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The Congress of Cultural Freedom: The CIA's Role in Postwar American Art (Part Five)

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de Kooning

The question is, how much does Abstract Expressionism owe its success to the machinations of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the Central Intelligence Agency? “It is evident that the CIA felt it had a part to play in encouraging consent for the new art. From the records of the Farfield Foundation [a front used by the CIA as a cover to divert money to artistic projects] it can also be shown it expressed its support with dollars.” Saunders adds there remains “...incontrovertible evidence that the CIA was active in the machinery that promoted Abstract Expressionism.” Gair believes the CCF's formation and the rise of Abstract Expressionism is not coincidence: “Although, aesthetically, there is no doubt that Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning and others were revolutionary, the speed of their work's incorporation and deployment by private and state organisations (most notably the Rockefeller Foundation and, covertly, the CIA) eager to champion American freedom in the Cold War is suggestive of ideological overlaps with dominant political nationalism.”

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the United States Information Agency, along with the US State Department, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art (of New York) collaborated in mounting exhibitions of the Abstract Expressionists around the globe, often in galleries more used to staging the work of European artists.  For example, the exhibition staged in the Louvre in January 1960 “had been brought to Paris from Vienna, where the Congress had exhibited them as part of a wider, CIA-orchestrated campaign to undermine the 1959 Communist youth festival,” (Saunders).

By the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism was such an established part of the artistic firmament it allowed for an amalgam with the Luminists to create a longstanding tradition equal to that of Europe. The opening line of American Tradition in Painting (1963) tells us: “Through the dazzling canvases of our abstract expressionists, shown and imitated from Tokyo to Paris, America has at last made a decisive contribution to painting.” The author, John W McCoubrey, draws a convincing line between Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline to the Luminists, “a native visual tradition that it both continues and illuminates.”

During the mid-1960s however, whispers circulated as to the funding's providence for overseas artistic projects. “After 1963, when rumors of CIA support for the CCF began to spread, the Congress gradually became discredited, especially following the escalation of US bombing in North Vietnam in the spring of 1965” (Kammen). Ramparts magazine finally broke the story in early 1967 (despite an attempted smear campaign by the CIA), as the Vietnam War saw anti-Americanism flourish anew within the Western world. America’s use of culture to fight the Cold War had fallen victim to America’s own foreign policy. At an emergency CCF conference later that year, Michael Josselson was forced to resign his position and the CCF stumbled on for another decade, before dissolving in 1979.

In time, critical works such as The American Renaissance Reconsidered (1985) by Walter Benn Michaels & ‎Donald E. Pease, reappraised Matthiesson’s critical legacy, while later research demonstrated the supposed advances made by the Luminists were the result of superior materials made available to American painters in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1989 art historian John Wilderming noted that in or around 1856, colours such as magenta, cobalt violet and cobalt yellow appeared in artists’ palettes, “new synthetic products...new, brilliant and irresistibly tempting to the artist’s eye.” Rather than artistic or even spiritual means, the Luminist’s advance came from technology.   

So, how have critics viewed the CIA’s involvement in cultural movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, since the 1967 revelations? To a self-described neo-conservative such as Hilton Kramer, the outcry over the CIA’s covert backing of the CCF, though undeniably factual, is left-wing exaggeration, denying the “moral superiority of American democracy over Soviet tyranny.” To talk up the government’s involvement is to downplay genuine artistic achievement; anything else is “ideological dirty work” best left to “Serge Guilbart and the cadres of radical art historians in portraying...the New York art school as nothing but a tainted product of America’s role in the Cold War.” Instead, Kramer believes “Paris did suffer a decline so irreversible that it has not recovered to this day,” as a result of not of a “secret conspiracy” but as a natural result of the trauma of the war and the relocation of political and economic power from Europe to America.

For his part, Serge Guilbart admits the weight of artistic tradition in Paris stifled any chance for

Action Painting
a French avant-garde to develop, allowing American artists, “unified under the banner of Abstract Expressionism” to take a leading role, but deplores the way American “art and intellectuals...became the storm troopers in what President Dwight D Eisenhower liked to call ‘psychological warfare’” with the transfer from Paris to New York as among the various hypocrisies the cultural cold war produced from a supposed peaceful democracy.

CIA agent Tom Braden defended the need for secrecy; if the CIA were open about their activities, and asked for congressional approval to, for example, send an Abstract Expressionist exhibition abroad, the move would’ve been turned down, due to conservative suspicion of modern art: “in order to promote openness, we had to be secret” (Saunders). Jessica Gienow-Hecht takes a more neutral stance, claiming US culture's promotion in European nations were merely natural extensions of long-standing ties: “...in the case of all Europe, cultural relations and exchanges had been in place before, both on the level of high and popular culture. The Cold War highlighted, formalized and politicized these ties. It triggered programs to finance individual interactions that would not have otherwise been taking place.”

Perhaps the most “curious, yet symptomatic” (Kammen) conclusion reached by anyone directly involved with the American government came from George F Kennan, political scientist and leading force behind President Truman’s ‘containment’ theory regarding the Soviet threat, of which the CCF comprised one part: “The flap about CIA money was quite unwarranted. This country has no ministry of culture, and the CIA was obliged to do what it could and fill the gap. It should be praised, not criticized.”

The ’flap’ continues. November 2011 saw the American humor-based website Cracked.com carry a list of true-life stories entitled ‘Five Terrible Ideas that Solved Huge Global Problems,’ placing ‘The CIA Fights Communism with Modern Art’ at second. Discussing the CCF’s backing of Abstract Expressionism, writer Eddie Rodriguez concluded: “despite this apparently ridiculous line of thinking, the CIA's plan worked like a dream. Modern abstract art made big leaps forward while the communists' socialist realism style was pushed back.”
We may never truly know to what degree the CCF’s mission prevented the spread of Communism in Europe. Perhaps, despite the deceitful use of artists and intellectuals as unwitting Cold War warriors, the ends justified the means – for it has left us, in the case of the Abstract Expressionists, with fascinating works of art which will provoke thought and comment on the nature of freedom for many years to come.   

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