The Cold War was, in essence, a clash of cultures. This period of geopolitical tension, which existed between the United States and Russia between 1947 to 1989, saw its rival factions oppose one another on a number of political economic and ideological fronts, with America’s individualist streak sanding in stark contrast to the collectivism of the communist block. As a result, the Cold War era saw the rival nations battle to undermine one another’s influence by any means necessary, with culture serving as a powerful weapon. For many years, there were rumours floating around art circles that the CIA had played a shadowy hand in the development of America’s potent cultural identity, but with Hugh Wilford’s 2008 book The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, these were finally confirmed – the CIA, it transpires, sponsored the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko in an attempt to undermine Russia’s self-proclaimed cultural supremacy.
Following the Second World War, America was a cultural wasteland – at least in the eyes of European intellectuals. When people thought of America, they thought of Walt Disney, Coca Cola, and large slices of cream-covered pie. In contrast, Russia could lay claim to centuries of literary, artistic, and musical innovation – boasting the likes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Kandinsky. The communist Russian government, as Wilford notes, were particularly fond of pointing out their cultural achievements as proof that “they, not the western bourgeoise, were the heirs of the European enlightenment”.
America’s response was to accuse Russia of not understanding the true function of art, which, they said, was to express the unique inner life of the individual artist. Communist Russia, they argued, denigrated art by making it an arm of the totalitarian regime, and forcing artists to imbue their work with the ideology of communism. At a time when Europe was enfeebled by its recent political turmoil, the American government recognised that the eyes of the intellectual and artistic world were fixed keenly on their shores. It fell to the US nation to offer new and fertile ground for artistic exploration. The only issue was that US statesmen at the time weren’t exactly known for their reverence of modern art. Harry Truman, for example, on setting eyes upon one of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s semi-abstract paintings in 1947, declared: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot”.
Unable to rely on their politicians, the US government turned to the CIA, which created a new branch specifically designed to give America a new cultural image abroad. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was to engage in a “peace offensive”, for which the art gallery and the concert hall would serve as battlegrounds. Over the next twenty years or, the CIA began to influence the production of American high culture and its distribution in Europe – sponsoring a number of “home-grown” cultural movements, including abstract expressionism.
With housing costs in America’s bohemian neighbours on the rise, these covert sponsorships came at the perfect time. Many of America’s avant-garde artists and writers were struggling to make a living for themselves, and so they were easily convinced to accept the CIA’s offers. Suddenly, artists who scarcely had enough to keep themselves from starvation were dining out on lobster in high-class New York restaurants.
Indeed, the CIA also secured funding for the struggling Partisan Review, a high-brow publication that was much revered in European intellectual circles. It was in the Partisan Review that abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were lauded by art critics as pioneers of a “new American art”. These artists were celebrated for their expression of the individual consciousness. In this way, modern American art offered a rebuke to the “official style of Soviet art”, with its “artists in uniform”.
Jackson Pollock quickly came to embody the spirit of this paradoxically state-sponsored art movement. As Wilford notes, Pollock, “western born, taciturn, hard-drinking, was the artist as a cowboy, shooting paint from the hip, an incontrovertibly American hero”. The CIA continued to use art to further their propagandist ambitions on the continent. Take the CCF’s Masterpieces of The Twentieth Century exhibit in Paris, which was organised in partnership with Norman Rockefeller’s Museum of Modern Art. Rockefeller himself had once been a member of the CIA and had pioneered the agency’s methods of psychological warfare during the second world war.
The exhibition didn’t actually feature any of the new American art – rather it offered a retrospective look at some of the artists who had been banned during European totalitarian regimes, with the curator, James Johnson Sweeney declaring that the works on display “could not have been created by totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or present-day Soviet Russia.” But, in the 1960s, the CCF returned to Paris for another exhibition, the Antagonismes, which featured artworks by the likes of Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. In both cases, these exhibitions functioned to cast Russia in an oppressive and illiberal light, while America continued to embed itself in the ‘land of the free’ narrative — and it wasn’t just art. The CIA, Wilford notes, sponsored everything from the animation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and American Jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme, which saw the orchestra perform a selection of music that, again, had been dismissed as “degenerate” by communist censors.
The irony at the heart of all of this is that, in attempting to define a new international image for itself, America did precisely what it had criticised Russia for doing: denigrating art by making it an arm of the regime. What is more worrying, of course, is that this cultural image America cultivated in the post-war era, which had been designed to undermine the intellectual authority of Russia, is almost as powerful now as it was in the 1960s. America is still regarded as sitting at the vanguard of liberality and cultural expression, although the Trump Presidency has sullied its reputation in this regard. With the arrival of more revelations about the CIA’s involvement in some of the most defining political and cultural events of the post-war period, it will be interesting to see how our attitude towards this ‘land of the free’ begins to shift.