Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Round of Poetry-Slam Snaps for the CIA!

Enjoy this article in The Independent (UK) about recent evidence of the CIA's heavy involvement in promoting American Abstract Expressionist art in the 1940s and 50s. What surprised me even more than the cultural promotion itself was that at one time the CIA was so full of art enthusiasts.

The writer, Frances Stonor Saunders, describes the newly-formed post-WWII CIA as "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."

Saunders describes the main goal of the program as promoting the US as a haven of liberty and free expression, and New York as a major cultural center, in direct opposition to the heavy-handed, conformist USSR. Despite the legacy of truly radical Russian and early Soviet art movements, leaders in the USSR had quickly created an atmosphere where only the stereotypical "propaganda poster" artwork style we think of today was accepted and where literature was generally aspirational, utopian political writing in the Socialist Realism genre (though Saunders inexplicably passes up the opportunity to use the phrase, "boy meets tractor"). The CIA worked closely with mega-wealthy patrons in the US and abroad, such as Nelson Rockefeller, who readily lent them "Mummy's museum" i.e. the MoMA. People who worked for the CIA also held key positions on museum boards, as cultural promoters, such as Fodor's travel guide writers, and were instrumental in promoting travelling US symphonies, art shows and the like.

USSR propaganda poster of Stalin holding a happy kid
A Soviet poster in an acceptable style. [Image: A realistic but idealized poster of Stalin in official uniform holding up a happy blond toddler in front of a sunny blue sky with hints of those puffy Important-Moments-in-History-clouds. The baby wears a white romper, socks and Mary-Jane shoes and holds some white flowers in one hand and a tiny hammer & sickle flag in the other. Stalin looks stern yet avuncular and the whole thing resembles Mufasa presenting Simba in The Lion King. The paint (or lithograph?) style itself is crisp and thinly applied, vaguely reminiscent of prosaic 1950s US advertising illustration. It is slightly painterly, with just enough brush-stroke and strategic unfinished-ness to reference the tradition of European Academic painting.]
Willem de Kooning on the cover of Newsweek 1965
Willem de Kooning on the cover of Newsweek in 1965 photographed painting a semi-abstract nude woman. Now I'm wondering if this cover is CIA promotional handiwork. According to the article, the artists themselves had no idea of the involvement. [Image: color photo of an oldish white man in a paint-covered smock mixes paint with a giant palate knife on a giant palate in front of a giant (seven foot?) painting. The painting itself looks messy and violent because of the slashing red brush strokes as well as cartoonish because of the "childlike" crude outlined black eyes and red mouth and the exaggerated boomerang-shaped hips and breasts-- the only discernible features of the otherwise completely abstract collection of oversized pastel brush strokes. The Newsweek logo is printed across the top, with the headline, "Art in New York" superimposed on the painting with the small subheading, "Painter Willem de Kooning," all in black.]

Saunders doesn't mention that the CIA's promotion of AbEx has an obvious precedent in the US government's worldwide promotion of US movies, particularly in the 1910s and 20s when the silent medium was easily shared in any language and Hollywood gave the US a jump-start on worldwide cultural hegemony. I suppose it would also be comparable to the many governments which pour money into their Olympic teams, touring ballet companies and cultural performance troupes as a method of promoting nations. If "ping pong diplomacy" can prove culturally significant, it's hardly surprising that a government would promote its art world-wide as well.

It also makes a certain amount of sense that AbEx would be promoted. I've written before about the link between money, power and the actual form of AbEx art (the relevant part begins about halfway through just after the image and the ***). The art itself is monumental, housed in imposing museums that doubled as displays of wealth and power, creating the same sense of security-meets-fear as when one walks into the lobby of a fancy bank. And the paintings were purported to be universal, to cut through language and historical relativism to affect the viewer on an exciting "primitive" level. If you forget about the eye-rolling with which AbEx tends to be met even today outside of small art-loving circles, AbEx would be a wonderful tool of propaganda even as it was often seen as an act of rebellion. Going back to my previous linked post, the actual involvement of the CIA with Modernism adds another layer to the reactive socio-political motivations I ascribed to the beginnings of Post-Modernism.

What is puzzling, though, is that the job would fall to the CIA and not, say, some completely mundane and transparent Bureau of Culture and Diplomacy or the like. This was all well before the Robert Mapplethorpe kerfuffle when the so-called Moral Majority permanently hobbled the idea of the NEA and more generally the idea of the government subsidizing the arts at all. So why hide that certain people who work for the government also work in the arts? Why would one need to be a CIA operative in order to acknowledge that promoting Pollock might benefit the nation?  Have we really always been that backward? Saunders hints at the extreme unpopularity of AbEx among ordinary tax-payers presenting an obstacle, but shit, that never stopped the US government before.

Ultimately I had several reactions to this bit of news. First, it is so ridiculous. But reading this on the heels of the NSA spying and Edward Snowden "treason" talk (give me a fucking break, he's a whistle-blower not a traitor), it seemed almost quaint. Second, I want to know all the details: who was responsible for what, who knew and who didn't, which shows were endorsed and why, so many questions! Third, I wish Kurt Vonnegut had been able to include this stuff in Bluebeard. Because you know he would have. And fourth... well, the NSA thing again. We're supposed to trust them as Professionals Who Know What's Best and Are Protecting Us, but the more we (are allowed to) learn about secret operations by the various US bureaus, the more farcical their efforts appear. Bay of Pigs? Exploding cigars? Stong-armed art critics who couldn't even win over Congress? Hmmmm....

PS: Hey NSA, since you're reading this, between you and me if you decide to fire up that cultural promotion thing again I volunteer to tour the world on your dime painting portraits. Just consider it.

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