This may be a Jackson Pollock, plucked from the walls of a museum. Or it may be a Jackie Polkowsky, plucked from the first grade art class recycle bin. How can you tell?
Now, the CIA gets blamed for a lot of stuff they didn’t ever do, like invent AIDS and whack JFK. They probably don’t get blamed enough for stuff they do do, like leak like the post-berg Titanic. And they certainly don’t get blamed enough for stuff they don’t do, like give leaders usable information, instead of the CYA on-the-other-other-hand pablum that the gigantic self-licking ice cream cone that is the bloated HQ produces.
But according to the British Independent, there’s something that they deserve blame for: modern art. If you ever suspected that Jackson Pollock was a no-talent parvenu, celebrated far beyond his kindergarten abilities, well, nothing in here is going to change your mind.
And if you thought Jack the Dripper was just an example of sui generis talent, that rose to the top in the endless (but fair!) tournament that is the art world? Think he was a real bang-tail gone cat? Daddy-o, you got played. Thoroughly.
The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.
The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America’s anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.
Initially, more open attempts were made to support the new American art. 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 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.
Willem de Kooning (here Interchange, 1955, sold for $300 million last year) was another artist whose market was made by the agency.
The Truman comment was, “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.” As his fellow tribesmen, we’re all bemused that the CIA was subsidizing this stuff, but subsidizing it they were — in part, to put a stick in Stalin’s and later Khrushchev’s eye, and in part, because they were inbred enough to like this kind of art. (Best appreciated with Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, “Bird” Parker, or John Coltrane on the Hi-Fi).
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.
Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.
“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!” he joked. “But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expression- ism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.
“In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”
The irony was, of course, that many of the very artists whose exhibitions and gallery sales were secretly being propped up by the national black budget, were bitter opponents of the US and all it stood for, and stalwart soldiers of scientific socialism, always ready to wave the Red Banner as long as they didn’t have to leave the benighted capitalist land of philistinism and go live there. So there was a complex system of cut-outs and covers to ensure that the artists never learned who their secret patrons really were. This was called the “long leash.”
Do Read The Whole Thing™. Somewhat bemused to see one of the panjandrums of the whole thing is now….
…in his eighties, Mr Braden lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, in a house packed with Abstract Expressionist works and guarded by enormous Alsatians.
Ah, an art collection picked up on the public dime, perhaps? Wouldn’t be the first Beltway nabob to do very well indeed by doing good. Still, he’s a dog guy, he can’t be all bad.
And us? Well, what do we know? We’re Hottentots.