The CIA and Modern Art

Jackson Pollock

Jack­son Pol­lock

Revealed: how the spy agency used unwit­ting artists such as Pol­lock and de Koon­ing in a cul­tur­al Cold War

Sun­day 22 Octo­ber 1995

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.

willem_de_kooningWhy 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.

Robert Motherwell

Robert Moth­er­well

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.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

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.

* The full sto­ry of the CIA and mod­ern art is told in ‘Hid­den Hands’ on Chan­nel 4 next Sun­day at 8pm. The first pro­gramme in the series is screened tonight. Frances Stonor Saun­ders is writ­ing a book on the cul­tur­al Cold War.

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.

Relat­ed Sto­ries:

Art and the CIA By Richard Cum­mings

America’s Secret Weapon

Intel­li­gence in Recent Pub­lic Lit­er­a­ture (Review of The Cul­tur­al Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Let­ters)


Author: Rhonda 2.0

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