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Portrait Of The CIA As An Artist

By Lila Rajiva

20 January, 2007

According 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 de Kooning.

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 the masses.

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, or conventions.

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, 2002.
“A stroke of Genius,” David Dalto

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