How the CIA Secretly Used Jackson Pollock & Other Abstract Expressionists to Fight the Cold War

What’s the dif­fer­ence between the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca and a cup of yogurt? If you leave the cup of yogurt alone for 200 years, it devel­ops a cul­ture. So goes one of many jokes long in cir­cu­la­tion about the sup­posed Amer­i­can ten­den­cy toward low-mind­ed, expe­di­ent philis­tin­ism. I grant, as an Amer­i­can myself, that such humor sur­rounds at least a grain of truth. But there was a time when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment of the U.S., an orga­ni­za­tion not often accused of exces­sive high-mind­ed­ness, took an active role in pro­mot­ing the coun­try’s home-grown avant-garde — an appro­pri­ate term, notes Lucie Levine at JSTOR Dai­ly, since it “began as a French mil­i­tary term to describe van­guard troops advanc­ing into bat­tle,” and Amer­i­can mod­ern art had become a con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics by oth­er means.

“Up until World War II, Amer­i­ca had nev­er pro­duced large, influ­en­tial art move­ments like in Europe,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Con­spir­a­cy of Art video above. After the war, “some­thing unex­pect­ed hap­pened: a brood of rad­i­cal Amer­i­can painters helped make New York City the cen­ter of the art world.”

Mark Rothko, Willem de Koon­ing, and Jack­son Pol­lock: they and oth­er artists “cap­tured the world’s atten­tion with large-scale works of pure col­or and form.” This move­ment came to be known as abstract expres­sion­ism, and in the eyes of the new­ly estab­lished Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency, it came to show promise as pro­pa­gan­da. If shown abroad, it could func­tion as pro­pa­gan­da, high­light­ing “the dif­fer­ences between Amer­i­can and Sovi­et pol­i­tics”  — and more specif­i­cal­ly, “the appeal of Amer­i­can cul­ture over Sovi­et Cul­ture.”

“Was Jack­son Pol­lock a weapon in the Cold War?” asks the New York­er’s Louis Menand. While Pol­lock was indeed pro­mot­ed abroad with CIA mon­ey (usu­al­ly pro­vid­ed through lay­ers of orga­ni­za­tion­al mis­di­rec­tion), you don’t look at a paint­ing like Laven­der Mist and “think about ‘artis­tic free enter­prise’ or the CIA, or the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics of Par­ti­san Review. You think about how a painter could have tak­en all he had expe­ri­enced across a cre­ative thresh­old that no one had crossed before, and pro­duced this par­tic­u­lar thing.” But its “impor­tance for a cer­tain strand of Cold War cul­tur­al pol­i­tics is part of the sto­ry of how it got to us, a gen­er­a­tion or more lat­er, and that his­to­ry is worth know­ing.” It’s also worth ask­ing, should the Unit­ed States once again find itself face-to-face with a for­mi­da­ble polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al adver­sary, whether it will be pre­pared to draft a few Pol­locks back into ser­vice.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch “Jack­son Pol­lock 51,” a His­toric Short Film That Cap­tures Pol­lock Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art on a Sheet of Glass

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Watch Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock, the 1987 Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed by Melvyn Bragg

How the CIA Fund­ed & Sup­port­ed Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines World­wide While Wag­ing Cul­tur­al War Against Com­mu­nism

Was Jack­son Pol­lock Over­rat­ed? Behind Every Artist There’s an Art Crit­ic, and Behind Pol­lock There Was Clement Green­berg

How the CIA Helped Shape the Cre­ative Writ­ing Scene in Amer­i­ca

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • clay wainscott says:

    Odd, but it turns out the cold war with the reds was just the cov­er sto­ry, spy vs spy vs spy, and the real tar­get of abstract expres­sion­ism was Diego Rivera and his pow­er to evoke class con­scious­ness through fig­u­ra­tive art. The pow­er elite didn’t real­ly fear the social­ist econ­o­my, but they did fear the awak­en­ing of work­ers with­in their own soci­ety, so they nur­tured a cul­tur­al tal­iban, the abstract expres­sion­ists, to tram­ple the tra­di­tions of visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Their job was to hound fig­u­ra­tive art from pub­lic forums, from uni­ver­si­ties, until it was even denied seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion as art. After almost a cen­tu­ry of exile, Diego returns, and art heals itself, just in time.

  • Jonathan Bradley says:

    Where do I sign up for the Pol­lock draft? Lol

  • John Steppling says:

    Tried to. Tried.

    Google John step­pling revis­it­ing the new York school for more com­pre­hen­sive look

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