If there is one thing that’s true in this world, it’s that there sure isn't a lack of conspiracy theories out there. Think about it: almost every big mystery or question has a slough of alternative explanations involving everything from Big Brother to the Illuminati to the Masons...and of course we can’t overlook aliens. Oswald wasn’t the lone gunman; the Apollo moon landing never happened and was filmed instead on a Hollywood sound stage; the government is hiding proof of alien life; the Mona Lisa on view at the Louvre is a fake. Every day we might hear a new, wacky theory, even in the art world, like how the CIA funneled money into the arts, towards revolutionary painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, in order to fight the Cold War. Crazy, right? I mean, what a bizarre way to attempt to covertly bring down the Russians?
Except that this last one isn't a crazy conspiracy theory at all. It’s actually a true story of propaganda, secrets, lies, and fine art. The pen is mightier than the sword, the saying goes. Well, it turns out that the same could be said about the paintbrush. Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today we are going to uncover the role of Modern Art, particularly abstract expressionism, in the Cold War of the mid-20th century. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Almost no one better embodied the postwar American machismo of the 1950s that Jackson Pollock. He was rough, and rough-living: stern, a little burly, hard-drinking and fast-driving (to a fatal fault on that last one, it would turn out). And his world-famous drip paintings-- created by splattering and drizzling paint onto large unstretched canvases laid across his studio floor-- were completed with a combination of precision and energy as he danced around and on them, flicking his paintbrush and palette knife all with a wizened glare and a limp cigarette hanging from his lips. Jackson Pollock was America-- tough, heroic, unbeatable.
Or at least that’s the impression that consumers who read about Jackson Pollock in Life Magazine, for example, were led to believe. But Pollock was a wounded figure who attempted to hide his weaknesses under a stony face and a pile of vices. He was a cultural beacon, to be sure-- but a shaky one at that. And that's not even really taking into consideration the opinion of the general public towards his work for the vast majority of his artistic career. America as a whole did not particularly love Jackson Pollock, or indeed many of his AbEx cohort. In fact, even President Truman, upon looking at a selection of modern art, proclaimed, Quote, “If that’s art, then I’m a hottentot.” Forgive me the offensive and racially insensitive quote-- but what Truman obviously meant was self-reflexive-- that isn’t art, and I’m obviously a white man living in the United States.
Pollock really turns out to be an excellent metaphor for America after World War II, though. As author Annabelle Shark wrote, quote, “Perhaps America could be described at this juncture in history as a trembling victor, owning the world outright (with the exception of the Soviet Union and its bloc); wealthier by leaps and bounds than the rest of the world put together; full of bluster; full of the kill. And simultaneously terrified that it might just lose its grasp, the tenuousness of which was based on the fact that its role as top dog was grabbed by force of such unimaginable viciousness, that, in fact, not too many of the world’s people were reveling in America’s blood soaked victory.”
To my eyes, such a description is almost shocking-- to think about America at that time as holding onto its reigning position by such a thread. America was tough, a little rough, certainly heroic, and suddenly seemingly unbeatable; but just under the surface was a crippling self-doubt.
What America needed was some excellent PR to promote its superiority-- and not just in military might. It needed to reveal its cultural superiority, too, and it needed the highest forms of propaganda-- it needed fine art.
This sounds utterly ridiculous, right? How could this possibly be something that was seriously considered as a Cold War tactic? But it’s true-- and we’re gonna need a little bit of background before we start to make any sense of it.
Stating that the Cold War was a time of tension between east and west after World War II seems is a way of putting it mildly. It was an all-and-out war of ideology and struggle for world domination in the sense of how society should be led and controlled. While there were many different countries involved in the cold war, stretching all across Europe and even down into central and South America, it really can be best represented by two superpowers: The U.S. and the Soviet Union. War was never officially declared, of course, and the two never fought in the traditional sense, both tried to outdo each other and proclaim their inherent superiority of basic governing factors: communism versus capitalism. President Eisenhower, Trruman’s successor, made his feelings on how to fight the Cold War clear in a statement he released not long after he took office in 1953, saying, quote, “Our aim in the Cold War is not conquering of territory or subjugation by force. Our aim is more subtle, more pervasive, more complete. We are trying to get the world, by peaceful means, to believe the truth. That truth is that Americans want a world at peace, a world in which all people shall have opportunity for maximum individual development. The means we shall employ to spread this truth are often called "psychological." Don’t be afraid of that term just because it’s a five-dollar, five-syllable word. "Psychological warfare" is the struggle for the minds and wills of men.”
And the minds and the wills of men were going to bend by any means necessary-- especially if those means were culturally relevant. When you think about it, culture in general-- especially popular culture these days, if we are really being honest about it-- is a huge motivator. The movies we watch, the TV we consume, the music we download-- it all greatly influences everything from fashion to psychology to intellectual theory to… most of all… money, especially how we spend it. And it was no different in the 1940s. So perhaps it isn't a surprise, then, that the US government opted very early on to include fine art in its plans for Cold War domination. This happened as soon as the CIA was formed in 1947, wherein a subsection was created specifically with the hopes of influencing the minds of the great thinkers of the world. This subsection was called the Propaganda Assets Inventory, and Its reach was extensive- think over 800 newspapers and magazines around the globe, for example. The goal was simple, really- the CIA found it rather disturbing that so many of the most influential writers, critics, artists, musicians, and philosophers-both in America and across Europe- still found Communism, at its egalitarian core, very appealing. And many of them were either ex-communists themselves, or still card-carrying ones. And as America moved further and further into the era of 1950s McCarthyism, it felt even more necessary for the government to shut that stuff right on down.
How, exactly, was art and culture thought to be a good weapon against the Soviet Union and its dreaded Communism? Well, the thought behind it was rather simple, actually. In the no holds barred propaganda war with the Soviet Union, the incredible innovation and creativity of the arts in America could be seen as a mirror of the great freedoms and power given to all the American people. First off, it wasn't following in the European traditions of art that had come before-- it had taken the abstraction lauded by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists and others-- and ran with it to newer, higher grounds. We’ll be coming back to talk about the seemingly ultra-simplistic style of the Abstract Expressionists in a later episode, but for now, its best to remember how completely groundbreaking their works were at the time. And this ties directly to the idea of the freedom of expression without censorship. artists didn't have to stick to a state-determined dictum of what to paint and how to paint it. They were free. There were no party lines that determined what Gorky or de Kooning had to paint. They just painted however and whatever they wanted. All combined, using the AbEx painters in this bout of psychological warfare was all really a way to say, hey, Russia? Nice try. We can do so much more, and do it so much better. And oh yeah, by the way, so many of the world’s most influential minds have moved here during and in the wake of World War II, so we're now the cultural capital of the world, okay?
At the very beginning of its efforts, the Propaganda Assets Inventory worked in a surprisingly transparent way to promote the cultural superiority of the USA. One of the first projects completed was a large-scale traveling exhibition titled “Advancing American Art,” which was intended to tour throughout Western Europe to specifically debunk the suggestion lobbied by the Soviet Union that America was a Quote “Cultural desert.” So government representatives essentially went out and bought a truckload of major works of art to refute this powerful communist statement. The show was funded and presented by the State Department- so really, how much clearer can you get than basically screaming THE US GOVERNMENT IS PAYING FOR THIS ART? And that is where the trouble started and where the “Advancing American Art” exhibition ended. Remember that insensitive quote about modern art by President Truman? This was the exhibition that caused his remark. Before the show could even leave on its grand tour, Americans were outraged - first and foremost by the artwork chosen for the show- It included works by Romare Bearden, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jacob Lawrence, among many others. Very few of the paintings were super-abstract, really, -- certainly nothing like what would come shortly thereafter--and most, if not all, had a naturalistic or at least a representational bent, but the work's were clearly chosen because they were, in essence, modern- expressive, bright, brushy, and revealing aspects and stories of modern-day life. All told, though, they were still more abstract and experimental than most of your Everyday Joes would care for. And most of all, Americans were irate because the government selected and bought the actual works of art in the show. Taxpayer money, spent on this ridiculous filth? People said. No way. As writer Louis Menand reported in The New Yorker in a 2005 article titled “Unpopular Front,” even the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee wrote a furious letter to the Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, saying quote “The paintings are a travesty upon art. They were evidently gotten up by people whose object was apparently to, (1) make the United States appear ridiculous in the eyes of foreign countries, and to (2) Establish ill-will towards the United States.” And so the exhibition and tour were curtailed and eventually cancelled. So much for screaming America’s cultural superiority to...America, let alone to the rest of the world.
The outrage was an embarrassment. Not only that, but Secretary of State Marshall even declared that no taxpayer money would ever be spent on modern art again, nor would any artist ever suspected of being a communist be able to exhibit in any government-sponsored function. But to the CIA, the idea of cultural combat was just too good to disavow. They just had to be a little more covert about matters. So that's where the CIA kicked things into high gear with two very important steps- they embraced the ultra-avant-garde world and creations of the Abstract Expressionists, and they did so from a highly-secretive distance in the form of a so-called long-leash policy.
Okay, so why, in their right minds, would CIA officials choose AbEx as their artistic focus? I mean, the works chosen for Advancing American Art weren't even fully abstract for the most part, and the stuff presented by people like Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, Motherwell, and so forth was considered much wilder and even anarchic. Knowing how badly the general public reacted to works considered less avant-garde than theirs, it probably isn't a surprise to relay the fact that AbEx wasn't particularly well-loved outside of most artistic circles-- and even within some artistic circles, it was a bit of a black sheep. But think about it from the government’s perspective. Its whole avant-garde, against the grain being was supposedly the proof of advanced minds in an advanced civilization. Unlike works being created in the USSR, AbEx works were not only super abstract but they were also not meant to be educational or moralistic in any way. It was just art-- art for the sake of art, art for the sake of experimentation, art created because it could be created. And there was an additional element of interest here-- under the general umbrella term of Abstract Expression we find artists who are truly disparate from one another in terms of their output: you’d never confuse a Barnett Newman with a Jackson Pollock with a Mark Rothko. Nonconformity was the name of the game. And As former chief of the CIA's International Organisations Division, Tom Braden, made clear in an interview with The U.K.’s Guardian Newspaper, Quote, It was recognized that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism- the style favored in the Soviet Union-- look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was. 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 criticized that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another."
The secrecy of the CIA’s artistic mission was primary for a number of reasons. First, of course, there was the outrage sparked by the government’s previous foray into supporting the arts- they didn't want to risk a repeat of that kind of reaction. And then, too, it would look much more natural to the outside world if AbEx just bubbled up without any seemingly official support. But there was also another factor at play that demanded kid-gloves-- and that was the fact that many of the artists themselves were not only at least somewhat supportive of the socialist-slash-communist credo, but many of them were also very anti-government and distrusting of it. To make matters more complicated, some artists were closely aligned with foreign-born patrons or fellow artists, some of whom were also seriously opposed to the capitalist way of life and seriously interested in furthering a socialist agenda. So really, chances were that if an artist was asked to accept governmental support or promotion of his work, if would not have been accepted.
So- bring in that long leash. The long-leash solution was to keep everything at a remove of two or three degrees- or sometimes even more- so that no one could directly tie the CIA to artistic bankrolling. In order to fulfill this need, CIA operatives were enlisted to seek the participation and backing of various institutions in order to keep things far more on the down low. They worked with arts foundations, artist groups, and even museums to put together special exhibitions and collections. According to reports, the US government was able to send hundreds of art exhibitions to Europe, Latin America, and even to east Asia between the late 1940s and through the 1960s. All of this was funneled through a new arts agency created by the CIA called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, or CCF. Museums, then, sponsored and supported by the CCF, would be presenting the world of these artists- never the government, no no no. And no one was apparently the wiser- not even the artists themselves--especially not the artists themselves.
Sometimes, in order to bury the connections even further, the CCF sought funding from private donors, too. The donor who was most closely involved with these programs was Nelson Rockefeller- and this is where things get even a little more muddled, because Rockefeller’s own mother was one of the co-founders of the museum of modern art in New York City. Nelson Rockefeller used his own privileged position as the president of the board of MoMA, -which he apparently called quote “mummy's museum”-- to arrange for some of the CCF’s biggest and most successful AbEx exhibitions. One of the most important, if not THE most important exhibition, titled “The New American Painting", traveled to practically every major European city between 1958 and 1959, practically, screaming the intellectual and artistic superiority of the States. If there was any doubt that the capital of artmaking had switched to the us from Western Europe in the wake of World War II, there was no question of it now.
An interesting side note about the New American Painting exhibition, which acts as a bit of a case study to how the CCF operated: When the show went on view in Paris in 1958, it made quite an impression on those who saw it, including a delegation from the Tate Gallery in London. Inspired by the show, Tate officials wanted to travel it to London, but they couldn’t afford the steep fees associated with it. So what happened next? An American millionaire and apparent art lover named Julius Fleischmann appeared-- almost as if by magic-- and ponied up the funds. The show, happily, then continued on to London.
But was it that simple? A fairy godfather, of sorts, willing to bankroll a major exhibition in a foreign country simply for the love of art? Of course not. Unbeknownst to the Tate, the money provided to travel the show to the U.K wasn’t actually Fleischmann’s but money funneled through him from an organization called the Fairfield Foundation--which was actually a secret arm of the CCF disguised as a charitable body.
The Tate didnt know. The visitors didnt know. And the artists certainly didn't know. And Tom Braden noted that setting these feints up was actually rather easy. He said, quote, "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 actually 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. It was really a pretty simple device."
And oh yeah, by the way? Julius Fleischmann was also a board member of MoMA, just like Nelson Rockefeller. But as Louis Menand noted in his New Yorker article, though there's certainly a link between the CIA and MoMA in terms of some of the key figures involved, there wasn’t an actual agreement or formal deal between those institutions. But there didn’t have to be, Menand says-- because in short, everyone was on the same page. The vast majority of americans in the 1950s--though Joe McCarthy might have claimed otherwise--were anti-communist. So no one needed to come to MoMA as a whole and get them on board to fight communists. Most people were already pretty okay with doing that, in general. And the method of doing it-- proving America’s might, especially in terms of advancing modern art? For the cultural elite-- in board rooms and lounges all over New York City-- it was a no-brainer.
So-- did it work? Well, that’s a complicated question, and for most people, i suppose it hinges on whether or not you think that the U,S, happened to win the Cold War. But even then, I still have to wonder. When we think about the legacy of Abstract Expressionism and other wings of modern art, it’s funny, and not a little bit strange, that this secret-history of governmental support isn't mentioned more frequently in art history classes or even just general discussions about 20th century American art. But truly, is there even a need to bring it up? When I look at a Mark Rothko painting-- one of my favorite artists, by the way-- I’m moved by his blending of color and the soft blur of forms and experience an almost meditative state when looking at one for a decent period of time. But do I care that the CIA deliberately backed the presentation of Rothko’s works around the world in order to fight the Cold War? Not really. You see, the AbEx painters, as we already established, were a hugely innovative bunch. Their works heralded a new way of making art, of seeing, of abstracting and illustrating the physical world as well as one’s internal world. And those artists were going to create their work regardless-- because remember, unlike the soviets, they had the freedom and ability to paint however and whatever they wanted. The only thing this reveals, really, is that a little extra money and effort allowed these painters to have their works exhibited internationally and in high-profile major exhibitions during their lifetimes. That might not necessarily have been an outcome if they hadn't been indirectly supported by the CIA. So maybe the CIA helped to speed the timeline of art appreciation along just a little bit faster than it might have done organically. Indeed, even just a year after Jackson Pollock’s death, that cultural stalwart, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchased Pollock’s painting, Autumn, Rhythm for $30,000- a completely unheard-of sum, particularly by an institution who almost never supported contemporary artists with art purchases-- especially not emerging or mid-career artists. Even though Pollock was dead, it was a move that might be considered either super prescient, or just plain odd. Regardless, the important thing, in the 50s and 60s, wasn't necessarily how the art was created, nor who was creating it, nor even who was presenting it and what the legacy might be. To the U.S. Government, it was important just to be seen-- because then its symbolic power could reach full fruition. As Eisenhower said in 1954, quote, “As long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art. How different it is in tyranny. When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.”
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, narrated, and edited by me, Jennifer Dasal, with production assistance from Kaboonki Creative. Learn more about Kaboonki at www.kaboonki.coom-- that's K A B O O N K I dot com.
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