How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a tru­ly pro­le­tar­i­an art, the great Eng­lish lit­er­ary crit­ic William Emp­son once wrote, “the rea­son an Eng­lish audi­ence can enjoy Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­dist films is that the pro­pa­gan­da is too remote to be annoy­ing.” Per­haps this is why Amer­i­can artists and bohemi­ans have so often tak­en to the polit­i­cal iconog­ra­phy of far-flung regimes, in ways both roman­tic and iron­ic. One nation’s tedious social­ist real­ism is another’s rad­i­cal exot­i­ca.

But do U.S. cul­tur­al exports have the same effect? One need only look at the suc­cess of our most banal brand­ing over­seas to answer in the affir­ma­tive. Yet no one would think to add Abstract Expres­sion­ist paint­ing to a list that includes fast food and Walt Dis­ney prod­ucts. Nev­er­the­less, the work of such artists as Jack­son Pol­lock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koon­ing wound up as part of a secret CIA pro­gram dur­ing the height of the Cold War, aimed at pro­mot­ing Amer­i­can ideals abroad.

The artists them­selves were com­plete­ly unaware that their work was being used as pro­pa­gan­da. On what agents called a “long leash,” they par­tic­i­pat­ed in sev­er­al exhi­bi­tions secret­ly orga­nized by the CIA, such as “The New Amer­i­can Paint­ing” (see cat­a­log cov­er at top), which vis­it­ed major Euro­pean cities in 1958–59 and includ­ed such mod­ern prim­i­tive works as sur­re­al­ist William Baziotes’ 1947 Dwarf (below) and 1951’s Tour­na­ment by Adolph Got­tlieb above.

Of course what seems most bizarre about this turn of events is that avant-garde art in Amer­i­ca has nev­er been much appre­ci­at­ed by the aver­age cit­i­zen, to put it mild­ly. Amer­i­can Main Streets har­bor under­cur­rents of dis­trust or out­right hatred for out-there, art-world exper­i­men­ta­tion, a trend that fil­ters upward and peri­od­i­cal­ly erupts in con­tro­ver­sies over Con­gres­sion­al fund­ing for the arts. A 1995 Inde­pen­dent arti­cle on the CIA’s role in pro­mot­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ism describes these atti­tudes dur­ing the Cold War peri­od:

In the 1950s and 1960s… 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, then, did they receive such back­ing? One short answer:

This philis­tin­ism, com­bined with Joseph McCarthy’s hys­ter­i­cal denun­ci­a­tions of all that was avant-garde or unortho­dox, was deeply embar­rass­ing. It dis­cred­it­ed the idea that Amer­i­ca was a sophis­ti­cat­ed, cul­tur­al­ly rich democ­ra­cy.

The one-way rela­tion­ship between mod­ernist painters and the CIA—only recent­ly con­firmed by for­mer case offi­cer Don­ald Jameson—supposedly enabled the agency to make the work of Sovi­et Social­ist Real­ists appear, in Jameson’s words, “even more styl­ized and more rigid and con­fined than it was.” (See Evdokiya Usikova’s 1959 Lenin with Vil­lagers below, for exam­ple). For a longer expla­na­tion, read the full arti­cle at The Inde­pen­dent. It’s the kind of sto­ry Don DeLil­lo would cook up.


William Emp­son goes on to say that “a Tory audi­ence sub­ject­ed to Tory pro­pa­gan­da of the same inten­si­ty” as Russ­ian imports, “would be extreme­ly bored.” If he is cor­rect, it’s like­ly that the aver­age true believ­er social­ist in Europe was already bored sil­ly by Sovi­et-approved art. What sur­pris­es in these rev­e­la­tions is that the avant-garde works that so rad­i­cal­ly altered the Amer­i­can art world and enraged the aver­age con­gress­man and tax­pay­er were co-opt­ed and col­lect­ed by suave U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cers like so many Shep­ard Fairey posters.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jack­son Pol­lock 51: Short Film Shows the Painter Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the 1913 Exhi­bi­tion That Intro­duced Avant-Garde Art to Amer­i­ca

MoMA Puts Pol­lock, Rothko & de Koon­ing on Your iPad

Rauschen­berg Eras­es De Koon­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (20)
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  • Bill Peschel says:

    So the CIA was more cul­tur­al savvy than most Amer­i­cans of the ’50s.

  • chris martin says:

    Hey Bill, does prop­a­gat­ing an ugly plant make the gar­den­er ‘savvy’ to the dom­i­na­tion of that plant in a garden…or is it anoth­er exam­ple of inter­fer­ence in the nat­ur­al order of the gar­den? In Aus­tralia we have a pest called a cane toad that was intro­duced in 1935
    by peo­ple who want­ed to con­trol the sug­ar cane bee­tle. It has no nat­ur­al preda­tor and has dra­mat­i­cal­ly altered the ecol­o­gy here. It is now recog­nised as a threat to the nat­ur­al sys­tem. I think Abstract Impres­sion­ism was (is) like a cane toad. Far too com­mon, ugly as all hell, and not wel­come. Cul­tur­al­ly savvy indeed!

  • Edward Thomas says:

    Way to go, CIA!

  • RdAL says:

    Weren’t rus­sians about to try the same with their van­guard just before real­is­tic social­ism hit? Some info on that would be great!

  • LOL! This arti­cle real­ly made me laugh, not because I dis­beleived it but because I find it entire­ly plau­si­ble. Abstract expres­sion­ism is faux-art and could only have been main­tained with the CIA fund­ing mak­ing it appear to be legit­i­mate art. The com­mer­cial “art world” is a gigan­tic hoax of social engi­neer­ing.

  • dave a says:

    this is step 22.

    22. Con­tin­ue dis­cred­it­ing Amer­i­can cul­ture by degrad­ing all forms of artis­tic expres­sion. An Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist cell was told to “elim­i­nate all good sculp­ture from parks and build­ings, sub­sti­tute shape­less, awk­ward and mean­ing­less forms.”

  • Savi says:

    Shrewd move by the CIA.

    It was a war of ideas. The free­dom artists enjoy else­where to be orig­i­nal and dar­ing did not pass unno­ticed inside the Iron Cur­tain.

  • Miles Mathis says:

    This arti­cle is a CIA white­wash itself. The artists weren’t on any long leash, and the CIA itself blew their cov­er back in the 1960’s. See agent Tom Braden’s arti­cle in the Sat­ur­day Evening Post, or the arti­cles in Ram­parts. Even the 1995 arti­cle by Saun­ders that Josh Jones links to admits that. Saun­ders book shows you that all these artists were part of the pro­pa­gan­da pro­gram that is still going on.

  • Alex says:

    Sum­ma­ry: Using Avante Garde art on com­mies = LULZ

  • Alex says:

    Sum­ma­ry: Using Avante Garde art on com­mies = LULZ

  • Michael Kennedy says:

    You don’t have to be an artist to rec­og­nize crap when you see it.


  • Joaquin Hermon says:

    Oh, why both­er? You are the one who thinks “the Gov­ern­ment” blew up the Twin Tow­ers on 9/11.
    Your take is that most of whole world is a white­wash or cov­er-up of one kind or anoth­er.

    Here are some of your quotes:

    911 Truth
    “I think pret­ty much every­one knows that 911 was an inside job. We know that cell­phone calls from the planes were faked. We know that video of the planes going into the tow­ers was faked. We know that the 19 hijack­ers were either made up or were under the pro­tec­tion of the US gov­ern­ment. We know that there is no evi­dence they were on the planes, and that there is much evi­dence that many of them were not on the planes.”

    Proof From NASA That Pi is 4
    “NASA is hid­ing some­thing here.…They can’t admit that π is wrong, because that would make every­one look very stupid.…about any num­ber of oth­er things con­cern­ing oth­er cov­er-ups at NASA.”

    Cen­sored By Yahoo
    “If the Gestapo is try­ing to silence me, I must be doing some­thing right. A new wave of cen­sor­ship is just begin­ning and the major web­hosts are of course among the first tar­gets. Giv­en that the USGov wants to quash 911 ques­tions (as the DoD has just admit­ted), Yahoo and Google and MSN would nat­u­ral­ly be the places to start. The only way to avoid the secret police is to have no opin­ion.”

    Was Physics Tak­en Over By The Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ties?
    “If the CIA can con­trol the media for decades, it can also con­trol sci­ence. So why would the CIA want to con­trol sci­ence? I don’t think that is hard to answer. The gov­ern­ment doesn’t want pri­vate cit­i­zens or unsu­per­vised uni­ver­si­ty peo­ple dis­cov­er­ing any­thing, because that would be dan­ger­ous.”

    The Boston Marathon
    “The good thing about these recent events is that they are so poor­ly faked that a lot of peo­ple are catch­ing on. If they can keep us talk­ing about three fake peo­ple who were fake-killed in Boston or the 27 peo­ple who were fake-killed in Sandy Hook, they can keep our eyes off the real tragedies.”

    “Fake-killed”? “Pi is 4”? “video of the planes going into the tow­ers was faked”?

    And you won­der why only kooks take you seri­ous­ly?

  • Joaquin Hermon says:

    My pre­vi­ous post was a reply to Miles Math­is.

  • Lenore says:

    Where is the proof that the exhi­bi­tion The New Amer­i­can Paint­ing was fund­ed or pro­mot­ed by the CIA? Please name your source.

  • William Elston says:

    Far from being unknown, there was an exten­sive arti­cle regard­ing this in Art­fo­rum in 1974, writ­ten by Eva Cock­croft, enti­tled “Abstract Expres­sion­ism, Weapon of the Cold War.” Based on FOIA requests, the arti­cle should have caused a reassess­ment of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, but by then the art mar­ket and the iner­tial weight of cul­tur­al invest­ment worked to obvi­ate that pos­si­bil­i­ty.

  • elif gökteke says:

    Please check “How New York stole the idea of mod­ern art” by Serge Guil­baut.

  • Kristen Godfrey says:

    I always thought the Intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty and indus­tri­al­ists like Hearst and Rock­e­feller were unnerved by the pow­er of art as a tool of polit­i­cal change. The pow­er­ful art com­ing out of Mex­i­co, Rivera, Oroz­co etc was deemed dan­ger­ous. There­fore they decid­ed to pro­mote a form of art that by its very nature lacks any mean­ing or any pow­er of influ­ence over the view­er. The mur­al that Rock­e­feller com­mis­sioned Rivera to paint in the new Rock­e­feller Cen­ter con­tained a por­trait of Lenin. Rivera absolute­ly refused to remove the por­trait and Rock­e­feller refused to per­mit it. At that point the great Amer­i­can oli­garchs decid­ed to bring art to its knees.

  • Steve Moore says:

    Dif­fi­cult to under­stand why CIA would both­er to spend much mon­ey on this? Would­n’t have made much or any impact.

  • Pat Devlin says:

    Always thought abstract art was a con, but it beats that grim social­ist real­ism ‘art.’

  • JTWilliams says:

    Wow, a web­site with an old school com­ment sec­tion under the arti­cles. I love it. Cul­ture is the expres­sion of how peo­ple live. Change that cul­ture, arti­fi­cial­ly, and you can change the rela­tion­ship between the rul­ing class and the pop­u­la­tion. If only peo­ple could see how dif­fer­ent the world is from 10–20 years ago. At a glance, you prob­a­bly think it’s not much dif­fer­ent. But the church is falling, moral rel­a­tivism abounds. And as a result, peo­ple are unhap­pi­er than ever. Peo­ple are more prone to crim­i­nal behav­ior, and the pros­e­cu­tors are weak on crime. And God for­bid you defend your­self or oth­ers- you’ll be the next great vil­lain on the night­ly news!
    This didn’t hap­pen organ­i­cal­ly. The CIA wants this, among many oth­ers.. It’s called social engi­neer­ing, and it’s rad­i­cal­ly evolv­ing… and fast!

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