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

By Edited Oct 11, 2016 0 0

As chance would have it in March 1948, the month of those foreboding headlines and Truman’s speech, one man “chose to announce that American art was the foremost in the world” (Guilbart), and so play into the plans of the Congress of Cultural Freedom. The man who made this announcement was “a brawling, boozing one-man slugfest” (Saunders), the art critic, former Marxist, and defender of the American avant-garde, Clement Greenberg. Politically active and leftist, “Greenberg had taken the anti-Communist side in the early stages of the Cold War” (Kramer), disillusioned by the emerging horrors of Stalin’s regime and its concurrent cultural policy in “which an experimental modernism was being denigrated as pessimistic, lacking in appeal and there counter-revolutionary” (Brookeman).

The First Tractor
Greenberg loathed the Socialist Realism of Russian art and defended America’s new experimental artists against the home-grown consumerist forces he termed ‘kitsch’. However, despite his status as “his country’s most influential writer on contemporary art in the post war years” (Chilvers), Greenberg was in for a struggle: “The actual historical record of reactions in America to an experimental modernistic avant-garde is one of hostility, until the period after World War Two” (Brookeman).

Yet in 1948, Greenberg unwittingly found himself attuned to the thinking of the CIA, no more so than in May, when he turned his ire towards the enemy: “Remembering his Trotskyist years, Greenberg, under pressure, lashed out violently at Communism and Stalinism on behalf of modern art,” with Greenberg writing “a harsh attack of the Soviet concept of art” (Guilbart). This, added to a 1939 essay in which Greenberg promoted the traditional European alliance between progressive art and wealthy, elitist patronage, a form of private venture capitalism where, centuries later, “the really deep connection between Abstract Expressionism and the Cultural Cold War can be found” (Saunders).

Talking to Frances Stonor Saunders in 1994, former CIA agent Donald Jameson gave an extra explanation: “...this was the kind of art...that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it is. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibits.” Under the CCF's guidance, “...abstract art became synonymous with democracy.” (Saunders).

Robert Motherwell
The Abstract Expressionists were a loosely associated body of artists who included Franz Kline,
William de Kooning and Robert Motherwell (who later accepted a position at the US branch of CCF), and “shared a similarity of outlook, rather than style...a spirit of revolt against tradition, and a desire of the spontaneous freedom of expression.” Their works, often painted upon vast canvases, were “characterized by a desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensual qualities of paint,” (Chilvers). Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of the CCF, the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists were vehemently apolitical, celebrations of the act of painting itself, committed to canvas “in a belief of the absolute individuality of the artist,” and yet still able to “convey significant meaning” (Chilvers). As a result, “an art that saw itself as stubbornly apolitical came to be used as a powerful political instrument” (Guilbart).

The notion that, unlike his Soviet counterpart, an American artist was free to express discontent, even against the very system allowing such demonstrations, also attracted the CCF: “abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to create controversial works of art,” (Guilbart). Unknowingly, the Abstract Expressionists found themselves “an exemplary illustration of the freedoms equated with America” (Gair). These qualities “formed the idea that Abstract Expressionism could become a vehicle for the imperial burden” (Saunders). And the idea became a success: “It was the first major development in American art to achieve international status and influence,” and, significantly, “helped New York to replace Paris as the world capital of contemporary art” (Chilvers).

Yet the movement required a figurehead, someone who embodied the acceptable ideal of the American artist, “a risk-taker, in love with spontaneity and incessant experimentation, continually reinventing himself or herself with each creation – an adventurer in the wilderness where the squares couldn’t follow” (Pells). According to Serge Guilbart, “What the Western world needed was a powerful, vigorous art,” created by someone of “brutality, crudeness, virility – these were crucial elements is such uncertain times, more impressive than Parisian

Into the Painting
charm.” Such a man was forthcoming: “Elevated as the chief representative of this new national discovery was Jackson Pollock” (Saunders).

Everything about Pollock – his method of working, his appearance, his chaotic personal life – fitted the bill. A hard-living, uncompromising and temperamental man, who attacked the canvas “dressed in a t-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots [and] looked more like a typical American construction worker,” Pollock became to admirers “the Marlon Brando of American painting, rebellious, unpredictable, explosive in his passions” (Pells) “As a result of his heroic energies, American painters no longer needed to defer to a superior European avant-garde” (Brookeman). Pollock used the tools of the authentic American worker, “commercial enamels and metallic paint,” and instead of brushes, often used “sticks, trowels or knives” (Chilvers). The result: “a novel all-over style that avoided any points of emphasis and abandoned traditional ideas of composition” (Chilvers).  

Such paintings allowed viewers to project meanings, possibly unintended by the artist, onto the canvas: “The works of the Abstract Expressionists were introspective, apolitical and inaccessible to the uninitiated. What mattered to them was an art endowed with covert, rather than explicit meanings” (Pells). What better metaphor for freedom than a work of art upon which any number of meanings could be projected? 

One outcome of Abstract Expressionism unforeseen by the painters, especially a former Communist such as Pollock, was their dependence “on art dealers and auctioneers who capitalized on America’s post-war affluence” (Pells). Such dealers sold to the wealthy who, just as the CIA hoped, looked on modern art as either an investment or as a public symbol of their lofty status: “After all, what could look better in a home or in an office than a canvas that didn’t call attention to some jarring subject (a penniless migrant laborer or a rural farmer with a pitchfork glaring at the guests) but was filled merely with innocuous colors and diagonal lines?” (Pells) Pictures produced by artists who were “seen to uphold the great American myth of the lone voice, the intrepid individual” (Saunders), were also sufficiently opaque to divert criticism: “even the most ardent McCarthyite would have had trouble identifying it as explicitly anti-American. It was enough for these works to depart from traditional forms to gain the label 'subversive.'

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