The CIA, patron of modern art

Frances Saunders reports in the British newspaper The Independent that modern art, particularly abstract expressionism, was funded by the C.I.A. as part of its covert war on communism.

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. . . .

Why 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 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. . . .

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. . . .

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.” . . .

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 [a CIA front] 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.

“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.”

via Modern art was CIA weapon – World – News – The Independent.

I look forward to the reaction of the art world to these revelations.  But the West really did stand for the freedom of expression over against Communism with its collectivist “socialist realist” art that had to depict stereotyped images of the class struggle.   And, as I keep pointing out, it was the artists behind the Iron Curtain, chafing under the Soviet restrictions and looking to the West for alternatives, who played a major role in the fall of communism.  So I would say that this is a good example of government funding for the arts!

HT:  tODD

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Fascinating!

  • Pete

    Fascinating!

  • Booklover

    So, basically, the rise of abstract expressionism was not due to its being true, good, or beautiful, but due to marketing. Pretty much just like pop culture. No wonder.

  • Booklover

    So, basically, the rise of abstract expressionism was not due to its being true, good, or beautiful, but due to marketing. Pretty much just like pop culture. No wonder.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Booklover, back in the day, a lot of classical/great art was also done for marketing. That’s how the bills are paid. The taste was just different (better?).

    Art for art’s sake is a romantic notion.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Booklover, back in the day, a lot of classical/great art was also done for marketing. That’s how the bills are paid. The taste was just different (better?).

    Art for art’s sake is a romantic notion.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I read an artist’s “manifesto” once, in which he claimed the rise of abstract art was mainly due to John D. Rockefeller, in response to the insult he received from Diego Rivera in the Rockefeller Center murals. According to this theory, Rockefeller determined to never buy representational art again, so no one could make a fool of him that way. And all his rich friends followed his lead.

    I don’t suppose the two theories are entirely incompatible.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I read an artist’s “manifesto” once, in which he claimed the rise of abstract art was mainly due to John D. Rockefeller, in response to the insult he received from Diego Rivera in the Rockefeller Center murals. According to this theory, Rockefeller determined to never buy representational art again, so no one could make a fool of him that way. And all his rich friends followed his lead.

    I don’t suppose the two theories are entirely incompatible.

  • Tom Hering

    Booklover, if America’s Abstract Expressionism (an indigenous art form, like jazz, which the CIA also promoted) didn’t express something of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it couldn’t have been used – effectively – as a cultural weapon.

  • Tom Hering

    Booklover, if America’s Abstract Expressionism (an indigenous art form, like jazz, which the CIA also promoted) didn’t express something of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it couldn’t have been used – effectively – as a cultural weapon.

  • kerner

    For decades I have heard the theorythat the arts have been part of a conspiracy to corrupt and bring down western civilization.

    Now I hear that the arts were really part ofd a conspiracy to corrupt and bring down the Communists. Now that I think about it, I have heard that modern music may have served a similar purpose. Wow, wheels within wheels. Art and music…Double agents!

    I( wonder what all thosse artists of the last few decades think when they hear that their art was a pawn in a game of international espionage, and that it contributed to the victory of the right-wing capitalist west over the left-wing east.

  • kerner

    For decades I have heard the theorythat the arts have been part of a conspiracy to corrupt and bring down western civilization.

    Now I hear that the arts were really part ofd a conspiracy to corrupt and bring down the Communists. Now that I think about it, I have heard that modern music may have served a similar purpose. Wow, wheels within wheels. Art and music…Double agents!

    I( wonder what all thosse artists of the last few decades think when they hear that their art was a pawn in a game of international espionage, and that it contributed to the victory of the right-wing capitalist west over the left-wing east.

  • Tom Hering

    Well, Picasso was a post-war communist. But most post-WWII American artists have been unabashed capitalists, even if they weren’t conservatives. (Warhol and Koons, anyone?)

  • Tom Hering

    Well, Picasso was a post-war communist. But most post-WWII American artists have been unabashed capitalists, even if they weren’t conservatives. (Warhol and Koons, anyone?)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kerner, I think the real pawns are tho spinners of art-conspiracies, who are used by politicians to whip-up the ignorant masses, from the left or the right as the case might be, for their own use. :) Them, and the poor idiots who buy art at extravagant prices because they think it makes them look cool.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kerner, I think the real pawns are tho spinners of art-conspiracies, who are used by politicians to whip-up the ignorant masses, from the left or the right as the case might be, for their own use. :) Them, and the poor idiots who buy art at extravagant prices because they think it makes them look cool.

  • Tom Hering

    But Klasie, extravagantly-priced art (regardless of quality) by currently-cool artists does indeed make the rich look cool – and rich – in each other’s eyes. And that’s all that matters.

  • Tom Hering

    But Klasie, extravagantly-priced art (regardless of quality) by currently-cool artists does indeed make the rich look cool – and rich – in each other’s eyes. And that’s all that matters.

  • George

    I feel like this is more of a case of government waste, similar to the stimulus funding of shrimp-treadmill research.

    The reason why we say the art community now would be “stunned” to hear this is because artist these days are, in large part, leftist/socialist/anti-traditionalist types. Now, they are like this, because their abstract artist forefathers were, in large part, leftist/socialist/anti-traditionalist who strongly believed that art needed to transcend the confines of any community standard or human appeal and enter the world of post-modernity, where nothing is right or wrong, good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To get a taste of this, one need only read a quick biography of Norman Rockwell to see how he was essentially persecuted by abstract artists of his day for affirming traditional America instead of actively trying to revalue it.

    You know what, I take it back, this is a case of CIA brilliance: to use communist leftists against communist leftists! The CIA has made a straight column from a crooked timber, truly an interesting thing.

  • George

    I feel like this is more of a case of government waste, similar to the stimulus funding of shrimp-treadmill research.

    The reason why we say the art community now would be “stunned” to hear this is because artist these days are, in large part, leftist/socialist/anti-traditionalist types. Now, they are like this, because their abstract artist forefathers were, in large part, leftist/socialist/anti-traditionalist who strongly believed that art needed to transcend the confines of any community standard or human appeal and enter the world of post-modernity, where nothing is right or wrong, good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To get a taste of this, one need only read a quick biography of Norman Rockwell to see how he was essentially persecuted by abstract artists of his day for affirming traditional America instead of actively trying to revalue it.

    You know what, I take it back, this is a case of CIA brilliance: to use communist leftists against communist leftists! The CIA has made a straight column from a crooked timber, truly an interesting thing.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “But the West really did stand for the freedom of expression over against Communism…”

    Too bad we don’t anymore.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “But the West really did stand for the freedom of expression over against Communism…”

    Too bad we don’t anymore.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Art for art’s sake is a romantic notion.”

    Hey, I like romantic notions.

    Are you a dream buster?
    :D

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Art for art’s sake is a romantic notion.”

    Hey, I like romantic notions.

    Are you a dream buster?
    :D

  • Tom Hering

    Norman Rockwell wasn’t successful? Or widely appreciated in his time? Or to this day? Huh.

  • Tom Hering

    Norman Rockwell wasn’t successful? Or widely appreciated in his time? Or to this day? Huh.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@13: By whom was he appreciated as successful? Certainly not the self-appointed “art community.” Of course, I would also be loathe to include him in the category of “great artist,” but the fact that my grandparents had a Norman Rockwell calendar on the kitchen wall speaks to a different kind of success than that of Jackson Pollock’s monstrosities.

    Also, am I the only one who is skeptical of this story? I mean, it’s fascinating and all, and who doesn’t love a great Cold War drama of intrigue? But I need numbers. Even if the CIA threw some money at a few artists, that hardly means abstract expressionism itself can cite only a government conspiracy as its raison d’etre.

    The real conspiracy is that major (government-subsidized) art museums haven’t been willing to display representational art (I am tempted to say “good art”) in decades. And I just don’t think that’s the CIA’s fault.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@13: By whom was he appreciated as successful? Certainly not the self-appointed “art community.” Of course, I would also be loathe to include him in the category of “great artist,” but the fact that my grandparents had a Norman Rockwell calendar on the kitchen wall speaks to a different kind of success than that of Jackson Pollock’s monstrosities.

    Also, am I the only one who is skeptical of this story? I mean, it’s fascinating and all, and who doesn’t love a great Cold War drama of intrigue? But I need numbers. Even if the CIA threw some money at a few artists, that hardly means abstract expressionism itself can cite only a government conspiracy as its raison d’etre.

    The real conspiracy is that major (government-subsidized) art museums haven’t been willing to display representational art (I am tempted to say “good art”) in decades. And I just don’t think that’s the CIA’s fault.

  • Tom Hering

    Well, government-subsidized museums of modern art display, you know, modern art. While other government-subsidized art museums display, you know, other kinds of art. While yet other government-subsidized art museums display both. All the time. That’s quite the scandal of academic/government culture-change collusion!

    Pollock? I’ve seen more than enough classical and representational monstrosities to balance the presence of his paintings in the world. :-D Yes, Rockwell’s success was different from Pollock’s. Yet a very successful success, nonetheless. He didn’t die a penniless unknown.

    The CIA? You’re skeptical of their past ambitions? Here’s a little background from Wikipedia, for what it’s worth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_CIA_and_the_Cultural_Cold_War

  • Tom Hering

    Well, government-subsidized museums of modern art display, you know, modern art. While other government-subsidized art museums display, you know, other kinds of art. While yet other government-subsidized art museums display both. All the time. That’s quite the scandal of academic/government culture-change collusion!

    Pollock? I’ve seen more than enough classical and representational monstrosities to balance the presence of his paintings in the world. :-D Yes, Rockwell’s success was different from Pollock’s. Yet a very successful success, nonetheless. He didn’t die a penniless unknown.

    The CIA? You’re skeptical of their past ambitions? Here’s a little background from Wikipedia, for what it’s worth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_CIA_and_the_Cultural_Cold_War

  • DonS

    Hilarious! When I started to read the article, I thought it was going in the direction of the CIA donating this art to Communist countries to destroy their people’s appreciation of classical art, and thus bring down their civilization ;-)

  • DonS

    Hilarious! When I started to read the article, I thought it was going in the direction of the CIA donating this art to Communist countries to destroy their people’s appreciation of classical art, and thus bring down their civilization ;-)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think several commenters here are missing the point. The CIA didn’t create Abstract Expressionism. It came into existence of its own accord, and the CIA promoted it as being culturally superior to Soviet Realism.

    What’s fascinating to me is that people who have traditionally been, I don’t know, Cold War Hawks — you know, the real Commie-haters — have also typically been those who vigorously detested anything modern in the world of art. So I find it fascinating that those actually fighting the Cold War had such a different take on the value of such art.

    Also, how is Jasper Johns not mentioned? Okay, fine, he wasn’t an Abstract Expressionist, but come on. Flag? Three Flags? It all makes sense now. He was simply tipping his hat (in a very obvious way) to his patrons!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think several commenters here are missing the point. The CIA didn’t create Abstract Expressionism. It came into existence of its own accord, and the CIA promoted it as being culturally superior to Soviet Realism.

    What’s fascinating to me is that people who have traditionally been, I don’t know, Cold War Hawks — you know, the real Commie-haters — have also typically been those who vigorously detested anything modern in the world of art. So I find it fascinating that those actually fighting the Cold War had such a different take on the value of such art.

    Also, how is Jasper Johns not mentioned? Okay, fine, he wasn’t an Abstract Expressionist, but come on. Flag? Three Flags? It all makes sense now. He was simply tipping his hat (in a very obvious way) to his patrons!

  • SKPeterson

    Yeah, well. Some of it I like. A lot of it is just a bunch of Motherwell-ing Rothko’s. Myself, I enjoy their earlier counterparts in the DeStijl movement which does have a certain pro-capitalist undertone, even though the movement was sort of Socialist. Think here of Broadway Boogie-Woogie by one of my all-times favorites, Piet Mondrian.

  • SKPeterson

    Yeah, well. Some of it I like. A lot of it is just a bunch of Motherwell-ing Rothko’s. Myself, I enjoy their earlier counterparts in the DeStijl movement which does have a certain pro-capitalist undertone, even though the movement was sort of Socialist. Think here of Broadway Boogie-Woogie by one of my all-times favorites, Piet Mondrian.

  • John C

    The CIA may not know a lot about art but it knows what it likes.

  • John C

    The CIA may not know a lot about art but it knows what it likes.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Hey, my son did a “Jackson Pollock” for his baby brother’s room on a huge canvas. It hangs over li’l bro’s bed to this day. Some modern art is just nasty, but some of it is cool, whimsical and fun. I get a laugh off of folks who pay good money for the ugly stuff though.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Hey, my son did a “Jackson Pollock” for his baby brother’s room on a huge canvas. It hangs over li’l bro’s bed to this day. Some modern art is just nasty, but some of it is cool, whimsical and fun. I get a laugh off of folks who pay good money for the ugly stuff though.

  • Tom Hering

    Oh no. You’re not saying, “my kid could do that,” are you, sg?

  • Tom Hering

    Oh no. You’re not saying, “my kid could do that,” are you, sg?

  • helen

    A junk dealer could do the MOMA “loan” on our library plaza. [I'll bet we're paying for the privilege! They should pay us!] Fortunately, two others, in the lobby are something I can live with, (not that I have a choice).

  • helen

    A junk dealer could do the MOMA “loan” on our library plaza. [I'll bet we're paying for the privilege! They should pay us!] Fortunately, two others, in the lobby are something I can live with, (not that I have a choice).

  • Tom Hering

    helen, I’m curious. Got a link? The name of the city and the library plaza would do, if there’s a photo online somewhere.

  • Tom Hering

    helen, I’m curious. Got a link? The name of the city and the library plaza would do, if there’s a photo online somewhere.

  • Steve Demlow

    #17 – “So I find it fascinating that those actually fighting the Cold War had such a different take on the value of such art.”

    Along those lines I was struck by what today seem like implausible links between the CIA and the artistic community – “president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA”? After WWII the veterans of government service, military and otherwise, fanned out into all aspects of American life and leadership. Of course that still occurs today but the percentage of politicians and business leaders with that kind of background in government service has plummeted. (For those of you who like numbers, see History on the Hill section here). I think we as a nation are poorer for this and that is likely reflected in our surprise about this historic link.

  • Steve Demlow

    #17 – “So I find it fascinating that those actually fighting the Cold War had such a different take on the value of such art.”

    Along those lines I was struck by what today seem like implausible links between the CIA and the artistic community – “president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA”? After WWII the veterans of government service, military and otherwise, fanned out into all aspects of American life and leadership. Of course that still occurs today but the percentage of politicians and business leaders with that kind of background in government service has plummeted. (For those of you who like numbers, see History on the Hill section here). I think we as a nation are poorer for this and that is likely reflected in our surprise about this historic link.


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