CIA funded art

Keir Watt

Recently officials at the CIA confirmed that the agency had secretly spent millions of dollars during the Cold War funding artists including the leading members of abstract expressionism such as Jackson Pollack and Willem De Kooning in what has been dubbed the ‘Cultural Cold War”. This war wasn’t as tangible as the one fought on the beaches of Cuba and Jungles of Vietnam, but formed an important part of what wasn’t just a clash of military superpowers, but fundamentally a clash of ideologies and civilisations. Although the initial reaction could be dismay at what was clearly a manipulation of the arts for political purposes, the covert cultural campaign undertaken by the CIA was an inspired approach to cultivating the art scene.

From opposite sides of the globe squatted the two titans that had risen in the wake of the Second World War —the USA and the USSR— who, constrained from direct confrontation due to the prospect of total nuclear annihilation, sought to spread their influence throughout the world through proxy wars, coups d’état and other methods of influence. Washington’s ‘cultural cold war’ was being waged at home in the United States and across Western Europe. Convincing Europe’s leftist intellectuals and artists of the supremacy of American style western culture was essential in securing support for democratic and capitalist governments in Europe and winning support for the United States. With total sincerity this was a fight to win the “hearts and minds” of the West’s cultural elite who were known for being uncomfortably cozy with communism.

Despite American wider society viewing the American avant-garde with derision, the CIA realised the power art possessed in countering the Soviet narrative of a culturally void America. The CIA moved like an invisible hand, ensuring the success of the American art scene by funding ballets, artists and orchestras to produce art and tour around the globe showcasing what would be seen as the best of America’s liberal culture. Abstract expressionism is widely considered the first original American School of art and the CIA funded traveling exhibitions in order to promote American ideals of individualism and democracy. Abstract art was to represent America as the inheritors of the western enlightenment, and in the process make Soviet art appear stilted and suffocated by its own ideology.

For the CIA abstract expressionism was essentially propaganda, but unlike the Soviet Union there was no enforcement of an official state style. The artists were creating the art that they would have been making with or without the clandestine sponsorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. The American propaganda machine wasn’t forcing out a fictitious image of American culture, but simply propagating what was naturally occurring. Although some may see such state interference as undermining the intellectual and artistic integrity of the art, one simply has to consider the art being put out by the other side to appreciate what state controlled art truly looks like. This “Socialist Realism” that Christopher Hitchens described as a “tractor opera with the cultural and literary standards of Commissar Zhdanov” exhorted the collective power of the proletariat whilst subjugating the spirit and expression of the individual.

Interestingly, it was probably the covert nature of the CIA sponsorship, which ensured the artists themselves were unaware of who was supporting them, that helped foster the individualistic nature of American art. If the artists had been aware of a task master perhaps they would have self censored, even if subconsciously, in order to ensure their own success knowing it was being determined by the state. The CIA were successful in achieving what the Soviet State could not; foster art that represented their intended ideals without bringing the artists under the thumb of a self-defeating institutionalism.

Of course state funded art was not an invention of the cold war, the symbiotic relationship between art and power is as old as civilisation. Some of the world’s greatest art exists because the powerful facilitated and enforced its creation. There would be no Great Sphinx of Giza without the Egyptian Pharaohs and Michelangelo would never have painted the Sistine Chapel without Pope Julius II. While it may be true that the integrity of art is tainted by the state’s involvement, the reality is that all artistic traditions have been shaped and fostered by those with power in one way or another. If it is not the establishment sponsoring ‘state-art’ it is the rich elites deciding which artists succeed by granting patronage to one artist over another. The art world despite all its aspirations of individualistic expression and sentiments of intrinsic artistic value is a world ruled by money and influence. Expecting artists to be completely detached from such influences would condemn them to obscurity and hardship. The difficulty resides in supporting art without interfering in such a way that moulds it artificially to the intentions of those in power.

The state supporting art is often accompanied with the presumption that certain art movements will be repressed in favour of others. Such attempts to subjugate art are often carried out by tyrannical ideologies which would trample all that doesn’t conform to their uncompromising interpretations of the world. In 1937 the Nazi’s opened the Great German Art Exhibition and the Degenerate Art Exhibition which were to be presented concurrently. The Great German Art Exhibition consisted of art chosen to showcase the Nazi artistic ideals, while the Degenerate Art Exhibition was designed to denigrate the art and artists who were not considered to be a part of the Germany the Nazi’s were designing. This was obviously state sponsorship at its worst. However, just because the the state can intervene with terrible results does not mean the arts should never be state funded. In Scotland today the Scottish Arts council is a government funded body which funds, develops and advocates arts in Scotland. Even the fact that there is free access to museums and art galleries shows one of the positive results of state sponsorship that in Britain we take for granted.

The arts help shape culture and in turn form one of the foundations of any civilization. During the Cold War when the perception, and possibly the reality, was that the ‘American way of life’ was at risk it seems obvious that Washington would deem art as important to defending the American civilisation as they did their nuclear armaments built to destroy others. The CIA were secretly funding the arts for ideological purposes, but not with the same manipulation or doctrinal intent of the Soviets. For the CIA it wasn’t just the art that embodied the ideals of America, but the artists themselves were symbols of America’s freedoms and the inherent value of democracy. As President Kennedy remarked at Amherst College in 1963; “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Art plays an important role in building and sustaining our society and it is therefore expected that any government would want to encourage such a positive force. However, it takes a light touch and a respect for the artists themselves for state funding of the arts to be a success. Perhaps it was due to the individualistic ideals the CIA were trying to promote that its meddling in the arts resulted in free expression opposed to ‘state expression’. Nonetheless the CIA’s role in helping some of the most important American art movements flourish casts an unexpectedly positive light on what is currently one of the world’s most despised organisations.


Share this story

Follow us online