Art and the CIA

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

In
the play ART, someone buys an abstract painting at an enormous price,
while his friends ponder how they are going to tell him that it
is inherently worthless. In the debate about abstraction and whether
it was entirely some sort of hoax, the new traditionalists ridicule
its "flatness" and its absence of narrative, while defenders
of abstraction insist that representative art is a form of nostalgia
that modernism sought to eliminate. The defenders are definitely
losing ground, but one wonders why they were ever regarded as credible.

The
point that most art critics miss is that art is also a form of commerce,
and not antithetical to it. The god of art is the art market. And
so one might ask, "How did a Jackson Pollock get to be worth
so much money?" Part of it had to do with the Cold War, which
not only bloated the military budget, but distorted the art market
as well.

Faux
genius and con man Clement Greenberg was at the center of the scam.
A former itinerant necktie salesman, Greenberg teamed up with struggling
abstract artist and mountebank, Barnett Newman, to promote a vision
of art that conveniently coincided with the objectives of the US
Cold War Establishment. Indeed, Greenberg argued that the avant-garde
required the support of America's elite classes, a self-serving
concept that would promote his personal interests as a collector.

As
the competing ideologies of capitalism and communism clashed after
the Second World War, the question of "What is art?" became
a significant issue in the struggle for dominance. Was art a vehicle
of state propaganda to glorify a proletarian revolution or depict
an evil Hitler in his bunker at the end of the heroic struggle against
fascism (never mind about the Hitler-Stalin pact), or was it the
product of individual creativity unrestrained by governmental control
and censorship?

But
since America was then in the throes of one of its tedious puritanical
backlashes, the sensuality of great Western art, as represented
by say, Goya's "Naked Maja," was out of the question.
Deriving their central thesis from Islamic art that representation
of the sensual human form was interdicted by the sublime, the new
Abstract Expressionists fit neatly into what the American intelligence
community desperately needed to rebut Soviet representational propaganda;
an art that was highly individualistic but which did not offend
the sensibilities of conservative religion. A Baptist preacher or
Bishop Sheen could laugh at a Pollock, but he could not condemn
it as obscene. Yet because "modern art" was widely derided,
it needed a boost from an invisible sponsor, which would turn out
to be the CIA.

In
this milieu Clement Greenberg came forth in support of the new art.
Yes, the canvas was flat, and it should be covered flatly by paint
in abstraction, so beauty would be destroyed in the name of the
sublime. And Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) director Richard Barr heralded
this view when he quoted Greenberg's co-conspirator, Newman, who
infamously proclaimed, "The impulse of modern art was to destroy
beauty." Barr went even further – God was dead
and had been replaced by Abstract Expressionism.

The
more Greenberg wrote in promotion of the Abstract Expressionists,
and particularly Pollock's "action painting," which involved
dripping paint on the canvas, the more he collected them at minimal
prices before he had made them famous. And as he increased his own
power and influence, the more people wanted to buy these paintings,
which served Greenberg's real personal objective; to make himself
rich.

Fortunately
for him, like the military industrial complex, he had a helping
hand in the federal government. As Frances Stoner Saunders explains
in her brilliant book, Who
Paid the Piper – The CIA and the Cultural Cold War
,
the CIA covertly supported the Abstract Expressionist movement by
funding exhibits all over the world in promotion of the idea that
the culture of freedom was superior to the culture of slavery, and
by covertly promoting the purchasing of works by various private
collections. Indeed, the CIA named its biggest front in Europe the
Congress for Cultural Freedom. It worked. Soviet art became a laughing
stock, and New York became the center of the art world, not Paris,
where Picasso, a long-time member of the Communist party and winner
of the Stalin Peace Prize (who can forget his doves of peace?),
still reigned supreme.

The
CIA had stolen the show from Picasso, taking art a step further
into a near mystical expression of unfettered human liberty in the
spirit of free enterprise. Nelson Rockefeller, whose family created
the MoMA, actually referred to Abstract Expressionism as "free
enterprise painting." But like so many Rockefeller ventures,
it was state supported, so that his own collection of Abstract Expressionist
works ended up being worth a considerable fortune.

But
why, then, did it come to an end? The Cold War exploded into the
Vietnam War and rebellion overtook the arts. The social revolution
of the Sixties brought with it Pop Art, Op Art, and various forms
of social protest art, forcing Abstract Expressionism to the sidelines,
even if prices were still good. Confronted with James Rosenquist's
"F-111," abstraction lost its force. Even more than this,
the answer lies in a paraphrasing of a remark by comedian Mort Sahl
about why the student movement ended. "The government withdrew
its funding."

June
20, 2002

Richard
Cummings [send
him mail
] has taught at the University of Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia, the University of the West Indies, Barbados, and St. Catherine's
College Cambridge. He holds the PhD in Social and Political Sciences
from Cambridge University and “completed with distinction” the 21st
Session at Cornell University, of The School of Criticism and Theory.
He is the author of the comedy, “Soccer Moms From Hell” (recently
produced in New York) and the forthcoming novel, The Immortalists.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare