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CIA Used Art as a Way to Gain Leverage During a Propaganda Driven Cold War... How?

September 13, 2015

Probably many of you are fans of Abstract Expressionism. It was one of the dominant Post-War art movements and painting styles in America, that helped NYC to finally become the center of the western art world, instead of Paris. Yes, probably many of you like works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell or Willem de Kooning, right? And did you know that the Central Intelligence Office (CIA) had one of the leading roles in promoting their work in the United States and in Europe? This CIA art, as someone might put it, played an important role during the Cold War, spreading the propaganda of the U.S. of A. as a world leader in human rights and freedoms – something that people from the Soviet Union could never claim for themselves. This is not a new story, but it’s quite ok to remember it from time to time, as a glaring example of what happen when politics and politicians use art as a cultural weapon.

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Willem De Kooning – Ganesvoort Steet, 1949

The United States – The Land of the Free (not so much in the fifties)

So, how did the story go? The Second World War was just ended, and the Cold War was just at its beginning. United States wanted to present itself as an island of freedom, as opposed to dark, Stalinist, rigid, persecutory Soviet Union, where not a single progressive idea and thought was able to come to life, if it wasn’t in line of the socialist doctrine. In reality, United States had many similarities with their Soviet counterpart, especially during the years that followed the end of the Second World War. These years were remembered as a polygon for Joseph McCarthy and his paranoid investigations and prosecutions, where everyone could have been accused of “being red”, without a shred of evidence. Many artists and free-thinking people were accused of “being red” and committing a treason during this hysteria that lasted for good seven years (1950-1956). Since writers, artists and thinkers usually have “left” views on the world, they were, naturally, among the main victims of McCarthyism. People’s lives were ruined, careers destroyed, some even went to prison, with no good argument given. McCarthyism had a huge help in the work of the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover, who had similar views as Joseph McCarthy. At the same time, human rights of African-American minority were nowhere near today’s, and racial segregation and discrimination against African-American were heavily backed by the legal system. So, one cannot say that the United States were an island of freedom during the fifties – or, to be precise, objective observer wouldn’t call the U.S. that. However, the Cold War propaganda did just that – using Abstract Expressionism as an example.

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Mark Rothko – Untitled, 1952-53 (Courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao Museum)

CIA Art

Ordinary Americans actually hated this movement in the fifties. They didn’t understand it, even President of the United States Harry Truman had a statement about modern art, that depicted thoughts of many Americans: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot”. But guys from recently founded CIA (founded in 1947) thought differently. They knew that there was no way that the Soviets and their rigid system would have ever embraced Abstract Expressionism – they were more into Social Realism, and the world of factories and fields, where workers, proletariat and brave warriors were building a socialists empire, under the observing eyes of great comrade Stalin. So, if the guys from the CIA could promote this kind of art, it would have been the ultimate “proof” that they were the good guys, who promote freedom of expression, and Soviets would turned to be bad guys, where freedom is not allowed. So, the CIA started to promote this American art – in secret, obviously – under a policy known as the “long leash”. Via the International Organization Division (IOD), as a part of the CIA, they’ve sponsored American jazz artists, film industry, publishing houses, opera recitals, even the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring program. And, of course, American avant-garde movement of Abstract Expressionism. Then, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded by the CIA funds, and run by the CIA agent. It had as many as 35 offices in 35 countries around the world.

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Mark Rothko – Untitled, 1952-53 (Courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao Museum)

Operation Long Leash

This Congress for Cultural Freedom organized many exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the fifties. In 1958-59, it had organized The New American Painting exhibition at every big European city. Before that, there were Modern art in the United States in 1955 and Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century in 1952. Since these exhibitions and tours were expensive, the CIA turned to rich people. And who is richer than a Rockefeller? Rockefeller Brothers Fund had been funding MoMA in NYC since 1947 – a museum that mother of Nelson and David Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller had co-founded back in 1929. Nelson Rockefeller was one of the biggest supporters of Abstract Expressionism, and the museum had a contract with Congress for Cultural Freedom – it had organized and curated most of CCF’s important shows. Everything was – again, obviously – kept in secrecy, and the artists weren’t aware of the backing they were receiving. Thus the code name – “long leash”: you don’t even know you are attached to it.

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Jackson Pollock – Convergence, 1952

Instead of a Conclusion

At the end, we must rethink the whole thing and notice that, in fact, the CIA did not backed up the Abstract Expressionist movement per se, but their own propaganda: the goal was winning the Cold War, which they had achieved. Why do we say that the CIA didn’t support this movement? Well, actually, it’s worse than that. It is very easy to imagine that the people from the CIA actually did not like Abstract Expressionism as well as any other ordinary American of that time. It just served them well as a symbol. What have they wanted to say? Something like this: “See, even THIS can be art in the United States of America. This. This incomprehensible forest of lines, objects, blobs, and God knows what else. We are THAT free, and have THAT much of a freedom that even that splodge and that mess could be called art, and could be promoted, and could be popular. You cannot see THIS in the Soviet Union, no sir, because they are not like us, they are not free. We are free, and we can prove it – we have THIS as a reputable art”. Obviously, we can not know what would have happened if the CIA did not interfere into the whole thing, and if Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and others would have been as popular as they are today. Nor we are implying that the artists had known anything that was revealed later. We just wanted to point out the magnitude of underestimation of these artists and their work by the CIA and the American propaganda during the fifties. They were using their work as a part of their propaganda, and at the same time they despised their work. And that’s lame, in any coordinate system.

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All images used for illustrative purposes only.