The CIA and modern art

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 2 12:41:50 MDT 1999

The Observer, June 27, 1999

Investigation: The CIA's arty tricks department;  The Cold War was fought
on many fronts but even Jackson Pollock would have been shocked to discover
America's secret weapon himself


During his presidency, Harry Truman liked to get up early and make for the
National Gallery in Washington. Arriving before the city had risen, he
would nod silently to the guard whose special duty it was to unlock the
door for the President's pre-breakfast stroll through the gallery. In 1948,
after gazing at assorted Holbeins and Rembrandts, he entered the following
in his diary: 'It's a pleasure to look at perfection and then think of the
lazy, nutty moderns. It is like comparing Christ with Lenin.' Truman
articulated a view held by many Americans that linked experimental, and
especially abstract, art to degenerate or subversive impulses. On the floor
of Congress, a high-octane assault was led by a Republican from Missouri,
George Dondero, who declared modernism to be quite simply part of a
worldwide conspiracy to weaken American resolve. 'All modern art is
Communistic,' he announced, and his assessment was echoed by a coterie of
public figures. Their attacks culminated in such claims as 'ultramodern
artists are unconsciously used as tools of the Kremlin', and the assertion
that, in some cases, abstract paintings were secret maps pinpointing
strategic US fortifications.

Most vulnerable to these attacks was a group of artists that emerged in the
late 1940s as the abstract expressionists. In reality, they were not a
group at all, but a disparate band of painters bound more by a taste for
artistic adventure than by any formal aesthetic common denominator. But
they were linked by a similar past: most of them had worked for the Federal
Arts Project under Roosevelt's New Deal, producing subsidised art for the
government and getting involved in left-wing politics. Foremost among them
was Jackson Pollock, who in the 1930s had been involved in the Communist
workshop of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Adolph Gottlieb,
William Baziotes and several others had all been Communist activists.

Yet where Dondero saw in abstract expressionism evidence of a Communist
conspiracy, America's cultural mandarins detected a contrary virtue: for
them, it spoke to a specifically anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of
freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent, it was
the antithesis of socialist realism. It was precisely the kind of art the
Soviets loved to hate. But it was more than this. It was, claimed its
apologists, an explicitly American intervention in the modernist canon.

Pollock was elevated as chief representative of this new national
discovery. Born on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, he entered the New York scene
like a cowboy hard-talking, heavy-drinking, shooting his way from the Wild
West. This was, of course, a mythical past. But the image was so apt, so
American, and no one disbelieved it. Next to Matisse by now barely able to
lift a paintbrush he was virility incarnate. In the splurgy, random knot of
lines that threaded their way across the canvas and over the edges, Pollock
seemed to be engaged in the act of rediscovering America. Although one
critic described it as 'melted Picasso', others celebrated it as 'the
triumph of American painting', which spoke for what America was: vigorous,
energetic, freewheeling, big.

Despite the patent idiocy of Dondero's protests, by the late 1940s he had
achieved the collapse of successive attempts by the State Department to
deploy US art as a propaganda weapon. Eager to show the world that here was
an art commensurate with America's greatness, high-level strategists found
they couldn't publicly support it because of domestic opposition. So they
turned to the CIA. And a struggle began to assert the merits of abstract
expressionism against attempts to smear it.

'We had a lot of trouble with Congressman Dondero,' the CIA's Tom Braden
recalled when I interviewed him in 1996. 'He couldn't stand modern art. He
thought it was a travesty, and he put up a heck of a fight about painting,
which made it very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the
things the CIA wanted to do send art abroad, send symphonies abroad,
publish magazines abroad, whatever. That's one of the reasons it had to be
done covertly; it had to be covert because it would have been turned down
if it had been put to a vote in a democracy. In order to encourage
openness, we had to be secret.' As was often its modus operandi, the CIA
turned to the private sector. In America, most museums and collections of
art were as they are now privately owned and privately funded. Pre-eminent
among contemporary and avant-garde museums was New York's Museum of Modern
Art (MoMA). Its president for most of the 1940s and 1950s was Nelson
Rockefeller, whose mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller co-founded the museum in

Supporting left-wing artists was familiar territory for the Rockefellers.
When challenged over her decision to promote the Mexican revolutionary
painter Diego Rivera, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller had argued that Reds would
stop being Reds 'if we could get them artistic recognition'. A one-man show
for Rivera, the second in MoMA's history, duly followed. In 1933, Nelson
Rockefeller had supervised Rivera's commission to paint a mural at the
newly erected Rockefeller Center. Inspecting Rivera's work one day, Nelson
noticed one figure had taken on the unmistakable features of Lenin. He
politely asked Rivera to remove it. Rivera politely refused. At Nelson's
instruction, the mural was surrounded by guards while Rivera was handed a
cheque for his full fee ($ 21,000), and served notice that his commission
was cancelled. In February 1934, the mural was destroyed with jackhammers.

Although this particular piece of patronage was unsuccessful, the principle
which guided it was not abandoned. Establishment figures continued to
believe that leftist artists were worth supporting. In the process, it
could be hoped that the political clamour of the artist might be drowned
out by the clink of the patron's coin. It was according to this principle
that the CIA, together with its private venture capitalists, operated.

The art critic Philip Dodd has commented that 'there may be a really
perverse argument that says the CIA were the best art critics in America in
the Fifties because they saw work that actually should have been
antipathetic to them made by old lefties, coming out of European surrealism
and they saw the potential power in that kind of art and ran with it. You
couldn't say that of many of the art critics of the time.' When I
interviewed him in Washington, CIA man Donald Jameson offered this
explanation of the Agency's involvement: 'We recognised that this was the
kind of art that did not have anything to do with socialist realism, and
made socialist realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined
than it was. . . Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation
of any kind of nonconformity to its own very rigid patterns. 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. Of
course, for matters of this sort (it) could only have been done through the
organisations or the operations of the CIA at two or three removes, so that
there wouldn't be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for
example, or do anything that would involve these people in the
organisation. . . It couldn't have been any closer, because most of them
were people who had very little respect for the government and certainly
none for the CIA.' Operating at a remove from the CIA, and so offering a
plausible disguise for its interests, was the Museum of Modern Art. An
inspection of MoMA's committees and councils reveals a proliferation of
links to the Agency. First and foremost was Nelson Rockefeller, who in the
early 1950s was briefed on covert activities by Allen Dulles and Braden,who
later said: 'I assumed Nelson knew pretty much everything about what we
were doing.' A reasonable assumption, given Nelson's appointment as
Eisenhower's special adviser on Cold War strategy in 1954 and his chairing
of the Planning Coordination Group which oversaw all National Security
Council (NSC) decisions, including CIA covert operations.

Rockefeller's close friend John 'Jock' Hay Whitney was a long-time trustee
of MoMA, who also served as its president and chairman of the board. After
the war, Jock had a position on the Psychological Strategy Board (its
Orwellian title neatly encapsulates its function). William Burden first
joined the museum in 1940, becoming its president in 1956. He served as the
rubber-stamp president of the Farfield Foundation, a CIA 'dummy' foundation
which was the principle conduit for piggybacking funds to the CIA's
international cultural front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Then there
was Rene d'Harnoncourt, the Cardinal Wolsey of the court circles
surrounding MoMA, who Braden says was 'most likely the agency's contact at
the museum'. Certainly d'Harnoncourt was consulting with the NSC's
Operations Co-ordinating Board. He also reported regularly to the State

On and on go the names, on and on go the links. As Gore Vidal once said:
'Everything has so many chains of association in our unexpectedly Jacobean
republic that nothing any longer surprises.' Of course it could be argued
that this congruity revealed nothing more than the nature of American power
at the time. Just because these people knew each other, and just because
they were socially (and even formally) enjoined to the CIA, doesn't mean
they were co -conspirators in the promotion of the new American art. But
the cosiness of the relationship ensured the durability of claims that MoMA
was in some official way connected to the government's cultural warfare

The nerve centre of this covert programme was Braden's International
Organisations Division at the CIA. The IOD, as it was known, managed a
cat's cradle of international front organisations designed to undermine
Communism and ease the passage of US foreign policy interests. For cultural
warfare, the IOD worked through the Paris-based Congress for Cultural
Freedom, which it directed and funded from 1950 to 1967. This organisation,
which advertised itself as 'free' and 'independent', boasted a roll-call of
some of the century's most eminent intellectuals and artists. With CIA
largesse, it published more than 20 prestige journals most famously
Encounter and organised conferences, music competitions and art exhibitions.

MoMA was contracted to curate several of the congress's exhibitions, and
thus was formally enjoined to the CIA's secret programme of encouraging
European consent for the New York school. The result included the 'Young
Painters' show, which toured Europe in 1956. The costs of mounting and
touring the exhibition, in which abstract expressionism dominated, were met
by the CIA, though its investment was camouflaged by the Congress for
Cultural Freedom. There is further, incontestable evidence of the CIA's
intervention in the fortunes of the New York school. Immediately after the
'Young Painters' show closed, the Congress proposed a follow-up. Once
again, MoMA selected the American participation for the show.

The exhibition which finally opened at the Louvre's Musee des Arts
Decoratifs was called, provocatively, 'Antagonismes'. Dominating the
exhibition were works by Mark Rothko (who was in France at the time), Sam
Francis and Yves Klein (his first showing in Paris). Many of the paintings
had been brought to Paris from Vienna, where the congress had exhibited
them as part of a wider, CIA-orchestrated campaign to undermine the 1959
Communist youth festival. This show had cost the CIA $ 15,365, but for its
expanded version in Paris they had to dig deeper. A further $ 10,000 was
laundered through the Hoblitzelle Foundation (a CIA conduit), to which was
added $ 10,000 from the Association Francaise d'Action Artistique, also
subsidised by the CIA.

This is the prima facie evidence of the CIA's involvement in what one
critic referred to as the 'ideological laundering' of abstract
expressionism. It turned what had once been a provocative and strange
gesture into an academic formula, an art officiel. Thus installed within
the canon, the freest form of art now lacked freedom. More and more
painters produced more and more paintings which got bigger and bigger and
emptier and emptier. 'It was like the emperor's clothes,' said Jason
Epstein. 'You parade it down the street and you say, 'This is great art,'
and the people along the parade route will agree . Who's going to stand up
to the Rockefellers and say, 'This stuff is terrible'?' As one critic put
it: 'Few Americans care to argue with a hundred million dollars'.

What of the artists themselves? One of the extraordinary features of the
role US painting played in the cultural Cold War is not the fact that it
became part of this enterprise, but that a movement which so deliberately
declared itself to be apolitical could become so intensely politicised.
Barnett Newman, in his introduction to the catalogue of the 1943 show
'First Exhibition of Modern American Artists', wrote: 'We have come
together as American modern artists because we feel the need to present to
the public a body of art that will adequately reflect the new America that
is taking place today and the kind of America that will, it is hoped,
become the cultural center of the world.' Did Newman come to regret this
national context? Willem de Kooning found 'this American-ness' to be 'a
certain burden' and said: 'If you come from a small nation, you don't have
that. When I went to the Academy and I was drawing from the nude, I was
making the drawing, not Holland. I feel sometimes an American artist must
feel like a baseball player or something a member of a team writing
American history.' Yet in 1963, de Kooning was proud to receive the
President's Medal.' 'The idea of an isolated American painting. . . seems
absurd to me,' said Pollock, who died at the wheel of his Oldsmobile before
he faced the choice of whether or not to accept such honours. Robert
Motherwell was initially happy to be part of the 'mission to make painting
in America equal to painting elsewhere', though later thought it 'strange
when a commodity is more powerful than the men who make it'. Motherwell was
a member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an outpost of the
Congress for Cultural Freedom. So were Baziotes, Calder and Pollock (though
he was sodden with drink when he joined). Former fellow travellers Mark
Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb both became committed anti-Communists during the
Cold War.

Is it possible to argue, as many have, that the abstract expressionists
merely happened to be painting in the Cold War and not for the Cold War?
Their own statements and, in some cases, political allegiances, undermine
claims of ideological disengagement. But their work cannot be simply
reduced to political history: they produced hugely powerful art, and the
CIA's involvement does not reduce its innate aesthetic merit.

Pollock died in a car crash in 1956, by which time Arshile Gorky had
already hanged himself. Franz Kline was to drink himself to death within
six years. In 1965, the sculptor David Smith died after a car crash. In
1970, Mark Rothko slashed his veins and bled to death on his studio floor.
It was said that he could not cope with the contradiction of being embraced
by the very establishment at which his work howled in opposition.

© 1999, LEXIS®-NEXIS®, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Louis Proyect


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