The Western depiction of life in the Soviet Union could have accurately be described is cold, gray, and lifeless, lacking the freedom to innovate or express one’s creativity. If you are familiar with the story of George Orwell’s 1984, this message comes through clearly, as the powers-that-be insist on limiting if not eradicating the imagination of the rank-and-file, instead opting to have leadership do the thinking for the masses. For the West, artistic creativity was important, striking the core of what made “us” different than “them.” And for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, art was more than simply a cultural touchstone.
For the CIA, art was an implement of war.
When the CIA was founded in 1947, its role was more than espionage. Propaganda was part of the game. By 1950, the CIA had an idea it wished to implement: government funded art and concerts, made primarily for the European audience. The message it hoped to send was that in America, music was appreciated and art was valued, while behind the Iron Curtain, there was nothing but oppression and tyrrany. Unfortunately, the CIA feared, this would not go over well back home. On the one hand, the artists would not want to be seen as mere tools of the government, as it would detract from their product and potentially harm their reputations regardless. On the other hand, politicians feared rebuke from their constitutuents for spending taxpayer money on such things, believing it outside the realm of good government to fund stuff like Jackson Pollock’s art – or, to skeptics, mere splattering.
But the propaganda war was an important one to the American military strategy. Modern art became a covert operation.
An organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom took over, acting as benefactor to a number of artists, such as Pollock and others. (Such things are not so strange — throughout history, artists have been funded by patrons, with evidence of the practice existing worldwide for centuries.) The CCF funded exhibitions, concerts, and more for nearly two decades, stretching into 35 countries during that span. By and large, the CCF was not there to judge the content of the artwork and music — except that, throughout, the organization was staunchly anti-communist. And in 1967, the CCF closed its doors, because it’s secret leaked out: the CCF was backed, in part, by the CIA.. (Don’t worry for the artists: a new, CIA-free “International Assocation for Cultural Freedom” picked up where the CCF left off, assuming some of the CCF’s endeavors.)
Despite the abrupt end to the CIA’s involvement in the CFF, the agency would later call it a success. The CIA deemed the CCF one of its more “effective Cold War covert operations,” one which “ultimately helped to negate Communism’s appeal to artists and intellectuals, undermining at the same time the Communist pose of moral superiority.”
And it helped make Jackson Pollock famous, too.
Bonus fact: Not all international artistic endeavors were covert — and some of the above-board ones backfired. In 1957, the government sponsored a tour of the Soviet Union by famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. But just before he was to leave, Armstrong backed out of the tour, citing the federal government’s inaction in defending civil rights in back home. Said Armstrong: “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”
From the Archives: China’s Oil Painting Village: Different country, different take on art, as China’s Dafen village mass-produces, by hand, famous paintings — in enormous volume.
Related: “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters” by Frances Stonor Saunders. Four stars on six reviews.