In the beginning of the 1950s, the opposition between East and West began operating on the scale that defined it for nearly four decades, epitomized in the “Cultural Cold War”[1] that occurred in Europe alongside various military battles. More so after the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 which marked a turning point in America’s espionage strategy towards the East. It was then that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began incorporating art and culture at the core of its intelligence activities in order to promote the image of an open-minded, modern America.

Such qualities were promoted precisely because the Soviet regime was perceived as narrow-minded and intolerant regarding modernity, especially in the field of art. From that moment onward, the United States presented itself as the defender of liberty, mainly through the promotion of artistic freedom.

But as Herbert Luethy[2] rightly pointed out: “Can the creations of culture really be mobilized around a flag like soldiers, even if it is the flag of freedom?” Luethy’s apt criticism can be seen as the leitmotiv of America’s Cultural Cold War against the Soviets: gather Americans and its allies around modern art as the standard of political freedom, in spite of the inherent contradiction of government intervention.

Eisenhower elaborated this point on the 25th birthday of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on October 19, 1959, in a speech entitled “Freedom in the Art”. Indeed, it is here that Eisenhower revealed the main motivations for America’s cultural propaganda at the time:

“As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art … How different it is in tyranny. When artists are made the slaves and the tools of the state; when artists become chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.’[3]

It was essential to the American government that the country was implicitly portrayed as the antithesis of the Soviet Union in the matter of artistic freedom because it revealed a more general support for freedom of speech and thus freedom in all shapes and forms. Such a portrayal was key to America’s unofficial strategy to undermine the Soviets in Europe by advertising a more tolerant and avant-garde image of the country compared to the Eastern block. And one of the angles used by the United States in order to make this strategy successful was promoting its own modern art in Europe.

Doing so required money, and a great deal of it. To this end, the CIA laundered intelligence money through unofficial conduits primarily philanthropic foundations acting as fronts — in order to finance modern art exhibits at American museums like the MoMA as well as in European museums. The funds were also used to loan American-owned collections of abstract expressionist paintings out on the European continent. Moreover, the CIA used its resources to co-organize and finance artistic events with local European partners, hoping to reach and influence high-class intellectuals from the European intelligentsia towards American modern art and thus towards the American idealization of freedom.

One might even say that by promoting American modern art, the CIA annihilated Abstract Expressionists’ foundational message of independence from the state and from politics in general. Through this politicization, Washington attacked the freedoms of speech and of artistic creation that ruled the movement in the first place and that America wanted to instill in Europe.

The ultimate aim of America’s secret services was to infiltrate and guide members of high society who would in turn affect policy making on the national level. Via the promotion of modern art, and more precisely Abstract Expressionism, the CIA wished to seduce the ruling classes of Europe which would lead in turn in the promotion of American values on a larger scale. Regardless of the quality of abstract expressionist paintings, the historian realizes that art was being politicized and manipulated, which ironically made the artistic movement become “slaves and tools of the state.” As such, politics inevitably crossed paths with modern art and spoiled its claim for independence.

Washington’s acceptance of this contradiction depicts the degree of psychological warfare that prevailed during the Cultural Cold War. Thus, modern artists inadvertently became “chief propagandists” of the American cause, which was in Eisenhower’s own words the worse case scenario when it came to artistic freedom.

[1] Frances, Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper ? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London, Granta Books, 1999.

[2] Herbert Luethy, ‘Selling Paris on Western Culture’, Commentary 14/1, July 1952.

[3] Dwight D. Eisenhower in Frances, Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper ? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London, Granta Books, 1999. (272)

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