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.
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.