How the CIA Turned Abstract Art into Official High Culture

How did Abstract Expressionism come to dominate the mid-20th-century art scene?

Partly because the Central Intelligence Agency paid for it—all part of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Abstract or non-representational art was also being produced in the early years of the USSR, during the early 1920s. Then Joseph Stalin, still the champion mass-murderer of all time, took power in 1924 and controlled the USSR until his death in 1953.

Under Stalin, all art, literature, film-making, etc., had either to serve the state as propaganda or at least express “safe” sentiments. Nothing experimental or critical was allowed—which is why, for example, a satirical novel of the 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, could not be published until the 1960s, after Stalin’s death, when the USSR was under the somewhat more moderate leadership of Nikita Khruschchev.

How better then, in the struggle for world opinion between the USSR and “the West,” to show that in the West artists could be experimental, critical, unrestricted, and free than to showcase the works of Abstract Expressionists?

(See Technoccult for a photo of abstract painter Jackson Pollack at work.)

Never mind if popular taste rejected abstraction in the West as well, the propaganda war was more important.

In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art”, with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting [President Harry] Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.” The tour had to be cancelled.

The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.

The connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency, staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA.

Fake CIA-sponsored foundations funded art shows and traveling exhibitions. Museums, galleries, and events received secret subsidies. All the machinery of Big Money and High Art was set in motion to promote Abstract Expressionism.

Writer Frances Stonor Saunders asks,

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage? The answer is probably yes. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting you are being duped by the CIA.

But look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries. For the Cold Warriors who promoted them, these paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system which they wanted to display everywhere that counted. They succeeded.

Liking this kind of art became a marker of hipness and  cultural sophistication. As a recent New York Times article on “The Sociology of the Hipster” notes,

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

Renaissance painters worked for princes and cardinals. Abstract Expressions, although they may not have realized it, also served the power structure of their time.

An afterthought on jazz: It would not surprise me to learn that American jazz musicians received much the same kind of Cold War subsidies from the CIA. After all, jazz was avant-garde, and the presence of many Negro musicians—to use the favored racial term of the 1950s and ’60s—presented a happy multiracial picture of America, ammunition against Communist attacks on race relations here.

Can the decline in modern jazz music in recent decades be linked to the end of the Cold War?

4 thoughts on “How the CIA Turned Abstract Art into Official High Culture

  1. Pitch313

    I am convinced (or I have convinced myself) that my entanglements with avante garde outlooks and creative strategies–including Neo-Paganism–touch the last shudders of West Coast regional cultures far more than those of the emerging national culture developing primarily on the East Coast. That my avante gard sensibility owes more, in some sense, to Emperor Norton, Chinatown, and the Wobblies than it does to any Manhattan-London art/literary scene patronized under the table by the CIA and others of like ilk.

  2. Chas – That’s a pretty interesting article – thanks for sharing it. But we need to keep in mind that the success of Abstract Expressionism – the fact that it ended up “in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries” – is hardly reducible to its funding sources. Abstraction fit the zeitgeist – it was the same no-holds-barred modernism that became the architectural style of the era (found in every major city in North America), which happened to fit the needs of American empire – ‘modern,’ ‘progressive,’ and untainted by the ghosts of the past that haunted “old Europe.” Once it got established as hip, the managerial classes ate it up. Expressionism was simply a hotter form of it, more exciting and improvisational – but the stuff that’s in the banks has tended to be less expressionist and more abstract, I think.

    Jazz, on the other hand… Well, one could argue that the argument may fit, say, the Modern Jazz Quartet or Dave Brubeck, once they got established as respectable. (I have no idea what grants they may have ever gotten.) But it’s a bit of a stretch to think that Ornette Coleman (who lived hand-to-mouth in New York City for many years), Sun Ra, even Thelonius Monk, and certainly any of the real jazz avant-gardists in NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc, ever got checks from the CIA. Their music *was* considered threatening in the Soviet bloc. (There are lots of stories of persecution for even possessing records by Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, or The Fugs in Czechoslovakia – let alone for crazy saxophonists like Evan Parker. Sax player Vrat Brabenec of the Plastic People, with his broken nose (now fixed) from a showdown with the cops, is a living testament to the power of uncontrolled music.) But compare their earnings to the symphony orchestras, operas, and ballets in every American city and we get a better picture of what kind of art has been subsidized all along…

    Soviet funding also made its way to the West through the Communist parties, etc, which loved Paul Robeson, among other Negro critics of the U.S. I find it hard to imagine CIA masterminds thinking that they’ll win over the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens through images of multiculturalism – that was, after all, the essence of Soviet ideology (Communist peoples of all nations and colors living in harmony and brotherhood). But who knows… The Cold War was in part an image war, and we still haven’t unravelled all its secrets, so you may be on to something.

  3. Rombald

    Soviet art, and propaganda posters, etc., was not taken seriously by the masses. It was not intended to change hearts and minds, but to humiliate people; to make it clear that their opinions and feelings were not taken into consideration, and that values antithetical to theirs would be trumpeted.

    I think that abstract art was the Western equivalent, to show the masses who was in charge. Of course, ordinary people hate the abstract sculptures and murals outside their homes and in their shopping and entertainment areas, but that is precisely the point. Abstract art has no function other than that of humiliation of the masses.

  4. Adrian — I think we are pretty much on the same page. Saunders does not talk about zeitgeist, but he does suggest that Abstract Expressionism would have become important even without covert assistance.

    One would have to be more of a historian of jazz than I am to know if overseas tours by American musicians were paid for by CIA front organizations, subsidized foundations, etc. It would not surprise me if they were. Certainly only certain musicians would have been acceptable–perhaps more a Louis Armstrong than a Coleman — not a comment on their musicianship but on their cultural politics.

    Rombald — Remember, it is not about winning over the Soviet people but the “undecideds” — people in Argentina or France or Ghana or Japan — any country that was not part of NATO, or any country whose elite might be weighing the advantages of the Soviet Union versus those of “the West.”

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