“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
MODERN ART AS CIA WEAPON
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 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.
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 travelers" in the West. At its height, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines, including Encounter.
The most vivid icons of Cold War militarism—the ever-looming destruction that could be unleashed—are usually a mushroom cloud or gleaming ICBM. But we should count Jackson Pollock, too. The CIA spent millions weaponizing modern art against Russia.
There's little more divisive than modern art—most take a staunch "brilliance" or "bullshit" stance. So it should come as a surprise that the straight-laced feds at the CIA leaned toward the former camp—or at least saw it as brilliantly exploitable in the psychological war against the Soviets. Reports from former agents acknowledge what was always a tall tale in the art world—that CIA spooks floated pioneering artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell, to drop an aesthetic nuke on Communism. What seemed like natural popularity of certain artists was, in part, actually a deliberate attempt at psychological warfare, backed by the US government.
But why modern art? At the time period in question—the 1950s and 60s—the artistic style of the moment was Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx, if you want to impress people at your next snooty cocktail party) stood for, above all else, self expression. Radically so. Take a look at a Pollock, for instance.
Pollock stood over his canvas, stomping, whipping his brush, almost dancing across his paintings. It was wild, and raw, and—from an artistic perspective—quite powerful stuff. The reason it disgusted so many Americans then (and now) was that it was the exact antithesis of the older stuff. Norman Rockwell stuff. It didn't just break the rules of painting, it was entirely ruleless—ditto the work of Pollock's peers . Abstract Expressionism was meant to be the unmitigated will of a human being, blasted onto a canvas in the form of paint. And, thought the CIA, it was American as hell. Who's to say what Pollock would have thought of the arrangement had it been disclosed to him, but I'll still prefer to look at his
work as a piece of beauty, not a bomb.