Jackson Pollock and the CIA / by Chris Hall

Jackson Pollock's No. 5 (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's  Morning of Our Motherland (detail), 1946-48.

Jackson Pollock's No. 5 (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's  Morning of Our Motherland (detail), 1946-48.

In 1958 and 1959, Jackson Pollock's paintings toured Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London as part of the 81 work exhibition The New American Painting, featuring the work of many of his Abstract Expressionist peers.  The exhibit was sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a front organization for the CIA.  It was not the first time, or the last, that CIA spooks would use Abstract Expressionist work as propaganda, dropping the A-Bomb, the Aesthetic-Bomb, on unsuspecting Communists of the Eastern Bloc.  

Pollock's work, and that of his peers, was raw, wild, powerful stuff.  Abstract Expressionism didn't just break the rules, it seemed completely ruleless, especially when compared with the art coming out of the Soviet Union, which favored Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism can best be described as staid, true depictions of wholesome farmers and productive workers, politically tinged art bordering on gross propaganda.  Pollock's work, and that of the Abstract Expressionists, is a highly individualistic, rough and tumble mode of expression blasted onto canvases as large as open fields of amber waves of grain.  Compared with the confines of Socialist Realism, Pollock's work feels absolutely liberated; it screams freedom.  And the CIA thought it was American as hell.  America!  Fuck yeah!

For years it was rumored that the CIA had covertly sponsored Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, but it wasn't until just recently, when former CIA spook Donald Jameson stepped out of the shadows and broke silence, that the full extent of their involvement in making Abstract Expressionist art a weapon of the Cold War has been revealed.   At first, it would seem the connection between the CIA and Abstract Expressionist art would be improbable.  At the time, the 1950's and 1960's, many Americans despised Modern Art, and many of the artists themselves were ex-communists, barely acceptable in the era of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.  This isn't supposed to be the kind of art to receive backing from the U.S. Government.  And that was the consensus when  the State Department initially made open attempts to support the new American art.  In 1947 the State Department organized and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled Advancing American Art, with the goal being to rebut Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural wasteland.  The show was controversial at home, prompting President Harry Truman to remark, “If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot,” and one bitter congressman to declared, “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.”  The tour of Advancing American Art had to be canceled.  The State Department now faced a dilemma.  The government's philistinism, along with Joseph McCarthy's hysterical denunciations of anything avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing.  It betrayed the idea that America was a sophisticated and culturally rich democracy, and it also prevented the consolidation of cultural supremacy, which began shifting away from Paris to New York City in the 1930's, due to emigration of artists fleeing Europe during the Second World War.  To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in. 

Their secretive nature aside, the CIA, at the time, was the perfect choice to carry out the clandestine art project.  The newly formed agency, born out of the OSS in 1947, was staffed with Ivy League graduates and connoisseurs of Modern Art.  Compared with the Cold War hyperbolics of  Joseph McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover's conservative FBI, the CIA was a haven of liberalism.  If anyone was prepared to secretly champion a bunch of hard drinking ex-Communists, it was the CIA.  The CIA set to work at influencing culture as soon as it was set up in 1947.  Dismayed at the appeal Communism still had on Western artists and intellectuals, the CIA formed the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence over 800 newspapers, magazines, and public information organizations.  Next, the CIA set up the International Organizations Division, directed by Tom Braden.  The International Organizations Division subsidized the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, and sponsored tours of American Jazz artists, opera productions, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  They had agents in the film industry, publishing houses, and even had writers working with Fodor's Travel Guides.  It was seem almost inevitable, then, that the CIA would begin promoting the anarchic Modern Art movement, Abstract Expressionism.

“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!  But I think that what we did really was to recognize the difference.  It was recognized that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized 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 criticized that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”  Donald Jameson, quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

To pursue its underground interest in American leftist avant-garde art, the CIA had to be sure that its patronage could not be discovered.  They conducted “Long Leash” operations, working two, sometimes three steps removed, influencing culture from a distance.  The central office for the CIA campaign to sponsor Abstract Expressionism was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a fake foundation and clearing house for the CIA's black budget for the arts.  At its height, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines.  These magazines would be staffed with critics favorable to Abstract Expressionism.  Using the Congress of Cultural Freedom as a front, the CIA funneled millions of dollars, secretly sponsoring a variety of artists, and no one, not even the artists, would be any wiser.   

"We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War."  Tom Braden (head of the CIA's International Organizations Division), quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage?  Yes, I still think so.  There is something essential about the movement that really tapped into the zeitgeist of the time (and, I would argue, still has some relevance today).  Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting, you are being duped by the CIA.  Pollock's work may have been used as propaganda, but it is decidedly not propaganda.  Everything we have learned about the movement still holds true, the spiritual depth, the myth-making, etc.  It just seems that now the movement had an unusual secret patron in the CIA.  If the CIA had any lasting effect on Art history, however, it might be that their programing to champion Abstract Expressionists (the first generation of which were known as the New York School) helped consolidate the intellectual and economic center of the art world in New York City, after it had shifted from Paris following the Second World War, but even this is up for debate.

Today, those critical of Abstract Expressionism say that because the movement was so essentially apolitical, that it allowed the work to be easily co-opted and used by the government, against the intent of the artists.  Yes, I agree that a more figurative and politically transparent work would not have been so easily used, but I challenge the idea that art must always be in the service of radical politics.  Making politically motivated art is a good thing (so long as it doesn't become so rigid and confined as the Socialist Realist art of the Eastern Bloc), but it is also important to realize that there are some things, some subjects, that in their proper time and place, trump politics.  This is proven today by the surviving strength of Abstract Expressionist work, even as the politics of the Cold War that surrounded its creation, has vanished.  The world needs spiritual nourishment equally as much as it needs political art motivations.