing other, more abstract (albeit, sharp and angular) images. Artists like Malevich (my fav) and Popova and Lissitzky were doing (and pioneering) suprematism, much to the dismay of the Russian authorities. And, funny story, when Malevich was confronted about the ill-advised suprematism style, he then painted an appropriate socialist realism (as was the only style allowed under Stalinist Russia) portrait of himself:
and he signed his name using a tiny black square over white. Ever thumbin’ his nose…and of course, referencing his most famous work “Black Quadrilateral” which is exactly as the name suggests. A work that caused such outrage, it shut down exhibitions and got him a visit from the authorities.
It’s so interesting to hear about this CIA/art-thing finally coming to light, and the fact that the CIA recognized the power that this type of expression could have as a propaganda tool. Coming from a country that was declaring they don’t need to use propaganda on it’s people – and yet doing exactly that to win a war – and saying the people within the country are so much more free while within a matter of years were stifling creative expression. The irony is rich, but no less interesting in the realm of weird things the US has done in secret.