Saturday, February 16, 2013

The CIA funded abstract art during the Cold War

Former CIA agents have admitted what investigators have long suspected: that the US Government used taxpayer money to promote abstract painting as a propaganda weapon during the Cold War.

During the 1950s and '60s, the same period when the USA was building up its arsenal of nukes, it decided to use art against the Soviets to proclaim American cultural superiority.

How better to counter Stalin's Socialist Realism (above: Boris Vladmiriski, "Roses for Stalin" 1949) than by deploying art by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko?

The idea was initially tested in the open in 1947 by the State Department, which launched a program called "Advancing American Art." The centerpiece was a group of 79 avante-garde paintings purchased with $49,000 of government funds. Over the next two decades, several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism were organized, including one called "The New American Painting," which traveled at government expense throughout Europe in the late 1950s. Other shows included "Modern Art in the United States" and "Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century."

Cracks in the program formed fairly quickly. Critics began attacking the artwork as “un-American” and “subversive.” The paintings were ridiculed in the national media and in Congress. President Truman, summing up the average American's opinion of the work, said, "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot." A congressman complained, "I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash." Look magazine ran an article entitled “Your Money Bought These Paintings.” The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee wrote an angry letter to the Secretary of State, George C. Marshall.

Facing such criticism, the program then went underground, and the CIA devised a new strategy. Millions of dollars were channeled through fake foundations and intermediate organizations with names like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the International Organizations Division (IOD), and the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organizations.

According to former case officer Donald Jameson, these organizations enlisted sympathetic critics, collectors, curators, and museums—most notably Rockefeller's Museum of Modern Art—and swore them to secrecy. The artists themselves were unaware of the source of the the support. The fact that the US was using covert means to promote the ideals of cultural openness was an irony lost on the planners.

As time went by, criticism for the exhibitions mounted, and it became clearer that many of the artists themselves were ex-communists, not exactly the sort of people that the US government wanted to back during the McCarthy era. The paintings that had been purchased by the government were recalled by Secretary Marshall and sold as scrap. They yielded a sum total of only $5,544. Many canvases sold for $100 or less and found their way into public universities.

Sources and further reading:
CIA's official explanation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom
Independent: Modern art was CIA 'weapon'—Revealed: how the spy agency used unwitting artists such as Pollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold War
Gizmodo: How the CIA Spent Secret Millions Turning Modern Art Into a Cold War Arsenal
Book: “Advancing American Art: Painting, Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century" by Taylor Littleton and Maltby Sykes


Charles Valsechi said...

Can't imagine what art and art education would be like in the US now had they chosen to battle realism with realism.

mordicai said...

Sure, & the government funded naturalist painting during WW2 as well as abstract painting, which is why we got regular camouflage as well as the more gonzo startle camo.

Keith Parker said...


@Charles. I know right? I had to do research on the likes of Jackson Pollock, and Andy Worhal each week in art school. Wish I could've been learning about people like Pyle, Rembrant, Da Vinci, Loomis, Parker, or Rockwell.

James Gurney said...

Keith, I wonder what any art education would be like if the student had a hand in the curriculum.

Charles: It's interesting to look at the posters and magazine ads during WW1 and WWII, where a lot of companies were paying illustrators to do what were clearly propaganda images. Rockwell's Four Freedoms were painted on spec for the war department, who actually passed on them at first, until they were made famous by the Saturday Evening Post. And of course Disney put his animators to work for the war department during the early '40s.

Mordecai, so yes, you're right: most governments promote arts of all sorts for various political reasons, and still do. Regardless of the aesthetic implications, it's the political implications of this particular story that are most striking to me. It's strange to think that our government was using covert means to promote the idea of an open society, and backing a lot of ex-Communist artists at the very moment when McCarthy was going after them.

Bill Marshall said...

Fascinating stuff. I wonder if the government also backed the art critics of the day, promoting such works.
Reminds me of Thomas Wolfe's book 'The Painted Word'.

Aaron said...

I'm with you Keith, all those years in art school, humanist/communist professors shoving art, made by (ex)communists, at me, shunning my interest in TRUE American art, Remington and Rockwell, Pyle and Parrish, Wyeth, Cole etc. BTW I don't mean to disparage people like Pollock or Rothco, it's just we need to redefine somethings, men like Cole, Rockwell, even the modern guys James Gurney, Michael Whelan etc. are fine artists. What is considered abstract or in the cases mentioned above, non-objective, is NOT fine art, it is Emotion Art. In my dictionary, Fine art requires some level of skill and talent and most importantly the sharing of a specific story or idea. Emotion art is just that, executed not by ones skill but only by ones emotions (or an attempt to capture them, as many say). There is not right or wrong art, They were created by different means, for different reasons. So I say from here on out that's gonna be my opinion, and when someone tries to elevate their Nevelson over my Remington I'm gonna say you can't compare oranges to apples. just one humble artists feelings.

Keith Parker said...

It is interesting James...Especially considering the reaction of the public. It's almost like they wanted to lose that battle.

Leif said...

William, I like your terminology, I think I may use it too.

James, not sure how to make a suggestion for future blog posts, but this was interesting:

"Why We Love Beautiful Things" in the NY Times:

I guess he's doing this to promote his recent book, but interesting nonetheless.

Roberto said...

I’m all for wealth-re-distribution to defend the ‘Parent-Land’, or to fill potholes, or to protect the earth, air, and water from exploitation and pollution, or to uphold our civil rights, or to ensure fair access to and protection under the law, or to ensure a literate and healthy polis, (I could go on, or maybe I shoulda stopped at ‘Parent Land’), but I defiantly draw the line at Guvment supported (or banned) art! Not that it is supporting (or banning) good-art or bad-art or not-art or fine-art or not-so-fine art, but that it is in the art business at all! Whether it’s the CIA, KGB, the Nazi’s, the Chi-Coms, or the Congress for Cultural Freedom… The knife cuts both ways. –RQ

Check out this related video/documentary when you get a chance:

mp said...

Since there has been some amount of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government over the years, I can't help but wonder just whose side the CIA promoters of this artwork were on...though it's all fairly hilarious, now.

Elena Jardiniz said...

How odd. Because I've had "art instructors" not bather to teach technical skills because "it inhibits creativity", preferring to "teach" all sorts of philosophy instead of actual art.

And I never even heard of many of the Academy painters or the Hudson River School because "oh they're just illustrators. The *real* artists were the visionaries struggling against the middle class ideals of the academy." Wait, what?

Andy said...

I think there's a fair difference between promoting an idea or agenda using the narrative of a Rockwell image, and using "art" (or, perhaps, anti-art) itself as propaganda.

Steve Fastner said...

Just one more historical fact to illustrate the general public's dislike of modern art.The wealthy support and subsidize modern art,since it takes a lot of money to fund modern art museums,artists,and touring shows.It's like castor oil,spoon fed the ignorant masses for their own good,after all.Just hold your nose and swallow.I suppose the wealthy could put up all the money,but it's the principle of the thing,you see.It's a democracy,and everyone must participate.It's about new ideas and freedom,and freedom isn't free.Besides,some people have some hostile opinions about the wealthy,like communists,for example,and some non-wealthy people too.Clever minds figured out how to get the public to pay some of the cost out of their own tax money.

Unknown said...

MP-I understand that as soon as the CIA realized that many of these artists were communist sympathizers they quickly pulled their support.

I'm really conflicted about this general idea, government supporting the arts. I received a grant years ago to help complete a picture book, a panel member told me they were relieved to be able to give a grant to someone not doing conceptual work.

I really do wonder what Western art would be like if the government never got into the business of paying for and supporting the arts. I really don't know if it'd be a positive or a negative thing.

James Gurney said...

Eric, quick response to a good question. I think government support for the arts can be a good and necessary thing, since some worthy art forms can't survive solely on the money from private givers and corporations. Support can take many forms: arts education, performing arts centers, public sculptures and memorials, public broadcasting, ethnomusicology, etc. The amount spent on art compared to war in this country is infinitesimal.

Of course money can be wasted or misdirected, too, and not everyone is going to agree on what kind of art is worthy to receive support.

At the least, I think the public (whose money is being spent after all) should have a reasonable input into the process, and it should be conducted in the open, not covertly.

jeff said...

I'm not into Jackson Pollock or Warhole but I think to malign them with any political ideology is a bit much. Warhole seemed pretty apolitical and collected French academic art.

Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton and you can't much more American than him. The irony is that WPA projects helped Benton during the Depression. Jackson Pollock was not very political from what from what I've read of his life.

I'm not sue the idea of using terms such as “TRUE American art” whatever that is, is a good idea. That's a loaded statement and in my view is more about nationalism which is a slippery slope if you ask me.

James Gurney said...

William, thanks for your rebuttal to the troll who has been lurking. I noticed you deleted your comment, and I thank you for it. I deleted the comment you were responding to because it was abusive. The troll, formerly called "Anonymous" just set up a Blogger account under the fake name Bruce Jones. His real name might be David or Mackay or whatever, but his activity is known to Blogger. He obsesses over each post, and spends on average 5 minutes each time he visits the site. So if you see a comment from Bruce Jones, you'll know it's the troll.

d.r. gurney said...


You just can't handle the truth.

Roberto said...

Jimi G!?!-
Troll?! It’s getting scary over here! I was worried about the Zombies and now a Troll!
This reminds me of when I was a Kid. I wanted to be a Billy-Goat, but ‘Nooo!”… I had to be the Troll, and live under the bridge! I tell you… it’s no fun being s Troll! None of the other Billy-goats will play w you… [I’m starting to get all emotional about it]… any way, thanx for your vigilance. Keep up the good work ;-P -RQ

Keith Parker said...

Hmm...? I mentioned Pollock, and Warhol because they are names that come to mind when I think of "art" that is little substance (if any) proped up by philosophical garbage. If my opinion of these very overrated (at least from what I see) "artists" offends any readers here I'm sorry we disagree. Modern art doesn't move me, convict me, inspire me, teach me, or in any other way impress me.
It seems a very vain thing.
I'll end my rant with this question: be sides a way to personally vent, in what way could "modern art" ever accomplish anything that true illustration could not do better?

jeff said...

No Keith I was not offended.Nor was I responding to your post. I just do not think it's a good idea to frame art into things such as “real American”.

I'm a realist and I don't have much love for Pollock.
I was pointing out that Pollock was more or less apolitical and he did identify with Benton at the beginning of his career. Thomas Hart Benton had a huge influence on him.

I went through a post modern art program myself and I found a lot of the theory based stuff to be rather dull and full of it. Nonetheless some of it was interesting to read and it was good to have an understanding of where the modern and post modernist were coming from. Kind of understanding your enemy kind of thing.

I have a few good stories about Jackson Pollock being an complete ass when he was at the ASL.

jeff said...

Keith do read anything on how to conduct a rational discourse or on critical thinking? If your going to engage in diatribes you shut down any discourse. And I agree with a lot of what you're saying. However attacking people is not the way to get a point across.

I have to ask, if you hated the program you were in why did you stay?

Keith Parker said...

@ Jeff. Who said "real American"?

I actually didn't stay in the program I was in. While I was at the top of my class, I opted to leave, because I felt I wasn't learning enough for the money I was spending.

Also, you are throwing around some fancy words there...I'm just a poor boy from Louisiana. lol.

But to answer the other question. Although what I said was harsh I'm not really sure I actually attacked anyone...possibly two dead "artists" but I don't see it that way. I attacked the attention their "art" receives because I believe praise for it unmerited. My comments may seem harsh but there is a logic to it.

Aleada Aine Siragusa said...

Some of the Russian realist art can be sort of boring and predictable. Abstract art has kept realism fresh as realists have used elements of it incorporated into their art. I am for pushing the envelope of art and also studying the technique of the old masters in realism; both have their place.

Please do not get me wrong, I do support an art education which is focused on the disciplines needed for creating realism. But do not throw the baby out with the bath water, we should also acknowledge the abstraction movement and impressionism, both which can offer ideas and suggestion to broaden the scope of the realist painter.

Roberto said...

@ Keith Parker…
Your opinion of Modern art as ‘a very vain thing’ may be true, but the same can be said of any art form. As for ‘having nothing to teach’, many people (even in this blog-space!) would agree with you.
You ask a fair question: ‘…in what way could "modern art" ever accomplish anything that true illustration could not do better?’
In response I would start by agreeing w Aleada Siragusa who said... “Abstract art has kept realism fresh as realists have used elements of it incorporated into their art.” An example of this might be the ‘shape-welding’ and ‘gamut-masking’ techniques which can be used for designing both figurative and non-figurative paintings. In fact all of the design elements and painting techniques used in figurative paintings are/can be used in non-figurative paintings (and visa-versa). Granted, it is still a matter of style and taste whether you ‘get it’ or like it, but we are all entitled to our personal likes and dislikes.
Another way of approaching this is to equate painting w music. Painting uses light/color while music uses sound/notes to compose with. And both have developed a wide range of expressive forms. Music has indigenous or world music, folk, classical, atonal, jazz, rock, pop, rap, etc. …and a wide range of variations and forms within each genre. Some of it I like, some I don’t. While there may be a wide canyon btwn Beethoven and Coltrane, I’ll take a Gershwin tune and bridge the gap.
I would respectfully suggest that we all keep an open mind. -RQ

Unknown said...

Hey if this was payed with taxes, those painting belong to the people and not to a private collector, and nobody should pay for seem them... weiird....

Sesco said...

Wow, I'm stunned by this quote:

"How better to counter Stalin's Socialist Realism (above: Boris Vladmiriski, "Roses for Stalin" 1949) than by deploying art by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko?"

Rather than attempt to compete with Socialist Realism by producing BETTER Realism, we abdicate altogether, throw up our hands, and begin producing simplistic art that requires a gatekeeper to explain how and why it is so much better than Realism?

I was very surprised to read this post, in light of the document delineating the 43 goals of the Communist Party as entered into the U.S.Congressional Record on January 10, 1963 found here:


I specifically cite #22 and #23 as it relates to Art.

An ex-FBI agent named W. Cleon Skousen wrote a book in 1958 titled, "The Naked Communist", from which this list is taken. I find it odd that two ex-FBI agents are declaring polar opposite objectives using identical strategies.

Regardless, you will find the 43 objectives from 1958 enlightening as it relates to our current cultural struggles.

James Gurney said...

Sesco, thanks for that insight and those connections. You're right: those points #22 and 23 are amazing in juxtaposition to the CIA objectives

SB said...

A question no one asked here: what effect did the program have? I have to wonder if it didn't just increase Russian contempt for an America that would produce such unskilled and contemptible work, and corresponding Russian pride in their own artists' often skilled realist work.