The use of American art in the Cold War

This book reveals how the CIA’s promoted US artists as a way of stopping the spread of Communism in the years after World War II

The author has given us a revealing, tangential history of the Cold War, via her account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) attempts to promote the culture of post-war US, in music, literary journalism and the visual arts. This an antidote to the art and artists sympathetic to the ideals of Communism and the Soviet Union. In order to achieve this covertly the Congress of Cultural Freedom was established, funded allegedly by a number of corporate trusts, such as the Ford Foundation, a reminder of how capitalism has become institutionalised in twentieth-century America.

Some early attempts were disastrous failures, such as an exhibition called “Advancing American art”, a selection of seventy-nine “progressive” works, including those of Georgia O’Keeffe, Adolph Gottlieb and Arshile Gorky, which was intended to travel to Europe and Latin American. The show reached Paris, them moved to Prague, where the Russians immediately sent a rival exhibition. Because of the poor reception, the show was cancelled and the paintings were sold off at 95% discount as surplus government property.

The US government’s attitude to the visual arts had, initially, been one of indifference, and most museums and art collections of art were, as they still are, privately owned and privately funded, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its post-war president was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded it in 1929. At first, Mrs Rockefeller had promoted the work of left-wing artists, most memorably in the case of Diego Rivera, whose one-man show was the museum’s second (she had said that Reds would stop being Reds “if we could get them artistic recognition”). Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center, and, while inspecting the work, Nelson came across the unmistakable features of Lenin. When Rivera was asked to remove it and refused, he was handed a cheque for $21,000 and told his commission was cancelled. The mural was destroyed.

So the official attitude to modern artists had a curious history. Many had worked for the Federal Arts Project under Roosevelt’s New Deal and were involved in left-wing politics and had been Communist activists, including Jackson Pollock. Directly after the war, they were condemned in Congress: “All modern art is Communistic”—and this included Abstract Expressionists. It was the CIA-sponsored art critic Clement Greenberg who reversed this entirely, in a seminal article in The Partisan Review in 1948: “When one much the level of American art has risen in the last five years, with the emergence of new talents so full of energy and content as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, David Smith...the conclusion forces itself, much to our own surprise, that the main premises of Western Art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial production and political power...”

What the CIA achieved, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was the establishment of New York as the market-place for modern art. The higher the price paid for a picture, the greater its value as a work of art. This had a corrupting effect on attitudes to works of art, and also on aspirational artists. The way to success was to imitate the works of the New York artists. Since the price paid for their work was indirectly funded by the CIA, they were achieving what they condemned in Soviet Russia, that the State dominated and promoted the art of the day.

The chapter on the visual arts, “Yanqui doodles” is one of twenty-six in all, covering all aspects of the Congress’s activities world-wide. It takes up from the time that President Harry Truman used to rise early and make for the National Gallery before the city had risen. After gazing at assorted Holbeins and Rembrandts, he observed: “It’s a pleasure to look at perfection and then think of the lazy, nutty moderns. It is like comparing Christ with Lenin...Our present day daubers and frustrated ham-and-egg men look just what they are.” This provoked the aforementioned statement from Congress. Next, Clement Greenberg’s seminal pronouncement. It was then that the CIA turned to the private sector to advance its objective, pre-eminently MoMA.

In an article in Artforum (1974), “Abstract Expressionism: weapon of the Cold War”, Eva Cockroft wrote: “Links between cultural Cold War politics and the success of Abstract Expressionism are by no means coincidental...They were consciously forged at the time by some of the most influential figures controlling museum policies and advocating enlightened Cold War tactics designed to woo European intellectuals.”

Loans to Europe from MoMA’s collection best illustrate the fortunes of the New York School. Under auspices of the International Program, established in 1952 through a five-year annual grant of $125,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the museum launched a massive export programme of Abstract Expressionism, referred to as “benevolent propaganda for foreign intellectuals.” The chapter concludes with the casualty list of artist whose works “howled their opposition to bourgeois materialism”. Jackson Pollock was killed in a car crash in 1956, by which time Arshile Gorky had hanged himself. Franz Kline drank himself to death within five years; the sculptor David Smith died following a car crash, and, in 1970, Mark Rothko slashed his veins and bled to death on his studio floor.

Could those words of Oscar Wilde still have some resonance today: “American has passed from barbarity to decadence without any intervening period of civilisation”?

Author of A night with Fiona Pitt-Keithley

Frances Stonor Saunders, Who paid the piper? The CIA and the cultural Cold War (Granta Books, London, 1999), 544 pp, 8 b/w ills, £30 (hb) ISBN 1862070296

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Uncle Sam sees Red'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 98 December 1999