I recently came across a typical Twitter argument about the CIA promoting modern art as propaganda. The usual distorting tweet-discourse occurred but what remained are somewhat paranoid discussions of whether the CIA supported Modern Art. They really didn’t, as much as they supported US propaganda in general. The argument about CIA and Art evolved over several decades, often ignoring whether there was any communication effect of such cultural activity, regardless of its labeling. It turns out that it was true, but like poisoning Castro’s beard, it made little difference.

The reality is that many in the arts supported left causes and as the Red Scare grew (again) in the 1950s, anti-communist culture grew, and in the post-1968 period, the fissures grew with RW attacks on  the Cold War’s “culture wars”. It is a sad oversimplification to claim that abstract art represented “freedom” versus socialist realism’s programmatic pictorial representations, but that didn’t stop some US information agencies waging the Cold War.

Guilbaut did get roundly attacked within the art historical community, even as this text did bring awareness to the dimensions of US propaganda programs during the Cold War.


Serge Guilbaut’s title is How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, and the subtitle is “Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War.” Now the title is patently a fraud, for there is nothing in the text to suggest that anything whatever was stolen , or that Abstract Expressionism is in fact the idea of modern art.


The author does not distinguish between the politics of the art world and the politics of the U.S., as pursued by its executives and diplomats. His thesis is that Abstract Expressionism was a tool of the American government in the cold war which, according to him, was declared by Washington, not by Moscow. (This is of course the thesis of the revisionist historians, which has had to be rejected by historians interested in facts. Among these facts are Stalin’s expulsion of Earl Browder from the Communist party for favoring moderation toward the U.S. and the aggressiveness of Soviet foreign policy from 1945 on.) But fact is of such slight interest to the author that he can allow himself to accuse Winston Churchill of flinging down “an iron curtain” across Europe in the very speech in which Churchill asked the Soviets to lift the iron curtain they themselves had flung down. He says of the Marshall Plan that it “permanently alienated the Soviet Union from the United States.” To ascribe the permanent alienation of the Soviet Union from the United States to the Marshall Plan is to regard as unworthy of attention any of the political actions, or rationalization of such actions, by the Soviet leaders since the war.

In any case, world politics is not art politics. However one explains the purposes of Truman or Acheson or Churchill, or Stalin for that matter, what can such purposes have had to do with the paintings produced by Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, or with the championship of such paintings by the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg? As Guilbaut sees the matter, the success of Abstract Expressionism was helpful to American policy-makers in Washington. If American painters could rule the world of art, then what objection could there be to letting American policy-makers dominate the states of Western Europe?


Finally, the American painters were not depoliticized during the 40’s and 50’s. During the war, they were for victory over Hitler, and during the 1952 presidential race, the members of the Eighth Street Art Club, whose heroes were Pollock and de Kooning, rallied to the support of Stevenson against Eisenhower. And this was at a time when Irving Howe, whom I have never known to be depoliticized, was preaching that there was not a dime’s worth of political difference between the two candidates. Now this is perhaps beside the point. All I want to stress here is that at the time when Abstract Expressionism was being created, the painters responsible for its creation did not think of themselves as alienated from this country or its politics, even as they went about creating what is surely a nonpolitical art.


Touting American Art at the end of WWII as a hegemonic brand of exceptionalism was perhaps an elite parlor game left to NYC culture, and probably even less interesting in the 21st Century. Tom Wolfe didn’t make it any easier with his 1975 pastiche of the NY artworld in The Painted Word, emphasizing the dominance of art criticism as a kind of meta-propaganda that perhaps compelled the writing of Guilbaut’s book if only to disentangle the Cold War motives of “The Bergs”: Clement GreenbergHarold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg.

Nevertheless, valorizing abstract painting, however misunderstood, ignores the artistic modernism of movements like Constructivism that accompanied Soviet culture and that it met marginalization in the age of Stalin. It is yet another parlor game to reenact the oversimplified contrast between abstraction and realism in Twitter.  But by the 1990s, at least there was a bit more evidence for the basic argument upon which Guilbaut’s book scratched the surface.


For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when 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 did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

The existence of this policy, rumoured and disputed for many years, has now been confirmed for the first time by former CIA officials. Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the “long leash” – arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America’s anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Initially, more open attempts were made to support the new American art. In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art”, with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.” The tour had to be cancelled.


Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.


Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members’ board of the museum’s International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.



As Walter Benjamin noted, film as media is the best propaganda tool even as radio was touted by Trotsky, but it is the emergence of television now amplified by digital technology that signals a propaganda age. Sadly there have been some effective uses as we know from a certain US president. Propaganda remains a commodity form with often quite explicit fetishism, as we have discovered with the hyper-realism of a “stolen election” and its appropriation of the Confederate “lost cause”.



  • December 6, 2020