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How the CIA Spent Secret Millions Turning Modern Art Into a Cold War Arsenal

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The most vivid icons of Cold War militarism—the ever-looming destruction that could be unleashed—are usually a mushroom cloud or gleaming ICBM. But we should count Jackson Pollock, too. The CIA spent millions weaponizing modern art against Russia.

There's little more divisive than modern art—most take a staunch "brilliance" or "bullshit" stance. So it should come as a surprise that the straight-laced feds at the CIA leaned toward the former camp—or at least saw it as brilliantly exploitable in the psychological war against the Soviets. Reports from former agents acknowledge what was always a tall tale in the art world—that CIA spooks floated pioneering artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell, to drop an aesthetic nuke on Communism. What seemed like natural popularity of certain artists was, in part, actually a deliberate attempt at psychological warfare, backed by the US government.


But why modern art? At the time period in question—the 1950s and 60s—the artistic style of the moment was Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx, if you want to impress people at your next snooty cocktail party) stood for, above all else, self expression. Radically so. Take a look at a Pollock, for instance.

Pollock stood over his canvas, stomping, whipping his brush, almost dancing across his paintings. It was wild, and raw, and—from an artistic perspective—quite powerful stuff. The reason it disgusted so many Americans then (and now) was that it was the exact antithesis of the older stuff. Norman Rockwell stuff. It didn't just break the rules of painting, it was entirely ruleless—ditto the work of Pollock's peers. Abstract Expressionism was meant to be the unmitigated will of a human being, blasted onto a canvas in the form of paint. And, thought the CIA, it was American as hell.


You see, on the other side of the planet, the Russian style of choice was Socialist Realism, which depicted accurate, politically-tinted scenes of home life, productive countrysides, and such. It's beautiful school in its own right—but a pretty enormous distance from the uncaged, violently individualistic monster of American modern art at the time. So what better way to win some Communist hearts and minds than by impressing them with the "liberated" power of Abstract Expressionism?

The CIA wanted this art to be global. So it dumped millions upon millions of dollars to be secret patrons of art world darlings like Pollock. Fake foundations, used as CIA slush funds, sponsored international exhibitions. Former CIA operative Tom Braden says it was pretty easy to wedge your way into the art world when you were packing government cash:

"We would go to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person and we would say, 'We want to set up a foundation.' We would tell him what we were trying to do and pledge him to secrecy, and he would say, 'Of course I'll do it,' and then you would publish a letterhead and his name would be on it and there would be a foundation. It was really a pretty simple device."


This technique—called "long leash" operations—kept the CIA in the shadows as it sponsored massive organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had offices in 35 countries, and organized historic exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art in cities across Europe. The works were to form a psychological blockade against Communist artistic influence. Look at us! WE make great art!, each superpower shouted back and forth.


And so it went, until both Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism's fame outlived the Cold War itself, becoming models of excellence for any Art History 101 student. Does the fact that the former's popularity owes at least partially to a desire to destroy Russia compromise its integrity as an artform? According to the CIA gents behind the plot, it shouldn't:

"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."


So, I guess that would make the CIA the Pope? Who's to say what Pollock would have thought of the arrangement had it been disclosed to him, but I'll still prefer to look at his work as a piece of beauty, not a bomb. [The Independent]