Of The CIA As An Artist
By Lila Rajiva
20 January, 2007
to Frances Saunders, in her well-documented book, “The CIA and
the Cultural Cold War,” the CIA financed and groomed the avant-garde
art movement from which abstract expressionism, performance art and
the other freak shows of the art world emerged. In the 1950s, at the
height of the Cold War, the Agency wanted to move the center of art
away from the social realism of European artists, which threatened the
status quo with its powerful, realistic depictions of the human condition.
So, it brought to national attention a group of bohemian artists who
were busy struggling on the sidelines painting abstract scenes devoid
of any identifiable representation of human figures. The groups included
the likes of Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and William
In 1947 when Pollock dipped
a stick into a gallon of diluted house paint and swirled and dripped
color across his canvas, he had set off a new style in art. The man
was famous for splattering paint on his canvasses any which way to create
his paintings. Sometimes he even got young models with paint rubbed
over their naked bodies to roll across the canvasses. So dissolute was
Pollock that he was called the wild man of expressionism. After he became
famous, rich people would invite him to their parties hoping he would
live up to his reputation and pee in the fireplace. All the new artists
were rebellious, disaffected, self-destructive. Pollock himself was
killed in a drunken car crash in 1956….that looked suicidal. Another
suspicious car accident finished off sculptor David Smith. And in the
decade following, Kline drank himself to death, Smith died in a car
accident, and Mark Rothko slashed his arms and bled to death after announcing,
“"Everyone can see what a fraud I am."
That should have been enough of a hint that there was something dead-end
in the whole business. But the CIA took a larger and more pragmatic
view. It thought that the would-be geniuses might be useful props in
an impending face-off with Joe Stalin. Of course, many of the artists
themselves were socialist in sympathy or at least, they made gestures
in that direction. Rothko, for instance, agreed to a commission from
New York’s swankiest of the swank, the Four Seasons restaurant,
solely in order to torment the patrons with claustrophobic scenes. He
had modeled them on Michelangelo’s blocked off windows in the
vestibule of the Laurentian Library in Florence. Michelangelo’s
anteroom of death, leads off the cloister of the Medici church of San
Lorenzo, and is a nightmare in architecture. Rothko was hell bent on
reproducing its suffocating effect in the New York watering hole.
“I hope to ruin the
appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room," he
gloated, He wanted his paintings to make “those rich bastards”
"feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows
are bricked up."
The CIA bankrolled a whole
bevy of professional pointy heads and public pontificators like Irving
Kristol, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight
MacDonald, Hannah Arendt, and Mary McCarthy. It was especially fond
of ex-leftists like Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler,
Raymond Aron, and George Orwell who had ratted out establishment Stalinists.
Money poured into cultural journals like the famous Partisan Review
and Kenyon Review, among others. The Congress of Cultural Freedom was
another Agency outfit, set up as an umbrella organization to bring together
all possible opponents to Stalinist totalitarianism. All claimed, of
course, that they were motivated only by their own convictions and threw
up their hands in astonishment when they were later informed that CIA
hand-outs were behind all those plushy conventions at Lake Como and
Paris. But their surprise seems a tad rehearsed.
How could they not have known
whom they were working for? And why else would sophisticated intellectuals
with a keen eye for the atrocities of the Soviet Empire manage to wink…
or shut both eyes… to what the America was up to in Guatemala,
Greece, Iran, and Korea? Or to the U.S. support for the killings in
Indochina and Algeria? How did they not know who was paying their salaries
and funding their otherwise defunct rags?
But the CIA was also involved
in co-opting the intellectuals in another subtler way. It was busy sending
boatfuls of American artists to European shores in the hope that the
bitter pill of imperialism would go down the throats of critics there
better when it was sugar coated with song and dance. It especially liked
to parade black artists like Marion Anderson and Louis Armstrong to
undercut criticism about domestic racial policies. Of course, if the
new minstrels forgot to sing according to script and started ad-libbing,
like Richard Wright, they were quickly shoved back into the closet.
And then there was MOMA,
or the Museum of Modern Art, into which the CIA emptied its coffers,
in the hope of unearthing new styles of art that would dilute any tendency
to political enthusiasm among artists. Abstract art was the Agency’s
favorite. The CIA regarded it as an "anti-Communist ideology, the
ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically
silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism." MOMA’s
founder, Nelson Rockefeller, even called it "free enterprise painting."
Money poured through MOMA and another CIA outfit, the Fairfield Foundation,
allowing Abstract Expressionism to rapidly take Europe’s chicest
galleries by storm and change modern aesthetics irretrievably.
The apolitical art of the
abstract artists was brandished as true art, because it was not tainted
with political concerns. If this meant simply that we would in the future
be spared the stutterings of Jeaneane Garofolo and Michael Douglas on
Middle East politics or global warming, then we would be squarely in
the CIA’s camp.
But of course, the CIA had
no objection to artists posturing about politics at all so long as it
was the right politics – which meant politics that suited the
aims of American politicians in the post war period. And for America
in those days what was most important was that the value of “freedom”
be upheld against the tyranny of Stalinism.
An art that recognized no
bounds, restrictions, rules, representations, or models was as suited
as anything could be to used as propaganda for freedom. And so we had
a bunch of marginalized, substance-addicted minor talents suddenly being
touted as Renaissance geniuses. Noted critics compared Rothko to Michelangelo.
One professor of art likened his paintings to Annunciations'. Another
claimed he had seen a student rolling on the floor with joy in front
of a Rothko painting at the Tate. Yet another critic called Pollock’s
drip paintings the Big Bang of modern art and the “Promethean
act” by which the painter “stole the sacred fire from Europe”.
Michelangelo and Rembrandt had both been “made irrelevant”
by drip painting. The hyperbole was typical of a public spectacle. Only
repeat a big enough lie often enough, said Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi
Minister of Propaganda, and it will quickly become received wisdom with
It soon became part of the
gospel of modernity that art was something completely unrelated to society
or politics, free of all recognizable human needs, limitations, restrictions,
But the emperor’s clothes
were not always opaque to everyone. Inevitably, even one besotted critic
had to admit that he could spot the raw boody underneath. There were,
it turns out, earthier foundations to the public spectacle of modern
art than the Renaissance masters. Writing about Pollock’s predilection
for squirting paint at random, David Dalton dredges up a memory of the
painter recalled by an observant neighbor:
He saw himself standing beside
his father on a flat rock, watching his father pissing, making patterns
on the surface of the stone . . . and he wanted to do the same thing
when he grew up.
“Grand Design: How 9-11 United Conservatives in Pursuit of Empire,”
Corey Robin, The Washington Post, May 2, 2004, p. B01.
“Francis Fukuyama says Tuesday’s Attack marks the end of
‘America’s Exceptionalism’,” Francis Fukuyama,
Financial Times, September 15, 2001, p. 1.
The Cultural Cold War: The
CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders, New
York: New Press, April 2000.
Mark Rothko: A Biography, James E. B. Breslin ,Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, April 1998.
“Feeding Fury,” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, December 7,
“A stroke of Genius,” David Dalto
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