Modern art was CIA 'weapon'
Revealed: how the spy agency used unwitting artists such as Pollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold War
For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art - including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince - except that it acted secretly - the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.
connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the
great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art - President
Truman summed up the popular view when he said: "If that's art, then I'm a
Hottentot." As for the artists themselves, many
were ex- com- munists barely acceptable in the
Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
The existence of this policy, rumoured and disputed for many years, has now been confirmed for the first time by former CIA officials. Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the "long leash" - arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.
The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.
next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD)
was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated
version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists,
opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's
international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry,
in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted
more open attempts were made to support the new American art. In 1947 the State
Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled
"Advancing American Art", with the aim of rebutting Soviet
connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency,
staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and
wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with
a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover's FBI. If any
official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of
Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the
Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.
Abstract Expressionism, I'd love to be able to say that the CIA invented it
just to see what happens in
a way our understanding was helped because
pursue its underground interest in
was the "long leash". The centrepiece of the CIA campaign became the
Congress for Cultural Freedom, a vast jamboree of intellectuals, writers,
historians, poets, and artists which was set up with CIA funds in 1950 and run
by a CIA agent. It was the beach-head from which culture could be defended
against the attacks of
The Congress for Cultural Freedom also gave the CIA the ideal front to promote its covert interest in Abstract Expressionism. It would be the official sponsor of touring exhibitions; its magazines would provide useful platforms for critics favourable to the new American painting; and no one, the artists included, would be any the wiser.
organisation put together several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during
the 1950s. One of the most significant, "The New American Painting",
visited every big European city in 1958-59. Other influential shows included
"Modern Art in the
Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires
and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson
Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the
museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the
president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the
members' board of the museum's International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who
had served in the agency's wartime predecessor, the
in his eighties, Mr Braden lives in
"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."
He confirmed that his division had acted secretly because of the public hostility to the avant-garde: "It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do - send art abroad, send symphonies abroad, publish magazines abroad. That's one of the reasons it had to be done covertly. It had to be a secret. In order to encourage openness we had to be secret."
If this meant playing pope to this century's Michelangelos, well, all the better: "It takes a pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognise art and to support it," Mr Braden said. "And after many centuries people say, 'Oh look! the Sistine Chapel, the most beautiful creation on Earth!' It's a problem that civilisation has faced ever since the first artist and the first millionaire or pope who supported him. And yet if it hadn't been for the multi-millionaires or the popes, we wouldn't have had the art."
Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage? The answer is probably yes. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting you are being duped by the CIA.
But look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries. For the Cold Warriors who promoted them, these paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system which they wanted to display everywhere that counted. They succeeded.
1958 the touring exhibition "The New American Painting", including
works by Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others,
was on show in
The money that Fleischmann provided, however, was not his but the CIA's. It came through a body called the Farfield Foundation, of which Fleischmann was president, but far from being a millionaire's charitable arm, the foundation was a secret conduit for CIA funds.
unknown to the Tate, the public or the artists, the exhibition was transferred
Fleischmann was well placed for such a role. He sat on the board of the
International Programme of the
By Frances Stonor Saunders, Sunday, 22 October 1995