Imagine my surprise when a British friend sent me the link to a 1995 Independent newspaper article about the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement in fostering bad “art” (to loosely employ the term art) as a means of proving to the Soviets and to the world that the America wasn’t a cultural Death Valley. While I had always suspected that the CIA was involved in many questionable and highly dubious covert activities, ostensively in defense of national interests (e.g., President John F. Kennedy sanctioning the CIA’s wiretapping of the Washington press corps), this news helped to fit two or three handfuls of jigsaw puzzle pieces into a much broader picture.
Francis Stonor Saunders, writing for the Independent, and who later wrote a book about the CIA’s role in promoting not just abstract art, but “anti-communist” writers and journalists, opened with:
For decades in art circles it was either a rumor or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years….
Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
What startled me even more was the date of the article, October 22nd, 1995. Why hadn’t I heard of this scoop before? How did it slip under my radar? The news ought to have rocked the foundations of modern art, and sent the practitioners, purveyors and rich connoisseurs of “Abstract Expressionism” screaming “We’ve been had! We’ve been tools of the capitalist lackeys! Duped by imperialist warmongers!” as they cascaded in lemming droves over the railings of the Brooklyn Bridge. It ought to have knocked the bottom out of the demand for the drips, drops and splashes that have passed for “high art” for so many decades and dropped the appraised worth of private and institutional collections by about 99.9%.
But, nothing like that happened. The practitioners, purveyors and connoisseurs are still with us, and foisting on the country “art” that is even worse than Abstract Expressionism,” “art” that can’t even be defined as “abstract.” Or psychotic. Or disturbed. Or “art.”
Here was the rationale for the CIA’s multi-million dollar, years-long covert operation: Because the Soviets preferred “realism” in its art and propaganda – that is, images that one could identify as persons and things – the Yale and Harvard and Stanford educated geniuses at Langley Field and in Washington D.C., geniuses whose education taught them that representational art of any kind was passé, old hat, and a bourgeoisie tool of oppression, decided that to be “creative,” one must produce stuff – and that’s all it is, is stuff – on canvas and in welded metal with perhaps with a bicycle wheel and little bits of plastic, cellophane, or cereal box-tops thrown in – which one could not recognize or interpret even in the most leniently conducted Rorschach test.
In short, the CIA’s argument for freedom was that in America, one was free to be irrational and not bound by the rules of intelligibility or even of reality. “Realism” be damned! We are going to promote the USA by promoting the unreal!
Get it? We would fight the irrationality of Soviet propaganda with irrational propaganda of our own. When the Soviets accused us of having no культура (culture), we could shout back: “So’s your old man!” or, “Your mother wears combat boots!” Hoping, in the mean time, that the Soviets will be stung by our sophisticated, haughty rejoinder and realize that even frauds and the talentless and psychotics and epistemologically maladjusted “artists” had freedom of expression in the USA, and all Americans loved them, too, and were amply rewarded! And expecting the Soviets will hang their heads in shame. We’ll have showed them.
But, we didn’t.
You sometimes wonder if “intelligence” is an overlooked and inapplicable misnomer for the agency. “Intelligence” too often doesn’t seem to be “central” to its mission or behavior.
My question is, and it will go unanswered by the CIA: Why should we have had to prove anything to the Soviets? We were certainly a freer country in the years when the agency and the State Department were actively pimping for trash, from roughly the end of WWII until the mid-1960’s. Instead of boasting of Jefferson and Patrick Henry and James Madison, we pushed forward as volunteers in the fight for “freedom” Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler and a host of other reality-challenged and metaphysics-denying “artists.”
While the Soviets waged an ideological war against the U.S., we recruited clueless whackos to fling gobs of paint and empty whiskey glasses at the Soviets. While the Soviets barraged us with the idea that we were the evil empire, we boasted that we had a big army of upper and lower class twits ready to overwhelm them with splashes of paint and volleys of spray cans and buckets of gesso.
The CIA, burdened by the American cultural inferiority complex of that period, seemed to fear that their culture was regarded as producing “hillbilly” stuff. Elvis Presley and so on. “We are losing points,” they said, “we have got to prove that the whole point of the capitalist system is that it is free and people can do whatever they like, and it takes the ideas of the mind forward, and we have got to prove that the communist bloc is actually looking backward and is not free.” This led to them awarding a hefty budget from the CIA to promote this view.
For instance, composers would be sought who would exemplify this principle. They discovered that the composer, John Cage, had written a totally silent piano sonata. “He comes on and just sits there and looks at the music and just thinks about it. That is really interesting. So, we’ll push that.” I mean, somebody must have said, ‘‘but don’t you think that is nuts?” I mean, it would appear to anyone with a brain that that is nuts. But they said, “We like John Cage.” So, Cage became a major figure, all of a sudden.
In the war of ideas, the CIA opted to abandon ideas and instead donned the straw hat, striped shirt, and gaudy vest of a carnival barker haranguing a crowd to step right up and see the bearded lady and other “creative” human oddities.
Josef Joffe, in an April 2000 New York Times review of Frances Stonor Saunders’ book about the CIA’s role in promoting and perpetuating the arts, and especially Abstract Expressionism and its derivatives, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, wrote that because the U.S had no “Minister of Culture”:
Imagine…a secretary of culture, financing operas, orchestras and painters especially to promote them abroad. Most card-carrying members of the intelligentsia would vigorously applaud so splendid an idea while bemoaning its utter unreality. Not for us, they lament, the C-word that stands for ”state-sponsored culture” and recalls the feudal follies of Europe’s princes and potentates.
Yet there was a time when Washington was guilty of such un-American activities in spades. With $166,000 (worth more than a million of today’s dollars), the American taxpayer in 1952 dispatched the Boston Symphony to Europe on a glorious tour that helped establish the Bostonians as among the best in the world. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, David Smith — artists of the school that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism — were thrust into global fame with help from the feds. Except that the funds were supplied indirectly and clandestinely, with the Congress for Cultural Freedom the main channel and the Central Intelligence Agency the ultimate donor.
Joffe faults the Saunders book on many levels, chiefly that she is sympathetic to the Left and gives most the beneficiaries a sympathy pass whether or not they knew about the CIA’s funding and purposes.
A few months earlier, Monthly Review, an American Marxist cultural and political journal, carried a review of the Saunders book by James Petras.
This book provides a detailed account of the ways in which the CIA penetrated and influenced a vast array of cultural organizations, through its front groups and via friendly philanthropic organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The author, Frances Stonor Saunders, details how and why the CIA ran cultural congresses, mounted exhibits, and organized concerts. The CIA also published and translated well-known authors who toed the Washington line, sponsored abstract art to counteract art with any social content and, throughout the world, subsidized journals that criticized Marxism, communism, and revolutionary politics and apologized for, or ignored, violent and destructive imperialist U.S. policies.
Petras names some interesting names and publications that became the standard bearers of anti-communist or anti-Stalinist positions:
U.S. and European anticommunist publications receiving direct or indirect funding included Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, New Leader, Encounter and many others. Among the intellectuals who were funded and promoted by the CIA were Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and numerous others in the United States and Europe. In Europe, the CIA was particularly interested in and promoted the “Democratic Left” and ex-leftists, including Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Anthony Crosland, Michael Josselson, and George Orwell.
That is quite a lineup of “respectable” leftists and Neocons. (Interestingly, David Horowitz, Neocon editor of FrontPage and now a detractor of Diana West over her book, American Betrayal, was published in Monthly Review). And the thing that they all have in common is that while they were as a rule anti-communist because Communism was totalitarian, they were for nothing but whatever they saw of value in a status quo defined by “democracy.”
Petras’s review is liberally peppered with Marxist language about capitalism and the imperialist elite, and does not concern us here. His review does contain some interesting information, nonetheless. From the Monthly Review perspective, most the individuals cited above, including the drips-and-drops abstract artists, comprise, more or less, what is called the “Democratic Left.”
After the Second World War, with the discrediting in Western Europe of the old right (compromised by its links to the fascists and a weak capitalist system), the CIA realized that, in order to undermine the anti-NATO trade unionists and intellectuals, it needed to find (or invent) a Democratic Left to engage in ideological warfare. A special sector of the CIA was set up to circumvent right-wing Congressional objections. The Democratic Left was essentially used to combat the radical left and to provide an ideological gloss on U.S. hegemony in Europe.
Then, Petras has an attack of un-Marxist lucidness:
The CIA’s involvement in the cultural life of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere had important long-term consequences. Many intellectuals were rewarded with prestige, public recognition, and research funds precisely for operating within the ideological blinders set by the Agency. Some of the biggest names in philosophy, political ethics, sociology, and art, who gained visibility from CIA-funded conferences and journals, went on to establish the norms and standards for promotion of the new generation, based on the political parameters established by the CIA. Not merit nor skill, but politics—the Washington line—defined “truth” and “excellence” and future chairs in prestigious academic settings, foundations, and museums.
This is all true. There have been long-term consequences. By themselves, the avant-garde might not have sustained their destruction of art without the help of government subsidies and patronization. The CIA helped to perpetuate the hold the cultural establishment has had on especially art today, and did it with taxpayer money.
When the CIA left the art “racket” in the mid-1960’s, it was replaced in 1965 with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both established by acts of Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Before that, however, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City played a “central” role in the CIA’s cornering the abstract art market. A person writing under the pseudonym of “Annabel Shark” for some oddly named organization called “SlowArt,” also penned this May 2012 query about how and why the CIA got into the arts, reprising what other articles have revealed:
Why was Abstract Expressionist art singled out by the CIA/State Department as an essential weapon of the cultural Cold War? Why did Nelson Rockefeller purchase over 2500 pieces of Abstract Expressionist art and use these paintings to decorate the lobbies of Chase Manhattan banks? And then, why was New York’s Museum of Modern Art so terrifically enthusiastic over this specific art movement? In order to understand the trajectory behind these actions and policies, we have to examine the history and formation of the Abstract Expressionist Movement, what it was attempting to achieve in the world through its art, and how it was consequently interpreted. Perhaps this understanding will shed some clarity on the present day art establishment, and why it functions in its seemingly nonsensical manner.
Why, indeed? Nelson Rockefeller, who participated in the CIA and State Department programs, called abstract art “free enterprise painting.”
With the CIA’s generously funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, and under the auspices of the Rockefeller owned and operated Museum of Modern Art in New York, huge, enormously expensive exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist artworks were staged, and then exported to (some would say dumped upon) museums throughout the Western Bloc European countries. Most particularly these exhibitions were foisted upon France (the acknowledged “art capital”), “proving” American supremacy in the art world by shear [sic] size and volume. In reality, this vision of supremacy was an aspect of the Marshall Plan, which forced American products on France as part of their huge war reparations.
Michael J. Lewis, reviewing a biography in Commentary in June 1998 of one of the movers and shakers of abstract art, Clement Greenberg: A Life, by Florence Rubenfeld, also and too briefly mentions the CIA’s role in fostering the irrational in esthetics:
She [Rubenfeld] does, though, take a stand on the question of Greenberg’s importance, entering a broad and convincing claim for the centrality of his role in the rise of postwar American art. But she does this in a way that leaves little for revisionist historians to disagree with.
Their version, at least, is all of a piece: the man who promoted American art as an instrument of United States foreign policy, tacitly collaborating in alleged CIA-sponsored shows of painting in Europe—a charge floated in David Anfam’s Abstract Expressionism (1990)—was the same man who brought a veritably McCarthyite temperament to his aesthetic judgments, brooking no dissent and enforcing a stifling conformity. It is to Rubenfeld’s credit that she does not endorse this foolish and tendentious view; unfortunately, she also does nothing to correct it.
I mentioned earlier the CIA’s highly dubious covert activities. Add a new one: The CIA is now shipping arms to Islamic supremacists posing as Syrian “rebels” under the misnomer of the “Free Syrian Army.”
The Washington Post reported on September 11th that:
The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits. U.S. officials hope that, taken together, the weapons and gear will boost the profile and prowess of rebel fighters in a conflict that started about two and a half years ago.
Of course, the CIA’s “intelligence” wonks are absolutely certain that these arms won’t be used to do bad things, like massacre Christians, destroy churches, rape women, and eat the lungs of Assad’s captured Syrian soldiers, or, when many of the rebels go on leave back to Europe, wind up being used against Europeans in their capital cities, their owners taking advantage of their boosted fighting prowess.
Daniel Greenfield, in his September 12th column, “NBC News Admits ‘Free Syrian Army‘ is a Myth, emphasizes three important facts about the “rebels” which the news media, as well as the White House and inept Secretary of State John Kerry, are dodging:
There is no Free Syrian Army. General Idris is a general of nothing. There are no moderates.
The funny moderate math depends on classifying Salafists who aren’t with Al Qaeda, officially, even if they fight alongside it, in independent groups or the FSA, as moderates.
But what percentage of the brigades are Salafist and can there even be such a thing as a moderate Salafist? According to various analysts, the Syrian Islamic Front is moderate even though its goal is to use violence to create an Islamic state. But compared to hard core Takfiris, it may be considered possibly moderate. But to us that’s a technical distinction without a difference.
And there we have it: The CIA shining through. For nearly two decades, it exported “art” created by non-artists to boost the prestige of American culture and to impress the Soviets. And now it is exporting arms to “rebels” who aren’t really “rebels” and who would just as soon as cut our throats as look at us, in order to boost our likeability quotient with Islam. Nothing redounds like consistency, and not always in a positive way.
I can’t make this stuff up. I haven’t the imagination.