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

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

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons Are Made

Don­ald Duck Wants You to Pay Your Tax­es (1943)

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

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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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Gui­tar: The Com­plete Three-Part Doc­u­men­tary

The Art of Mak­ing a Fla­men­co Gui­tar: 299 Hours of Blood, Sweat & Tears Expe­ri­enced in 3 Min­utes

The Gui­tar Prodi­gy from Karachi

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:

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

New Stamp Col­lec­tion Cel­e­brates Six Nov­els by Jane Austen

As Pride and Prej­u­dice Turns 200, Read Jane Austen’s Man­u­scripts Online

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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