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:

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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

No Women Need Apply: A Disheartening 1938 Rejection Letter from Disney Animation

Disney Letter

Put yourself in the mind of an artistic young woman who goes to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it first opens in 1937. Captivated by the film’s groundbreaking cel-based cinematic animation, understanding that it represents the future of the art form, you feel you should pursue a career with a studio yourself. Alas, in response to the letter of inquiry you send Disney’s way, you receive the terse rejection letter above. “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen,” it flatly states, “as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.” Your only remaining hope? To aim lower on the totem pole and become an “Inker” or “Painter,” but “it would not be advisable to come to Hollywood with the above specifically in view, as there are really very few openings in comparison with the number of girls who apply.”

Times have changed; women now create animation. But to catch a glimpse of the industry in decidedly pre-changed times, revisit the 1939 promotional documentary short How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made. In it, you’ll see these very young men hard at work, as well as those “pretty girls” hired to do inking and color. Prewar Disney turned out some masterpieces, no doubt, but by today’s standards their attitudes toward gender may leave something to be desired. “This letter originally belonged to my grandmother,” writes the user who discovered the note above. “After she passed away we discovered it and were surprised at how well it was preserved for being nearly 70 years old.” Young women like her, aspiring to high places in animation, found themselves forced to find alternate routes in, although after receiving that rejection letter on that stationery — emblazoned with Snow White herself, adding insult to injury — I wouldn’t blame them for looking into other fields entirely.

via Sociological Images & Mefi

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Walt Disney Presents the Super Cartoon Camera (1957)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The Odd Collection of Books in the Guantanamo Prison Library

gitmo booksYou don’t hear much about Guantanamo these days, unless you keep an eye on the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage. Last week, Savage reported on a hunger strike involving 93 prisoners that’s now in its third month. Ostensibly the protest is in response to prison guards handling the Koran in disrespectful ways. But the real cause comes down to this: “a growing sense among many prisoners, some of whom have been held without trial for more than 11 years, that they will never go home.”

As part of Savage’s reporting on Gitmo, he has also created a photo blog that gives us insight into the prison library and its odd collection of books. The library offers prisoners access to Captain America comics (that must go over well with enemy combatants); pulp romance books by Danielle Steele (another choice pick for Islamists); the complete Harry Potter series (I imagine the Prisoner of Azkaban volume hits home); some more serious works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Dickens; an assortment of religious books; and the occasional self help book like The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.

According to news reports, the library currently has 3,500 volumes on pre-approved topics. Prisoners have to order books in advance. (They can’t just wonder through the stacks.) And the most popular books include Agatha Christie mysteries, the self-help manual Don’t Be Sad; the The Lord of the Rings; and, of course, Harry Potter. 

We know that other prisons have given their residents access to our collections of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks. But I doubt that will be happening at Gitmo any time soon.

You can follow Savage’s photoblog here.

via @themillions

Andrés Segovia: Song of the Guitar, Beautifully Filmed at the Alhambra

Not long ago we posted a beautiful scene featuring the legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia playing Johann Sebastian Bach at the Alhambra, the storied 14th century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. Today we’re pleased to bring you the entire 50-minute film from which it came, Andrés Segovia: The Song of the Guitar.

The documentary was made in 1976 by the South African-born filmmaker Christopher Nupen. Segovia was 84 years old at the time. When he was a child living in Granada, Segovia loved to bring his guitar to the Alhambra and play for friends. “It was here,” he says in the film, “that I opened my eyes to the beauty of nature and art. To be here is to feel oneself to be near, very near, paradise.” Segovia is often described as the father of modern classical guitar. In the liner notes to the film, which is available on DVD along with another film on Segovia by Nupen, it says:

As an instrumentalist, Segovia did for the guitar what Casals did for the cello, but he did it with an instrument that had never before been taken seriously as a concert instrument. Within his own lifetime, Segovia taught himself the instrument, revolutionised the technique and elevated a folk instrument to the highest levels of the international concert platform. As a musician, he has come to be recognised as one of the most refined and profound of his time.

In the film, Segovia reminisces about his early days in Grenada and his happy discovery of the guitar. He plays ten pieces, all beautifully filmed in the courtyards of the Alhambra:

  1. “Capricho Catalán” by Isaac Albéniz
  2. “La Maja de Goya” by Enrique Granados
  3. “Torre Bermeja” by Isaac Albéniz
  4. “Sonata in E Minor” by Domenico Scarlatti
  5. “Minuet” by Jean-Philippe Rameau
  6. “Minuet” by Fernando Sor
  7. “Ballet and Allegretto” by Manuel Ponce
  8. “Gavotte I & II” by Johann Sebastian Bach
  9. “Leyenda” by Isaac Albéniz
  10. “El Noi de la Mare” a Catalan folk song

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Tilda Swinton and Barry White Lead 1500 People in Dance-Along to Honor Roger Ebert

The relationship of movie star to critic isn’t always as parasitic and fraught as you might imagine. Witness Tilda Swinton bouncing around the Virginia Theater in Champaign Illinois, urging audience members to get up and dance in honor of the late Roger Ebert. (He gave high praise to Swinton’s 2009 film Julia, one of the offerings in this year’s Ebertfest.)

Prior to leaping into the audience to the strains of Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”, the actress decreed participation was mandatory, no voyeurism allowed. With Ebert’s widow, Chaz, busting some serious moves in support, most of the 1500 attendees seemed content to split the difference, cheerfully clapping along in their seats (though check out the grim “how long ’til we’re released from this hell” faces of the couple in the balcony at the 4:10 mark).

Remember White Men Can’t Jump? One is tempted to tack on “or dance,” watching the few game souls who truly threw themselves into the spirit of the thing. No shame in that. It was, in Swinton’s words, a “spiritual service”, not a talent contest. Surely the biggest winners are the ones beaming breathlessly from the stage at song’s end. (Honorable mention to anyone who’s inspired to never again let a fear of embarrassment lead to inaction.)

Life is beautiful. Life is short.

Ayun Halliday wishes she had been there, for sure. Follow her @AyunHalliday

History Declassified: New Archive Reveals Once-Secret Documents from World Governments

che and Zhou Enlai

In the early ’90s, the so-called “Iron Archives” of Russian political documents from the Cold War era opened up to historians, shedding light on the earliest days of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin’s diplomatic alliance.

But not all of the Russian documents were declassified at that time. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has launched a new digital archive containing recently declassified materials from some 100 different international collections, including a cable Mao sent to Commander Filippov (Stalin’s alias) eagerly detailing his plans to study Russia and complaining about his poor health.

The subsequent exchange between the two world leaders is as banal as their later correspondence would be ideological. Mao suggests, once his health improves, that they use the aerodrome in Weixian for his departure and he includes the exact dimensions of the landing strip. One wonders whether Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres worked so closely together on travel details for their meetings in March.

The details contained in the thousands of cables, telegrams and memos are part of the fun. Other documents exchanged between the KGB chairman and East German Minister in July, 1981 include blunt language about the difficulties of reading the Reagan Administration’s intentions and the importance of quashing the Polish Solidarity Movement.

Because the world’s biggest issues tend to have long roots, there is a lot of material here that echoes today’s headlines. Here, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs records a 1958 memo about his assessment of North Korea’s plans for a nuclear program.

During a 1960 global communist delegation meeting, Mao Zedong spoke at length with Che Guevara about sugar sales, American influence and counter-revolutionaries.

As a side note, the Wilson Center is a one of the more intellectual memorials to an American president. Woodrow Wilson was, after all, the only President of the United States to hold a Ph.D. The Center is one of the world’s top think tanks, with research and projects focused on U.S.-Russia relations, the Middle East, North Korea and, oddly, emerging nanotechnologies. But, of course, the Wilson Center is more known for its centrist analysis of international diplomacy issues.

The new digital archive (whose tagline is “International History Declassified”) offers several ways to search: by place, year (beginning with1938) or subject. For scholars or history buffs, this is a trove worth browsing.

Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Visit her website: .

Jane Austen, Game Theorist: UCLA Poli Sci Prof Finds Shrewd Strategy in “Cluelessness”

Professional jealousy is probably the worst reason to dismiss a new perspective, whether it comes from within one’s field, outside it, or anywhere else. Snobbery leads to inbreeding and intellectual dead-ends. So when Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at UCLA who specializes in game theory, has an epiphany about Jane Austen as a proto-game theorist, maybe his insights should change the way English profs—and everyone else—read the author of Pride and Prejudice.

I don’t know. I haven’t read Chwe’s book, Jane Austen: Game Theorist (read a sample chapter here), but I’ll confess, I’m skeptical of anyone who calls Austen’s literary work a “research program” that has “results” in a book of “230 diagram-heavy pages.”  It seems to miss the point somehow. Austen is perhaps these days the most-adapted of British writers, and her academic cachet couldn’t be higher. But the best takes on her work—whether scholarly or popular—are fun, focused on character and language, not technocratic theory.

But maybe I’ve misjudged Chwe’s intent. He was, after all, inspired to read Austen by “watching movies and reading books with his children.” And one of the concepts Chwe ascribes to Austen is that of “cluelessness,” a term he takes from that classic nineties movie Clueless (inspired by Austen’s Emma, clip above). In Chwe’s analysis, cluelessness is not at all garden-variety stupidity; it’s the benevolent deviousness of Elizabeth Bennet or the “dumb blonde” act Alicia Silverstone’s character pulls off in convincing others that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, all the while manipulating, cajoling, and demurring to get her way.

Chwe also pursues the darker side of cluelessness, relating it to grim episodes like the 2004 killing of four private contractors in Falluja. Overall, his book identifies fifty “manipulation strategies” he finds in Austen. While his book seems to promise some entertaining observations it also might further confirm for serious Austen readers that the eighteenth-century novelist was one of the most psychologically insightful writers of the past few centuries.

Related Content:

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

Woody Allen Amuses Himself by Giving Untruthful Answers in Unaired 1971 TV Interview

Celebrities tire of giving interviews. I’ve learned this by spending most of my career conducting interviews myself, and thus desperately trying to master asking the questions that wake up a weary interviewee, getting them engaged enough to cast aside the boilerplate and speak like a conversing human being. But what about the celebrities themselves? What can they do to spice up their experience? In 1971, the oft-interviewed Woody Allen sat down with Granada Television and took a bold move to keep things interesting, apparently challenging himself to reply to each question as untruthfully as possible. Though the conversation never aired, Allen did manage to keep up the routine for quite some time, and you can watch nearly forty minutes of it in the clip above.

The interviewer asks Allen for a synopsis of his new picture. “It’s a drama about human emotion in the United States,” the director flatly replies. “It deals with the tragedy of divorce as it relates to the children and those who have to suffer continually from the effects of an unhappy home.” So it contains no comedy whatsoever, then? “No, I try and keep as much comedy out of my films as possible.” The film ostensibly under discussion: Bananas. Asked question after broad, brief question, Allen lobs back ever drier and more implausible fabrications. His dedicated fans, though, will notice that he does slip in a factual statement. Asked if he watches his own films, he says no; and indeed, he famously never looks back at past work. The increasingly nervous-sounding interviewer (who may be in on the joke?) asks why. “Because I don’t have the patience to sit through them.”

h/t @lit_hum

Related content:

Woody Allen Answers 12 Unconventional Questions He Has Never Been Asked Before

Meetin’ WA: Jean-Luc Godard Meets Woody Allen in 26 Minute Film

Woody Allen Lives the “Delicious Life” in Early-80s Japanese Commercials

Woody Allen Boxes a Kangaroo, 1966

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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