1/9/2018 3 Comments
As Tom Braden, the first chief of CIA International Organizations Division stated, "It takes a pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognize art and to support it.” Regarding the CIA’s involvement in the art world during the Cold War, both the “MoMA, The Bomb and the Abstract Expressionists” and the “Modern Art was a CIA ‘weapon’” articles surprised me. It was actually due to the CIA that the Abstract Expressionist movement had grown so much. They had pushed American art onto other countries and turned it from being hated by Americans openly to avant-garde. All this done with some money and connections. The “MoMA” article described one of the subdivisions of the CIA: “the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organizations.” The article also reports that in an interview, a former CIA agent states that in order to do all of this successfully, they had to keep it out of the public eye. So, when it was the public that was to either condemn or applaud this new art form, why had it in fact become so popular? Is it really the idea of Abstract Expressionism that the government sponsored, or the art itself that is great?
While the US proclaimed that Abstract Expressionism was the epitome of individualism and thus liberty, they also condemned the authoritarian regimes in Russia. This “cultural war” was fought at the expense of the artists, the public, and also France. Although the message was pro-individual, where the government was not forcing anything, the CIA was in fact selectively advocating pieces that were banned in Russia, the “MoMA” article claims. The artists pieces were twisted to fit propaganda while their personalities were sold to the public, exactly as the American officials claimed that the Russians did. And so, while some artists became rich and famous, others suffered psychologically due to the idea that their works were no longer really theirs. The “MoMA” article states, “Images out of historical context can so readily be construed to mean their opposite, and most certainly this will happen if the interpreters wield tremendous power and have an urgent agenda to attend to.” This is especially true for any type of media, not necessarily an image. But this brings out a question about Abstract Expressionism itself. Without context from the artist, viewers can claim to see whatever their imaginations grant them, which could be positive or negative. The artist could have the purpose of using certain colors or lines to evoke emotion, but the viewer may interpret them completely differently.
Before the CIA was involved, many of the artists in cities were poor, Marxist, political, nihilist and met often in groups. However, as is now known, their works were used to showcase individual liberty and cultural wealth against the Communist regime. They began to target the elite to try and sell their art rather than the masses, which actually benefited the CIA as they used millionaires to distribute American art around the world. While trying to sell their art, the American artists “became wary of losing their individuality by joining groups”, so they turned inward. They wrote a manifesto, describing what should constitute modern art: “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. ...There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial….” This is my new art motto. It has become my inspiration for the project we are starting in class. It can apply to any piece, and if asked what a painting is about, the artist will most likely come up with something that it is about. If they initially say that the painting is about nothing, they can dig a little deeper and figure out something that can directly or indirectly tie to it. However, this statement brings up the question once again, about what makes a painting good. Is it good composition, mark/ surface, and color? Is it the emotion evoked?
There is a nice little sentence in the "MoMA" article, “The Abstract Expressionist artists felt keenly that they had to present a pessimism, a somber refusal to paint either reality or viscera, as that would be frivolous, superfluous, and hollow.” This sums up emotions during the Cold War, but can apply to other conflicts as well. The CIA's use of Abstract Expressionism to show that the US and its ideals were supreme and justified to the world, tie with the idea of “universality” of the pieces. When going outside of realism, it is up to the viewer to decipher the emotions and thoughts of the artist on issues, especially during times of conflict. Art can sum up society during particular time periods well usually, however, the only things grouping the pieces of the Abstract Expressionist time period is their “individualism”. There is no specific motif that tie them to events or people. Now it is up to us to interpret the emotions of that time period into our own marks during this project, where we will have to keep in mind, how-- when out out of context-- they can be seen differently and become a common interpretation without our control.