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Art IS a weapon
November 1, 2010 10:23 AM   Subscribe

The CIA spent 20 years promoting modern art as a propaganda tool: "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."
posted by BZArcher (50 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This has been known in the art world for years.
posted by R. Mutt at 10:29 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


The article is from 1995.
posted by nasreddin at 10:31 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US

And in that regard, it failed. But what did succeed? Blue jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Billy Joel.
What's also interesting is that Soviet-era propaganda posters are making a stylistic comeback. So it's a double-didn't-work for the CIA.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:31 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


R. Mutt: yes, the article says as much in its very first line: "FOR DECADES in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact."

Anyway, I'm sort of cheered in a very Markov Chaney sort of way that the CIA might be responsible for Piss Christ.
posted by boo_radley at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


The author of that article subsequently wrote a book on the subject.
posted by neroli at 10:35 AM on November 1, 2010


I'd read earlier and elsewhere that the reason the CIA promoted Abstract Expressionism was because it was not an outwardly political art form.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:35 AM on November 1, 2010


It played an enormous role in the Cold War.

Great! Okay, Cold War's over. Let's go back and start the history of American art again, this time beginning with American Regionalism ... Sloan ... Curry ... Wood .... and our glorious tradition of illustrators, beginning with Pyle, Wyeth, and Leyendecker ... and even this guy.
posted by Faze at 10:38 AM on November 1, 2010


It blows my tiny little mind that what the CIA was promoting, the FBI was most likely simultaneously shadowing for ties to red-pinko-subversive Commies.
posted by beelzbubba at 10:38 AM on November 1, 2010 [13 favorites]


So if we take it as a given that modern art supports and promotes American values, it follows logically that those who want to defund the NEA are in fact virulent anti-American communist sympathizers, right?
posted by Aquaman at 10:42 AM on November 1, 2010 [27 favorites]


As an organization, does the CIA have more success than failures? You'll never know! And neither will anyone else, which is the genius of the whole endeavor.
posted by cell divide at 10:45 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


What's also interesting is that Soviet-era propaganda posters are making a stylistic comeback. So it's a double-didn't-work for the CIA.

But in a lot of ways, the propaganda power has been separated from the design merits of those old soviet-era posters. The majority of designers that I know that use them were kids or teens as the Soviet Union was reaching it's end, and most cant read Russian, so it's not like they are being influenced by the messages that much.

A friend of mine whose family emigrated from Russia when he graduated college isn't too bothered by seeing those posters or the current designs that have come from it - he once said IIRC, "There's a big difference between appreciating that style, and being 'forced' to. Showing strength is once thing, enforcement of strength is another thing entirely." His parents, however, just see it as a bad reminder of why they left.
posted by chambers at 10:48 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine whose family emigrated from Russia when he graduated college isn't too bothered by seeing those posters or the current designs that have come from it - he once said IIRC, "There's a big difference between appreciating that style, and being 'forced' to. Showing strength is once thing, enforcement of strength is another thing entirely." His parents, however, just see it as a bad reminder of why they left.

Well, for what it's worth, I'm a Russian emigrant and I think it's tacky. But not really any more tacky than the pseudo-Norman Rockwell style or whatever.
posted by nasreddin at 10:50 AM on November 1, 2010


beelzbubba: "It blows my tiny little mind that what the CIA was promoting, the FBI was most likely simultaneously shadowing for ties to red-pinko-subversive Commies."

That's the Hydra for ya!
posted by symbioid at 10:55 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


And it continued for decades. I've written elsewhere about how trippy it was to curate a show for the (now defunct) U.S. Information Agency, which was informally considered the Cold-War propaganda wing of the CIA, funding concerts, art shows and the like in unfriendly states. Between injecting contemporary American culture and establishing non-embassy outposts (er, "cultural centers") into Soviet metropolises, it was a defensible line-item in the Federal budget, and it helped to fund a lot of avant-garde composers, curators, artists, and other pinko non-profits along the way.
posted by turducken at 10:56 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Most of the "propaganda"-style art I've seen uses the style as an ironic shorthand, that the message is not coming from those in power, or that the message is not ideological but trivial/comical/etc.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:56 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Keep your government hands off my socialized art!
posted by sswiller at 10:58 AM on November 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


When do we find out the webz were actually a defense establishment project all along?
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:02 AM on November 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


So who do we thank for our freedoms - the CIA or the Soviets?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:12 AM on November 1, 2010


Hey guys, I've got a really great idea that will totally defeat Islamic extremism…

(Can I finally get anti-terrorism money for my photography? My Holga saves lives!)
posted by klangklangston at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


which is the genius of the whole endeavor

The genius is getting us to pay for it every year without any public oversight or debate.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:26 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


But what did succeed? Blue jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Billy Joel.

C'mon, don't be afraid, you can say it ... Capitalism.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:29 AM on November 1, 2010



But what did succeed? Blue jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Billy Joel.

C'mon, don't be afraid, you can say it ... Capitalism.


Not quite. Soft power yes, pop culture and global media influence, but that's more of a certain flavour of the free market economy than capitalism with a capital C per so
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2010


Darmstadt was funded by the CIA too. A bombed-out city after the 2nd world war with no electricity, no running water in parts, whose citizens yet got free tickets to this modern music festival. They were flying over artists from the US who didn't get any (commercial) traction there at the time. Frances Stonor Saunders wrote a book about this, Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War
posted by yoHighness at 11:32 AM on November 1, 2010


That's actually really, really cool. Use the money to do something positive. The effectiveness may be debatable, but no less so than many other, much more destructive things.
posted by Xoebe at 11:53 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


ZenMasterThis: But what did succeed? Blue jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Billy Joel.

C'mon, don't be afraid, you can say it ... Capitalism.


You're utterly missing the point. What succeed was not anything overt as Capitalism or the CIA pushing things; what succeeded was Americanized culture (which we think we don't have, but do). Russians/Sovet Bloc folks wanted those things that they saw in American movies and magazines that they perceived as cool. As my ex-Commie-wife pointed out, in the 1950's she wanted a transistor radio, not so much because she could pick up Voice of America (she didn't care), but because it was the cool thing to have - very very similar to the iPods today, and even more expensive back then. It in turn showed her a bigger world than what she was used to.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:57 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Old'n'Busted: “And in that regard, it failed. But what did succeed? Blue jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Billy Joel. What's also interesting is that Soviet-era propaganda posters are making a stylistic comeback. So it's a double-didn't-work for the CIA.”

Heh. It actually is kind of humorous to imagine guys at the CIA whinging and sighing over Tom Morello wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. "We really failed to change the culture for the better! Good god, these bands the kids have these days are awful. Can't they at least listen to Gang of Four or the Mekons? Sure, they're the enemy -- but at least they have integrity, and we really appreciate a little artistic diversity."
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


So DoD/CIA has a new anti-islamic figurative-art promoting division coming soon, yes?..... Wait a minute we've been fighting the WarOnTerror for 10 yrs now......

MAYBE THATS WHAT THOMAS KINKADE IS O GOD WHAT HAVE WE DONE?
posted by lalochezia at 12:06 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think the CIA ever really understood why art would work to turn the commies into capitalists, in the same way the staright-laced Ivy grads who worked there never understood the modern art they purchased for their walls -- yet they did it anyway. If the CIA had any brains behind it today, they'd air-drop a million iPhones loaded with porn, Netflix, and Plants vs. Zombies into Peshawar, Mogadishu, and a bunch of other places, and dedicate a satellite to providing them blazing-fast broadband. You'd never hear a peep from them again.
posted by turducken at 12:27 PM on November 1, 2010 [14 favorites]


Maplethorp fisted my mind.
posted by metagnathous at 12:50 PM on November 1, 2010


What succeed was not anything overt as Capitalism or the CIA pushing things; what succeeded was Americanized culture (which we think we don't have, but do). Russians/Sovet Bloc folks wanted those things that they saw in American movies and magazines that they perceived as cool. As my ex-Commie-wife pointed out, in the 1950's she wanted a transistor radio, not so much because she could pick up Voice of America (she didn't care), but because it was the cool thing to have - very very similar to the iPods today, and even more expensive back then. It in turn showed her a bigger world than what she was used to.

In other words, American consumer culture, created, stimulated and fed by ... ?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:53 PM on November 1, 2010


klang: internet porn is a secret CIA project fighting against Islamic extremists. Don't tell (for another 30 years)...
posted by rikschell at 12:54 PM on November 1, 2010



In other words, American consumer culture, created, stimulated and fed by ... ?

The Hidden Persuaders
The Waste Makers
and
The Status Seekers
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:55 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, but "consumerism" and "capitalism" aren't necessarily the same thing, which is I think what Old'N'Busted is getting at.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:22 PM on November 1, 2010


In fact, modern capitalism doesn't bear much resemblance to the capitalism of Adam Smith's day and throughout much of pre-Cold War history, when good capitalists were typically the loudest voices in the chorus shouting "Every problem cannot be reduced to economics." Now, of course, Capitalism has been reduced to a Bizarro-land mirror-image of Communism that simply has no recourse but to hold itself up as the opposite of whatever Communism is vaguely suspected to represent, all the while insisting on itself just as stridently as Communism once did (with no appreciation of the irony that this totalizing self-insistence was/is a big part of of what made Communism such a dangerous ideology in the first place).
posted by saulgoodman at 1:57 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


It blows my tiny little mind that what the CIA was promoting, the FBI was most likely simultaneously shadowing for ties to red-pinko-subversive Commies.

It's more complicated than that: The funding of Encounter magazine was directed against British left circles ("How the CIA plotted against us", New Statesman) and in its choice of Stephen Spender as assistant editor we can see the continuity with Horizon magazine which functioned as the house journal of those who lead the retreat form the positions of the "politically committed writer"(s) of the 1930's. Many of those in Horizon circles later became involved in the Congress for Cultural Freedom (itself funded by the CIA and publisher of Encounter). Spender resigned as editor when Rampart magazine revealed the CIA funding in 1968. The funding of Encounter was not without effect, it was an influential journal in its time whose cultural content lent credence to its political content. Though ostensibly free to publish what it wanted, this was the only the case it it did not go against American interest, something policed through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and there is documentary evidence to show it received CIA guidance. Amongst other things it refused, largely, to deal with McCarthyism though it was known for its criticism of cultural restrictions in the Soviet bloc.
posted by tallus at 2:29 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Blows your tiny little mind.
posted by rouftop at 3:03 PM on November 1, 2010


I think it was an operation hatched by Angleton to piss off Anthony Blunt.
posted by clavdivs at 3:42 PM on November 1, 2010


I don't know about Soviet cold-war-era art, but the artists from satellite nations like Poland and CZ had some pretty cool surrealist-influenced stuff at that time.
posted by ovvl at 4:40 PM on November 1, 2010


Thanks for the post BZArcher. Interesting topic. Yes, art can be weaponized. Art certainly has been used before in countless ways by those in power to increase their power, prestige, connection with a sense of Higher Authority and therefore convey being invincible, on the side of The Right and The Good. That's the stuff of art history around the planet for millennia.

Even though I've known about the CIA's co-opting of modern art during the Cold War for quite some time, it still blows my mind. It seems so bizarre to think that the CIA used the chaotic appearance of abstract expressionism as a foil for Soviet propaganda art. It is surreal to me that a military organisation, like the CIA, would endorse anything chaotic looking as a symbol of American intellectual strength or cultural power, especially when the politicians of the Cold War era would have preferred an American art that was another version of Soviet propaganda, something well-fed and wholesome looking, some version of Norman Rockwell.

It seems revoltingly slimy of the CIA to use modern art in such a manipulation, to sock puppet it for devious, political domination ends. They tried to cynically scoop out every iota of authenticity and put in a false, all hail American domination/corporationism, down with the Soviets, meaning. ugh.

The CIA conscripted and targeted young men from Yale, who were steeped in East Coast appreciation of art and literature to betray themselves, their culture and others. It also blew my mind to find out that Peter Matthiessen was one of those sock puppets used to create a CIA front with The Paris Review.
posted by nickyskye at 5:30 PM on November 1, 2010


I love abstract expressionism even if it was propped up by CIA propaganda money.

Of course, I love Wagner's work despite his batshit anti-semitism, so I'm already on record as believing that one can love the art without loving the circumstances that led to it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:35 PM on November 1, 2010


This has been known in the art world for years.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:29 PM on November 1


Huh! Like anyone with a name like R. Mutt could possibly know anything about art!
posted by Decani at 6:33 PM on November 1, 2010


This is awesome.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:49 PM on November 1, 2010


It's kind of creepy to think that an entire art movement was (possibly) influenced or created by a US intelligence agency.
posted by 1000monkeys at 7:49 PM on November 1, 2010


It's kind of creepy to think that an entire art movement was (possibly) influenced or created by a US intelligence agency.

Um, that's nowhere near what the article is saying.
posted by kersplunk at 8:25 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems so bizarre to think that the CIA used the chaotic appearance of abstract expressionism as a foil for Soviet propaganda art

I have always understood that it was not the appearance of Abstract Expressionism that attracted the CIA but rather the idea of the Artist as Rugged Individual as promoted by Jackson Pollock et al and the fact that it was an entirely home-grown art movement away form the dubious leftist influences of the European avant garde.
posted by tallus at 9:43 PM on November 1, 2010


What would be teh current day equivalent? Design? Design thinking?
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:07 AM on November 2, 2010


anything by Bill Blass
posted by clavdivs at 12:38 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


As if the CIA didn't have enough to repent for.
posted by Hickeystudio at 3:24 AM on November 2, 2010


What would be teh current day equivalent? Design? Design thinking?

The Tea Party age's equivalent would, of course, be Thomas Kincade. Schmaltzy, poorly executed, wearing its religiosity like a ribbon and as bent as a pyramid scheme.
posted by acb at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2010


I have always understood that it was not the appearance of Abstract Expressionism that attracted the CIA but rather the idea of the Artist as Rugged Individual as promoted by Jackson Pollock et al and the fact that it was an entirely home-grown art movement away form the dubious leftist influences of the European avant garde.

I think it's more than that. As the article points out, the Soviet Union was portraying the US as a cultural wasteland, offering nothing more sophisticated than blue jeans and Marlboros (as Old'n'Busted puts it above). At the time, many influential European intellectuals still imagined the Soviet Union to be some sort of leftist utopia, and the point was to convince these intellectuals that the US actually had much more to offer for people who cared about things like modern art. The fact that the abstract expressionists weren't overtly political (though many of them were actually quite left-leaning) may have been a plus, but the main point was to convince intellectuals that US culture was much more forward-looking than Soviet culture.
posted by klausness at 7:32 AM on November 3, 2010


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