If you’re like me, you’ve often looked around and wondered how and why certain pieces of art become popular, massive works of success while others—which often seem arguably better—languish on the sidelines.
Most would blame the poor taste of the masses for this conundrum, but it turns out, the government itself might be to blame. Typical.
A new report by The Intercept details how the CIA propped up American Abstract art in an effort to beat the communists in Russia during the Cold War and it’s both an irritating and fascinating deep dive. Unbeknownst to expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko (some of whom became quite wealthy and legendary artists), their works were secretly being supported by American taxpayers for over 20 years.
Why did the CIA do this? According to The Intercept, “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.”
It’s an interesting timeline considering the US itself was persecuting many artists and entertainment professionals throughout the Cold War with the blacklists of the McCarthyite era that sought to identify those with communist sympathies and block them from working in the country. Again, typical. The government can often be found backing both sides of a given dispute.
The artists were funded under a policy known as the “long leash” which involved indirect payments and sponsorships through shadowy organizations that weren’t, on their face, affiliated with the CIA.
It began in 1947 with a new agency division called the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organizations. The point was to influence intellectuals and artists in the West who seemed to have way too much interest in communism at the time. This division was referred to as a Wurlitzer jukebox, referring to the fact that “when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.”
Next, the International Organizations Division (IOD) was set up. Under this operation the CIA “subsidized 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.”
There were other efforts outside the CIA too. In 1947, the State Department organized and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art.” The point was to push back on Soviet claims that America was a “cultural desert.” According to a former case officer, Donald Jameson, “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, it was brilliant. To this day, those on the Right frequently criticize their own side’s inability to use art and entertainment to influence the culture. Capitalism is the school of thought that allows individuality, exploration, innovation, and it is to be expected that would shine through in our art. Highlighting that, especially in contrast to the rigidness or communist art at the time, was intuitively good marketing and social conditioning.
But let’s be clear, it was the government using taxpayer dollars to condition the way people think, manipulate emotions, and elevate the voices they wanted to be dominant in the culture. If they did it then, don’t you expect they’re doing it now?
The government’s efforts were so well planned that the artists themselves were unaware of the invisible hand shaping their own careers.
Again, according to the initial report, “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.’”
This was the “long-leash” policy referred to by the agency. To further its cause, the CIA set-up the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950, which became a vast apparatus of intellectuals, writers, historians, poets, and artists, most of whom had no idea they were organized and funded by the intelligence agency. At its most prominent, it had offices in 35 countries and more than two dozen magazines.
As The Intercept reports, “It would be the official sponsor of touring exhibitions; its magazines would provide useful platforms for critics favourable to the new American painting; and no one, the artists included, would be any the wiser.”
Artists have always faced a conundrum. To make authentic art they need freedom and the ability to speak unpopular truths in their work. But to make money with their art, and to get it in front of the masses, they need sponsors and benefactors. The Congress for Cultural Freedom became that, but the American taxpayers were actually the benefactors in this scenario.
They sponsored multiple international and domestic exhibitions and contracted notable supporters of the arts such as Nelson Rockefeller to curate shows.
It would be hard to argue these efforts work, nor against the fact that they were likely significant in shaping public opinion during this time period. But it’s also important to remember this is hardly the first time the government dipped its toe in the entertainment industry.
So next time you wonder why some art becomes more popular than others, or even why some art may contain certain messages, remember there are often other forces at work behind the scenes.