“Modern art was CIA ‘weapon'”

by BlackCatte


The article below was first published in the Independent, in 1995. It makes the surprising and rather curious claim that US intelligence agencies manipulated the creation and dissemination of Modern Art as “weapons” in the “propaganda war with the Soviet Union.” I’m not sure such an article would appear in the Independent – or any other mainstream outlet – today, but I think most of us would agree the discussion of the CIA’s ‘Propaganda Assets Inventory’, which “at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations” can still be viewed as relevant. It would probably be insanely naive to imagine such initiatives are a thing of the past

The narrative is spun – inevitably – as being about the west “promoting freedom”, but of course you don’t “promote freedom” by covert manipulation, do you? Freedom is promoted by letting people alone to make they own informed choices. If Russian art was “strapped into an ideological straightjacket” at this time, then it’s apparent the CIA wanted the same to be true of western art. “Freedom”, then as now, was just a fig leaf for the concealment of would-be social control. But, still, you have to love the shameless Newspeak of this wonderful one-liner from ex-CIA man Tom Braden:

“In order to encourage openness we had to be secret.”

Of course you did, Tom. Of course you did.

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour 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.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

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.

The existence of this policy, rumoured and disputed for many years, has now been confirmed for the first time by former CIA officials. Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the “long leash” – arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America’s anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Initially, more open attempts were made to support the new American art. In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art”, with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.” The tour had to be cancelled.

The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.

The connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency, staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA.

Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.

Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!” he joked. “But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expression- ism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.

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 criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”

To pursue its underground interest in America’s lefty avant-garde, the CIA had to be sure its patronage could not be discovered. “Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes,” Mr Jameson explained, “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. And it couldn’t have been any closer, because most of them were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.”

This was the “long leash”. The centrepiece of the CIA campaign became the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a vast jamboree of intellectuals, writers, historians, poets, and artists which was set up with CIA funds in 1950 and run by a CIA agent. It was the beach-head from which culture could be defended against the attacks of Moscow and its “fellow travellers” in the West. At its height, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines, including Encounter.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom also gave the CIA the ideal front to promote its covert interest in Abstract Expressionism. It would be the official sponsor of touring exhibitions; its magazines would provide useful platforms for critics favourable to the new American painting; and no one, the artists included, would be any the wiser.

This organisation put together several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s. One of the most significant, “The New American Painting”, visited every big European city in 1958-59. Other influential shows included “Modern Art in the United States” (1955) and “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” (1952).

Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members’ board of the museum’s International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.

Now in his eighties, Mr Braden lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, in a house packed with Abstract Expressionist works and guarded by enormous Alsatians. He explained the purpose of the IOD.

We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.”

He confirmed that his division had acted secretly because of the public hostility to the avant-garde:

It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do – send art abroad, send symphonies abroad, publish magazines abroad. That’s one of the reasons it had to be done covertly. It had to be a secret. In order to encourage openness we had to be secret.”

If this meant playing pope to this century’s Michelangelos, well, all the better: “It takes a pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognise art and to support it,” Mr Braden said. “And after many centuries people say, ‘Oh look! the Sistine Chapel, the most beautiful creation on Earth!’ It’s a problem that civilisation has faced ever since the first artist and the first millionaire or pope who supported him. And yet if it hadn’t been for the multi-millionaires or the popes, we wouldn’t have had the art.”

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage? The answer is probably yes. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting you are being duped by the CIA.

But look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries. For the Cold Warriors who promoted them, these paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system which they wanted to display everywhere that counted. They succeeded.

Covert Operation

In 1958 the touring exhibition “The New American Painting”, including works by Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others, was on show in Paris. The Tate Gallery was keen to have it next, but could not afford to bring it over. Late in the day, an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann, stepped in with the cash and the show was brought to London.

The money that Fleischmann provided, however, was not his but the CIA’s. It came through a body called the Farfield Foundation, of which Fleischmann was president, but far from being a millionaire’s charitable arm, the foundation was a secret conduit for CIA funds.

So, unknown to the Tate, the public or the artists, the exhibition was transferred to London at American taxpayers’ expense to serve subtle Cold War propaganda purposes. A former CIA man, Tom Braden, described how such conduits as the Farfield Foundation were set up. “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 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.”

Julius Fleischmann was well placed for such a role. He sat on the board of the International Programme of the Museum of Modern Art in New York – as did several powerful figures close to the CIA.

see original article in the Independent


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David Nicholls
David Nicholls
Aug 12, 2017 7:46 AM

I also think Modern Art helps to keep the rabble happy and content in Capitalist societies because absolutely anyone, especially the narcissistic disagreeable and untalented left can become or fantasize bout becoming rich and famous by becoming a Modern “artist” so likely to ignore activism, I don’t know if the CIA were smart enough to think of that, but maybe they were

Greatest Show on the Road | David Visentin's Web Log, Links & Commentary Towards Real Democracy
Dec 31, 2015 7:43 AM

[…] While BlackCatte does some great reporting, I’m surprised she would fall for such blatant propaganda from “The Independent” (which is anything but): http://off-guardian.org/2015/07/01/modern-art-was-cia-weapon/ […]

Crow Jane
Crow Jane
Dec 8, 2015 9:39 AM

The CIA funding of the Abstract Expressionists was common knowledge within FIne Art Discourse. I was made aware of it at University (which was a long time back). Modern Art and Art Education facilities were always a hotbed for political activism and expression from Picasso’s Guernica to Joseph Beuys’ installations. So it’s interesting they experimented in funding what was essentially seemingly `non-political content’ art. Apart from Banksy and a few notables, politics within UK art is still highly frowned upon, particularly in Higher Education establishments. The same with the music business of which I have an inside knowledge. You’d be amazed the amount of bands/artists signed up and then effectively silenced under contract for being overtly political. You don’t have to say or do much to be deemed a threat. I always suspected Saatchi and his PR-machine pushed Brit artists, similarly to Britpop, to be officially sanctioned at some level… Read more »

Dec 8, 2015 10:32 AM
Reply to  Crow Jane

I’m in agreement with you about the British art movement of the 90s, so much of it was dumbed down, self indulgent, identity based whimsy, there was no political edge at all, it was all about establishing the cult of the artist, which was also financially astute work from Saatchi and the other ‘benefactors’ who were speculating in the accumulation of artworks, later sold for millions yet substantially worthless. This seemed to me to be a part of the assault on British cultural institutions as a form of de-radicalisation, which in promoting this kind of self focused art, coupled with the removal of grants and the eventual introduction of tuition fees, neutered the once radical art schools. In the art school this mediation by the apparitions of economy seeped into the mental studio space, painting the walls with invisible signs displaying threatening messages disguised as professional careers advice, selling the… Read more »

Crow Jane
Crow Jane
Dec 8, 2015 1:22 PM
Reply to  m4skingtape

Hi M4skingTape, Thanks for your astute observations and the food for thought. I’ve previously questioned whether radical art was effectively being neutered via the removal of the grant system, but you’ve reasoned it out far better than I’d managed. It completely tallies with experiences as a mature student compared with much younger art college days. My earlier experience was of supportive lecturers who helped you to push your boundaries, gave you the technical skills and knowledge to put creative urge into action and delighted in educating you about counter-culture in all forms. As a mature student I found a Business Art Gestapo who poured scorn on anything that resembled figurative work, defied minimalism or was in any way political or otherwise issue-based. The younger, mostly upper middle-class, kids were sweet, but there was so much ego-wank and self-reflective narrative, ala Emin and Hirst, that I often despaired, while lecturers gushed.… Read more »

Daniel Rich
Daniel Rich
Jul 2, 2015 10:31 AM

I overheard one artists once say that modern art was also an attack on Christianity, but being a bit of an anti-christ myself, I don’t know if that’s true or not.