Modern Art as CIA Weapon

My friend just shared with me an old Independent article, “Modern Art was CIA ‘Weapon'” (22 October 1995). It has been revealed that the American CIA used unwitting artists like Pollock and De Kooning to make political statements during the cultural Cold War with Russia. The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. As Abstract Expressionism (and modern art in general) gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA used this art to foster images of American creativity and and intellectual freedom.

This type of abstract art is a stark contrast to the Soviet Realism that was officially adopted as the only art form of the Soviet Union in 1934. Compare, for example, details from two paintings that were made about the same time:

Left: Detail of Pollock's "No. 5, 1948". Right: detail of Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's "Morning of Our Motherland," 1946-48

I think it is so interesting that the CIA used modern art as a political weapon, because art critics like Clement Greenberg endorsed modern art (specifically Abstract Expressionism) because it wasn’t associated with politics. Political art was “kitsch” in Greenberg’s opinion (as he emphasized in his 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”). So, in some ways, the CIA was giving Abstract Expressionism political associations that were fundamentally opposed to the tenants of the movement! I’m sure Greenberg would have been appalled to know that his beloved modern art was being used for such lowly (!) propagandistic purposes.

  • heidenkind says:

    I guess that helps to explain why there are so many AbEx artists in the National Gallery.

  • Kat says:

    It’s fascinating isn’t it? I ma teaching a course at the moment which is a combo of the art history and history of post-war America and we cover this with the students (I rather suspect half the essays are going to be on this topic…) If anyone is interested in reading more on it I recommend Eve Cockroft’s ‘Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War’ from Artforum, June 1974. The other irony is that one the ond hand modern art was being used internationally to promote the idea of freedom of expression, yet in the US many artists were being targeted by conservative like McCarthy as degenerates and communists.

  • Hi Kat! Thanks for the Artforum article! I’ll check it out. My students seem curious in this topic, so I’ll be glad to have an extra resource to recommend to them. It really is fascinating! I guess these multiple interpretations and uses for modern art (which is such a POSTmodern idea) is really an indication of the holes in modernist theory.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.