Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Role of Money and Timing in Culture: The CIA and Abstract Expressionism

Heather Cox Richardson

I have heard talk of the exportation of modern American art during the Cold War as a means of proselytizing, but I’d never considered the mechanics of that propaganda. It seemed to me a wing of art theory, and while that’s a subject that always entertains me, it’s something for which I have very little brain space during the school year.
From Life magazine, August 8, 1949.

A recent article by Frances Stonor Saunders in The Independent explains exactly how the CIA promoted American abstract expressionism worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s. Their goal was to highlight the openness and experimentation possible in America’s capitalist system, contrasting it with the rigid conformity of state-censored socialist realism (some of which, to my Philistinic eye, seems worth looking at even if Soviet state officials thought so, too.) At first, the CIA tried to promote work by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko at home. Quickly, though, abstract expressionism ran into the conformism of the 1950s. Even President Truman announced: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”

So CIA operatives set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which salted art magazines praising abstract expressionism and sponsored exhibitions that toured European cities. They worked closely with Nelson Rockefeller, president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which his mother had founded), to showcase “free enterprise painting.” When museums eager to show the new art could not afford the cost of exhibitions, the CIA tapped American millionaires as ostensible sponsors, then provided the necessary money from government coffers. After World War II, abstract expressionism became the symbol of modern America.

This story opens many fascinating avenues for historical exploration. It also touches on a subject dear to my heart and the hearts of intellectual historians everywhere: the relationship between art and money. Today we recognize abstract expressionism as one of the great cultural developments in history. And yet, the CIA stepped in to underwrite it after one congressman called it “trash.” Would Motherwell and Pollock—both of whose works I find mesmerizing—have become Motherwell and Pollock without a propaganda campaign on their behalf? Would they have had to quit experimenting and start painting advertisements instead? What might have taken over the cultural future in that case?

How much is cultural significance dependent on being in the right place at the right time? Everyone knows that Renaissance masters had patrons, but how much have things changed? Patti Smith’s Just Kids suggests that Robert Mapplethorpe’s fame was underwritten by his wealthy mentor and partner. The Timoney Group has mapped forty years of Bruce Springsteen’s tours and made the case that his access to huge audiences in New Jersey and New York determined his meteoric rise. Would Mapplethorpe have become Mapplethorpe if he had not attracted a rich patron? Would Bruce Springsteen have been The Boss if he had grown up in Nebraska?

It seems to me that the question of cultural significance and money remains a crucial one for study.


Randall said...

Great post. It's a fascinating topic.

About 7 years ago the Klassekampen, the left-wing daily in Norway, went after the US Embassy for stocking Norwegian libraries with American books. Guess is smelled too much of the Cold War.

Here's the not-so-good trans of an excerpt from Google Translate:

U.S. Embassy offers one of the largest public library books for $ 17,000. Libraries independence before a fall, said Librarian Association. - Suspicion, says Petter Næss at the embassy.

The U.S. Embassy has offered a public library in Stavanger books for $ 17,000. The aim is to present a potitivt image of the United States, and the books they choose embassy out yourself.

In Kirkenes has already worked with the U.S. Embassy in a year's time. Through the "American Corners" scheme, as it is called, the library in Sør-Varanger been equipped with American fiction, nonfiction and periodicals of various kinds. Bergen and Tromsø public libraries public libraries also have both agreed to such a gift package, key players in the Library Norway have not been familiar with.

- There is no such thing as a free lunch, says Andrea Gaarder. She is deputy chairman of the Board of Ethics for Librarians. The Council has not been discussed the matter, but as a librarian Gaarder is skeptical:

- The embassy will promote American culture, an already over-represented cultural area.
- Suspicion

Petter Næss is employed by the U.S. Embassy, ​​and is responsible for biblioteksamarbeidene. He is self-librarian and has been responsible for a part of the selection of fiction, nonfiction and periodicals, but also receives wish from library he works with.

- The books we intend to give to Stavanger, amounting to $ 17,000 and is a bokgave. It is amazing that there is suspicion, he says, and points out that books that are critical of U.S. policy is selected.

- Why can not libraries buy books themselves, but should receive book packages from you?

Bland Whitley said...

I guess the other motivation for the CIA's support of abstract expressionism was the form's apolitical nature. Cold Warriors couldn't very well promote the American art of, say, Thomas Hart Benton, because it was often teeming with Popular Front images. Abstract Expressionism quite literally removed "the People" from the art. And some of it looked pretty cool (although I still can't abide Rothko).