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The CIA: Abstract Art Specialists

by Jeremy Holcombe

This may seem a little crazy, but then again, when it comes to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, crazy is not exactly, uh… crazy. But the idea that the CIA may well have supported and even funded these guys is at least enough to make one sit up and put the iced mocha down for a second.

Surely abstract art, by its very nature, is the antithesis of conservatism. It challenges accepted viewpoints, for better or for worse, and could easily be viewed as particularly subversive. So what on earth would the CIA be doing running around with artists?

Well, one theory has it that, at the time, the art world was flirting far too much with social realism, and this brand of artistic pursuit was viewed as far more dangerous to the state than abstract art. In short, the CIA didn’t seem to think that the average American would be able to “get” the abstract stuff. Following this, it became easy for the CIA to drench the media with stories of just how kooky these abstract artists were, thus shifting people’s focus from the grimmer, more in-your-face style of the social realists.

Indeed, many Americans absolutely hated abstract and modern art. But, this doesn’t necessarily seem to be the full story. Or, at least, it’s worth taking a closer look. On the surface, we could accept the notion that the CIA would seek to divert the American public’s attention from subversive and more direct artistic statements that spoke of inequality and the virtues of Socialism. But, what has come to light in recent years is that many in the CIA actually championed modern art as a truly American endeavor. No communist “utopia” such as the Soviet Union would be capable of such freedom of thought, thus proving the might and freedom inherent in the American way of life.

So, in two distinct ways, this proved to be a smart move for the CIA.

Of course, to do all this, and to keep influencing the arts, “The Company” had to ensure that its activities remained secret. Hence projects such as “Long Leash.” Consider Jackson Pollock. While not an extremist by any stretch of the term, he was also hardly likely to jump on board the CIA bandwagon and readily agree to their patronage. Most of the dealings were done through many go-betweens.

And in true Cold War John Le Carre style, various divisions with fun sounding names were set up over the years. There was the Propaganda Assets inventory, which had influence over hundreds of cultural outlets, including literary and artistic magazines, nearly all unbeknownst by those who believed they were indulging in purely cultural pursuits. Or the International Organizations Division, which sponsored everything from an animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm to opera recitals.

Part of the reason why all this was possible was the divide between the intelligence world of spies and spying and the political world, which, although it also relied on spies and spying, was a lot more pragmatic. Many of the people who staffed the various intelligence organizations in the post-war world were of an intellectual bent, and were often liberal leaning. They could appreciate the stirrings of the art world. It made sense for them to get involved in this sphere, as this was a function of society that they could understand and manipulate. For them the difference between the West and the Communists was simply a game at times, with each side fighting for ascendancy. Whereas, in the political sphere, necessity meant making a bogeyman out of the Communists. This was a struggle that had to be won in the hearts and minds of every good American.

And this leads us inevitably to another question. What would have happened to abstract art without its super-secret and obtuse patron? Would the movement still have carried the same degree of artistic gravitas? Perhaps we’ll never know the true extent of the CIA’s actual involvement, and in all likelihood the abstract art movement would have done just fine on the world stage all by itself. Because what the CIA actually did was to co-opt the art world, ensnaring it in its own peculiar net. The same applied to all the other art and literary endeavors. It didn’t create any of them from the ground up. Why would it need to when the foundation is already laid, ready to receive the love and attention of the wealthy and influential?

Perhaps the wildest thing about the whole story was that the people they were promoting, financing, and supporting were very much not friends of the establishment, let alone the CIA itself. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and many others besides were expressing ideals that fell outside of the boundaries that organizations such as “The Company” wanted to jam firmly into place. And maybe this was their master stroke, because once they owned the other person’s point of view and co-opted it for their own means, they could usually be assured of whatever victory they desired.

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