Mutually Assured Depiction and the Cold War Weaponisation of Art

An enduring myth about the Cold War is that it featured no fleshly skirmishes between its primary belligerents. America, of course, engaged in many ‘hot’ scuffles, from outright wars to clandestine coups and rub outs, their principal target the resource-rich and cash-poor inhabitants of the ostensibly decolonialised Third World. Russia, far less international but far more unabashed in outlook, opted to simply flood the Eastern Bloc with tanks whenever citizens got uppity.

Nonetheless, the Western European theatre of the Cold War was largely aggression-free. The battle was for souls and brains, the ordnance utilised predominantly cultural. The incessant bombardment of half the continent with cartoonised critters, carbonated drinks and fast food is so well-documented there are entire fields of academic study dedicated to the phenomenon of Coca Colanisation. What’s less thoroughly appreciated is that Abstract Expressionism was just as potent a psychological warhead — and Jackson Pollock as effective an agent of American Imperialism as Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald.

What makes this story all the stranger is the America of the 1940s was hardly a locale synonymous with creative experimentation. Then, its inhabitants proudly cherished a suspicion, if not outright loathing, for the idiosyncratic, for the unorthodox (much the same ethos is in evidence today, outside its increasingly tolerant shorelines). Joe Sixpack was assisted in his philistinism by Senator McCarthy, whose frenzied condemnations of Communism were supplemented by equally enthusiastic indictments of all that was unorthodox culturally and socially.

While McCarthy’s damnation of progressive values was a blessing to the Russians, who sought to portray the United States as a howling cultural black hole, they were themselves as authoritarian and inflexible in their approach to the arts as civil society. The only permissible aesthetic in the Soviet Union was Socialist Realism; any and all artwork was to depict scenes of everyday life, in banally literal fashion. This philosophy extended to titles, such as ‘Lenin with Villagers’, ‘Tractor Driver’s Supper’, ‘Moscow Suburbs’ – Arkady Rylov was interrogated by the authorities in 1918, when he dared dub a humdrum seascape painting a ‘Blue Expanse’.

if Uncle Joe imposed strict controls on independent thought, Uncle Sam would embrace individual expressionAs a result, the American establishment moved to define themselves in contrast to their opponent; if Uncle Joe imposed strict controls on independent thought, Uncle Sam would embrace individual expression.

The tale begins in June 1950, when Tom Braden was appointed Head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert action arm, the International Organizations Division (IOD). His recruiters found his background in espionage attractive (he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, during World War II), but his day job as executive secretary of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) was what really interested them. He was a candidate who truly believed in a world without rigid controls on what artists could daub — and had the international contacts and standing to take the visual crusade global.

At Braden’s direction, the CIA bankrolled an animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, flooded the Eastern bloc with copies of the suppressed novel Dr. Zhivago, dispatched the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Moscow and Beijing, and ensured Jazz musicians didn’t starve to death. CIA agents were parachuted in to influential positions in the film and publishing industries, and secured jobs as theatre critics, travel writers and even radio DJs.

Abstract Expressionism was of particular interest to Braden. Beyond a personal affinity for the movement, it was the unimprovable antidote to the dull laboriousness of Socialist Realism, a testament to the unfettered individualism and intellectual liberation that allegedly palpitated at the heart of Western culture.

As a result, billions of dollars were spent on funding new exhibitions and galleries and creating dummy art foundations the world over, for the specific purpose of promulgating the movement worldwide. In 1952, the CIA-funded and MoMa sponsored ‘Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century’ exhibition toured Europe, showcasing works by de Kooning, Gorky, Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko – alongside choice cuts from leading Soviet artists. The showcase juxtaposed the works side by side, in alternating order — the disparity could not have been more stark, nor indiscreet; on one hand, a style stiflingly dominated by limited and limiting rules, on the other, one entirely bereft of rubric.

is the artistic worth of Abstract Impressionism questionable as a result?‘Masterpieces’ was soon followed by ‘Modern Art in the United States’ in 1955, then ‘New American Painting’ in 1958. The front for the IOD’s artistic activities was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a body created to “defend Western civilisation from Moscow and its fellow travellers”. With offices in 35 countries, its voluminous membership of authors, poets, philosophers, artists and public intellectuals included Bertrand Russell and Tennessee Williams. It also published 12 magazines, the pages of which were used to promote key Abstract Expressionists, and smear artists the CIA suspected of harbouring Communist sympathies.

The episode raises many obvious questions. Would Abstract Expressionism have gained a dominant foothold in the art world of the latter-20th century without the aid and abet of Cold War political scheming? Are the artists involved unwitting accomplices of the CIA, or victims? And, is the artistic worth of Abstract Impressionism questionable as a result?

The first question is unanswerable to a certainty, the impotent preserve of alternative historians. The second is likewise a matter of speculation; the machination trickled into the public domain long-after the deaths of most of the artists involved. The third is a quandary only the individual can determine, and only for themselves. Although, when considering all three questions, it’s important to remember much art has questionable parentage.

Few if any of the portraits currently flapping in the National Gallery achieved their current currency (both cultural and monetary) due to objective value or public approval. Most are the by-product of the individual tastes and colossal largesse of the wealthy and the ruling at various points in history, who financed their creation for the purposes of status symbolism and vanity, and dictated what would be popular in the process.

If it wasn’t for imperialism, most UNESCO World Heritage Sites wouldn’t exist — and if it wasn’t for political manoeuvring and backroom bungs, few buildings would be erected today. Artists have created art for financial gain, fame, infamy, political expediency and a cornucopia of cynical motivations since the dawn of time. At least Rothko, as far as we know, wasn’t in on it.


More about the author

About the author

Kit is a journalist who spearheads Disclaimer’s arts coverage.

He runs the Carbon Creative Arts gallery in Hastings, is an occasional writer for Counterfire and is a Trustee of Occupy Faith UK, having spent one cold winter camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

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