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Before You Buy That Rothko…How the CIA Covertly Nurtured Modern Art as a Cold War “Weapon”

17.05.2015  |  20:04
Before You Buy That Rothko…How the CIA Covertly Nurtured Modern Art as a Cold War “Weapon”

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.

Because 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 of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

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 Program. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.

– From the excellent Independent article published in 1995: Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon’

Most of you will be aware of the oligarch bidding wars for high end art at recent auctions held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In fact, the feeding frenzy was so extreme,

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the top 10 lots accounted for almost $800 million alone. Some of these paintings are breathtakingly beautiful, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s, “L’Allée des Alyscamps.” Others, not so much. Such as this one by Mark Rothko, which sold for $46.5 million.

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Unsurprisingly, the paintings which seem to be least inspiring were by artists who were covertly pushed by the CIA in the 1950’s as part of its cold war strategy. Mark Rothko, for example, was born in the Russian Empire in 1903 (modern day Latvia) and ended up in America in 1913. Being a Russian artist in America made him the perfect CIA tool, and apparently his art served that purpose unbeknownst to him. The CIA program was originally set up in 1947, under the not so covert division called the Propaganda Assets Inventory. You really can’t make this up.

In one of the most interesting articles I’ve ever read, we learn from the UK Independent in a 1995 article:

 

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.

The 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- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

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, rumored 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.

This was the “long leash”. The centerpiece 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 Moscow and its “fellow travelers” in the West. At its height, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines, including Encounter.

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.

Because 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 of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

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 Program. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organizations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.

Before You Buy That Rothko…How the CIA Covertly Nurtured Modern Art as a Cold War “Weapon”. 404.jpegModern art fame, like so much else, was brought to you by the CIA, mainstream media and the Rockefellers.

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.”

In 1958 the touring exhibition “The New American Painting”, including works by Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others, was on show in Paris. The Tate Gallery was keen to have it next, but could not afford to bring it over. Late in the day, an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann, stepped in with the cash and the show was brought to London.

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.

So, unknown to the Tate, the public or the artists, the exhibition was transferred to London at American taxpayers’ expense to serve subtle Cold War propaganda purposes.

Of course, this stuff is still going on as much as ever, if not more so, and we can only begin to imagine how much modern American society is being covertly manipulated, duped and scammed by CIA propagandists. In case you need a few examples…

U.S. Officials Panic About Seymour Hersh Story; Then Deny His Claims Using Jedi Mind Tricks

Bankers for Hire – Former Bank of Baltimore CEO Admits He Worked for the CIA

Revelations from the Torture Report – CIA Lies, Nazi Methods and the $81 Million No-Bid Torture Contract

“Non-Official Cover” – Respected German Journalist Blows Whistle on How the CIA Controls the Media

Remember Zero Dark Thirty? Turns Out it was a CIA Propaganda Film After All

Of course, that’s just the very tip of the iceberg. 




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