[Marxism] Art and the cold war

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 10 10:15:46 MDT 2005

American art and the Cold War.
Issue of 2005-10-17
Posted 2005-10-10

Was Jackson Pollock a weapon in the Cold War? There is a lot of barbed wire 
surrounding that question. The Cold War had battlegrounds all over the 
world, and it was a hot enough war in some of them, but in the main 
battleground, Western Europe, it was a war for hearts and minds—an idea 
war, an image war, a propaganda war. Global combat on these terms was the 
policy of the American government. There was no secret about the policy, 
and most of its enactments—such as the Fulbright Program, which was 
established in 1946—were carried out in broad daylight and to public 
acclaim. But some were carefully shrouded, made to appear the work of 
individuals and institutions acting on their own, without government 
sponsorship, as was the case with the magazine Encounter, which was 
published in London and contributed to by prominent American and European 
intellectuals, and which was revealed, in 1967, to be a creature of the C.I.A.

It seems a contradiction, even hypocritical, for the United States to have 
promoted the Western values of free elections, free speech, and free 
markets by covert methods. Democracy means accountability; that’s what 
makes democratic governments different from authoritarian and totalitarian 
ones. But, until its cloak unravelled in the late nineteen-sixties, the 
C.I.A., and the people who were in on its activities, operated in secrecy. 
They kept the secret because they understood the logic. The target audience 
for cultural propaganda in the Cold War was foreign élites—in particular, 
left-wing intellectuals and avant-garde writers and artists who might still 
have some attachment, sincere, sentimental, or opportunistic, to Communism 
and the Soviet Union. The essence of the courtship was: it’s possible to be 
left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-Communist. Look at these American artists 
and intellectuals, happily criticizing bourgeois capitalism and shocking 
mainstream tastes, all safely protected by the laws of a free society. In 
Russia, these people would be in the Lubyanka, or somewhere north of the 
Arctic Circle.

In practice, though, the American creed boils down to this: you have a 
right to say or create what you please, but the taxpayer doesn’t have to 
pay for it. Highbrow criticizing and shocking are regarded by most 
Americans as toxic by-products of the culture of liberty: they show that 
we’re serious about the First Amendment, but there is no reason to 
subsidize them. This was one of the lessons of the congressional attacks on 
the National Endowment for the Arts at the very end of the Cold War; but 
the lesson had been learned before, in a parallel episode, at the very 
start of the Cold War, an episode that defined the limits of what 
government could openly do in the practice of cultural diplomacy.

Taylor Littleton and Maltby Sykes’s “Advancing American Art: Painting, 
Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century,” recently published in 
a second edition (Alabama; $19.95), is an appropriately amused and acerbic 
account of the fiasco. In 1946, the State Department’s newly formed Office 
of International Information and Cultural Affairs put together a show 
called “Advancing American Art.” The division spent forty-nine thousand 
dollars of government money to purchase seventy-nine paintings by American 
artists. The exhibition was intended, as Littleton and Sykes put it, to be 
“one element in an international definition of American reassurance, 
stability, and enlightenment”—a friendly beacon in the grim aftermath of 
the war. It included works by Romare Bearden, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Ben 
Shahn, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jacob Lawrence. Very few of the paintings were 
abstract, but most were identifiably modern: naturalist, expressionist, 
painterly. The State Department wanted the world to know that the United 
States was not just a nation of cars, chewing gum, and Hollywood movies. A 
preview of the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum was well received. In The 
Nation, Clement Greenberg, already a leading arbiter of advanced painting, 
wrote that the show was “a remarkable accomplishment, and its moral should 
be taken to heart by those who control the public destiny of art in our 
country.” The collection was split into two; thirty paintings were sent to 
Latin America, and the rest went to Paris and then to Prague. The 
exhibition was scheduled to continue to Hungary and Poland, but 
Czechoslovakia turned out to be the last stop.




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